Happy Birthday, Harry!

Henry James was born today in 1843. He was, arguably, Constance’s closest friend during her fourteen years in Europe.

Henry in the 1880s, when Constance knew him

After they lived under the same roof in the Villa Brichieri on the hill of Bellosguardo outside Florence, Constance started calling him “Harry.” That was a family name, just as she was called “Connie.” Although no letters have survived after 1883 (and they shared the villa—in apartment on separate floor—in 1887), it is interesting to think of them writing to each other, “Dear Harry” and “Dear Connie.” In the letters that her niece, Clare Benedict, wrote to Leon Edel (James’s biographer) in the twentieth century, she always referred to him as “Cousin Henry.” It was as if they had both helped to replace family members who lived on the other side of the Atlantic or had passed.

But his shadow looms large over her life. His biographers have had the privilege of defining of their relationship. I am now writing about the years when they became close—and about which very little documentation exists. It’s tempting to write fiction. But I feel I have come to know them through the course of this relationship. In the coming years, as the Complete Letters of Henry James is published (which has so far published up to the year 1878—two years before they met), perhaps we will learn more. He has 10,000 letters out there, only a small number of which have been published. Maybe someday I’ll have to write a second edition. (But I have to get this one written—and published—first.)

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