m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

As originally published in The Atlantic Monthly, June 1968
hj_dn picture
by Leon Edel

IT has long been known that during his last illness, in the midst of the 19l4-19l8 war, and when he was in delirium, Henry James called his secretary, the late Theodora Bosanquet, and dictated certain passages that dealt with the Napoleonic legend. The text of the dictation has never been published, although Miss Bosanquet once read an excerpt during a BBC broadcast devoted to the novelist; and in 1927 it was mentioned briefly in Pelham Edgar's Henry James: Man and Author as a "Napoleonic Fragment." I found the document in 1937 when James's nephew and executor gave me access to his posthumous papers. It struck me as curious  -- a kind of stream of consciousness of a fading mind still in possession of its verbal power and the grandeur of its style and I took a copy of it, feeling it to be a significant biographical document. Later, when the James family papers were given to Harvard, this manuscript was not included. I learned that the executor had ordered it destroyed along with certain other papers. He felt that it was too tragic a record of a mind in disintegration. I think he felt, too, that the passages hardly constituted a literary work. Miss Bosanquet, who took the dictation directly on the typewriter (as was James's custom), told me that the sound of the familiar machine, and the ability to ease his mind, had helped soothe the novelist in his feverish moments. It had been my intention to use this material in its relevant place in the Life of Henry James, which I am now completing. But I have learned that a certain writer in England, who gained access to Miss Bosanquet's papers, found copies of some of this dictation and is planning to make use of it in a forthcoming book along with other materials long ago made available to me by Miss Bosanquet, and reserved for my use. I have decided accordingly, in the interest of the record and of accuracy, to make this document public, there being no objection now from the James descendants. If I am to be anticipated, it seems to me, I may as well anticipate my own book. It must be noted that Miss Bosanquet did not have the complete document; certain sentences were set down during her absence, were dictated to James's niece, Peggy James, daughter of William James. Peggy, with her mother, the widow of William, had braved the submarine menace of the First World War and crossed the Atlantic to be with Henry James during his last days.
Return to Flashback: Henry James and The Atlantic Monthly
The final dictation is at points an incoherent document. Yet it is less incoherent than one might suppose; and far from mirroring the collapse of a great intellect, it dramatizes its struggle and its power. The grandeur, the majestic rhythm of the great style remain; the vivid phrases are minted as at the very threshold of death. "I am that queer monster, the artist, an obstinate finality, an inexhaustible sensibility," James had written to Henry Adams. And as Proust redictated the death scene of the writer Bergotte in his novel, a few hours before his own death, so James, in his last days, insisted on performing what he called "an act of life."

The facts, briefly, are these:

On the evening of December 1, 1915, Henry James wrote a letter to his niece, then in America. He spoke of renewed heart trouble, of his long sleepless nights, of the constant ache of the war: "One feels very abject . . . in the midst of the huge tremendous thing . . . to have disqualifying personal and physical troubles." He told her his manservant, Burgess Noakes, who had worked for him since boyhood, had been given a "renewable leave" from the army, and that "his devotion is boundless and most touching." He gave Peggy other news, and then wearily ended, "The pen drops from my hand! Your all-affectionate old Uncle, Henry James."

The pen literally dropped from his hand. The next morning, December 2, James's servants in his flat in Carlyle Mansions, Chelsea, heard him calling. It was 8:30 A.M. and James's left leg had given way under him as he was dressing. He was a very heavy man, and with difficulty Burgess and the maid got him into bed. The novelist was fully conscious. He was reported later to have told his friend Howard Sturgis that his thought as he collapsed was, "So here it is at last, the distinguished thing." But he held "the distinguished thing" at bay. Miss Bosanquet, arriving, found him propped up in bed. He announced to her he had had a stroke "in the most approved fashion." And he dictated a cable to his nephew, in New York: "Had slight stroke this morning. No serious symptoms. Perfect care. No suffering. Wrote Peg yesterday." On the next day he hunted in a thesaurus to find a word describing his condition  -- the word "paralytic ' did not satisfy him. He continued in this way for several days, with some confusion of mind. On December 8, six days after the stroke, he called for his typewriter and dictated:

I find the business of coming round about as important and glorious as any circumstances I have had occasion to record, by which I mean that I find them as damnable and as boring. It is not much better to discover within one's carcase new resources for application than to discover the absence of them; their being new doesn't somehow add at all to their interest but makes them stale and flat, as if one had long ago exhausted them. Such is my sketchy state of mind, but I feel sure I shall discover plenty of fresh worlds to conquer, even if I am to be cheated of the amusement of them.

Two days later he had pneumonia. Miss Bosanquet wrote in her diary, "Mind clouded this morning and he has lost his own unmistakeable identity  -- is just a simple sick man." He showed the next day, however, that his characteristic identity remained. He was better, though confused as to place. He thought he was in Cork, Ireland, vhich he had visited many years before, after his mother s death. On the afternoon of Saturday, December 11, he called once more for his typewriter:

Wondrous enough certainly to have a finger in such a concert and to feel ourselves touch the large old phrase into the right amplitude. It had shrunken and we add to its line  -- all we can scarce say how save that we couldn't have left it. We simply shift the sweet nursling of genius from one maternal breast to the other and the trick is played, the false note averted. Astounding little stepchild of God's astounding young stepmother!

. . . on this occasion moreover that having been difficult to keep step, we hear of the march of history, what is remaining to that essence of tragedy the limp? We scarce avoid rolling, with all these famished and frustrated women in the wayside dust . . . mere patchwork transcription becomes of itself the high brave art. We [word missing  -- the typist apparently could not make out what he said] five miles off at the renewed affronts that we see coming for the great, and that we know they will accept. The fault is that they had found themselves too easily great, and the effect of that, definitely, had been, within them, the want of long provision for it. It wasn't why they [were] to have been so thrust into the limelight and the uproar, but why they [were] to have known as by inspiration the trade most smothered in experience. They go about shivering in the absence of the holy protocol as in the  -- they dodder sketchily about  -- as in the betrayal of the lack of early advantages; and it is upon that they seem most to depend to give them distinction  -- it is upon that, and upon the cranerie and the rouerie that they seem most to depend for the grand air of gallantry. They pluck in their terror handfuls of plumes from the imperial eagle, and with no greater credit in consequence than that they face, keeping their equipoise, the awful bloody beak that he turns round upon them. We see the beak sufficiently directed in that vindictive intention, during these days of cold grey Switzerland weather, on the huddled and hustled campaigns of the first omens of defeat. Everyone looks haggard and our only wonder is that they still succeed in "looking" at all. It renews for us the assurance of the part played by that element in the famous assurance [divinity] that doth hedge a king.

His mind rambled a great deal the following day. He thought himself in some foreign hotel and wondered how his London friends who came to his bedside could be there as well  -- how could they call if he were elsewhere? Just before lunch December 12 he dictated a few sentences  -- the opening remarks apparently an allusion to his motoring days with Edith Wharton:

We squeeze together into some motorcar or other and we so talk and talk that what comes of it.  -- Yes, that is the turn of public affairs. Next statement is for all the world as if we had brought it on and had given our push and our touch to great events. The Bonapartes have a kind of bronze distinction that extends to their finger tips and is a great source of charm in the women. Therefore they don't have to swagger after the fact; fortune has placed them too high and anything less would be trivial. You can believe anything of the Queen of Naples or of the Princess Caroline Murat. There have been great families of tricksters and conjurors; so fully not this one, and so pleasant withal? Our admirable father keeps up the pitch. He is the dearest of men. I should have liked above all things seeing our sister pulling her head through the crown; one has that confident  -- and I should have had it most on the day when most would have been asked. But we jog on very well. Up to the point of the staircase where the officers do stand it couldn't be better, though I wonder at the souffle which so often enables me to pass. We are back from [word lost] but we breathe at least together and I am, devotedly yours

"After luncheon," Miss Bosanquet noted at the time, "he wanted me again and dictated, perfectly clearly and coherently, two letters from Napoleon Bonaparte to one of his married sisters  -- I suspect they weren't original composition, but subconscious memory  -- one letter about the decoration of the Louvre and the Tuileries and the other about some great opportunity being offered them which they mustn't fall below the level of. After he had finished the second letter, he seemed quite satisfied not to do any more and fell into a peaceful sleep."

Actually, the first letter was the Bonaparte letter. The second has the sharpness of tone, the "military eloquence" of Napoleon's dictation, but the novelist signed this one with his own name. He may have thought he was writing to his brother William and his sister-in-law Alice. William had died six years before, but Henry now thought of him as alive, though never in the same room.

Dear and most esteemed brother and sister,

I call your attention to the precious enclosed transcripts of plans and designs for the decoration of certain apartments of the palaces, here, of the Louvre and the Tuileries, which you will find addressed in detail to artists and workmen who are to take them in hand. I commit them to your earnest care till the questions relating to this important work are fully settled. When that is the case I shall require of you further zeal and further taste. For the present the course is definitely marked out, and I beg you to let me know from stage to stage definitely how the scheme promises, and what results it may be held to inspire. It is, you will see, of a great scope, a majesty unsurpassed by any work of the kind yet undertaken in France. Please understand I regard these plans as fully developed and as having had my last consideration and look forward to no patchings nor perversions, and with no question of modifications either economic or aesthetic. This will be the case with all further projects of your affectionate NAPOLEONE

My dear brother and sister,

I offer you great opportunities in the exchange for the exercise of great zeal. Your position as residents of our young but so highly considered Republic at one of the most interesting minor capitals is a piece of luck which may be turned to account in the measure of your acuteness and experience. A brilliant fortune may come to crown it and your personal merit will not diminish that harmony. But you must rise to each occasion   -- the one I now offer you is of no common cast, and please remember that any failure to push your advantage to the utmost will be severely judged. I have displayed you as persons of great taste and great judgment. Don't leave me a sorry figure in consequence but present me rather as your very fond but not infatuated relation able and ready to back you up, your faithful brother and brother-in-law HENRY JAMES.

The final passage is not dated. It was taken down sometime later, mostly by James's niece. These phrases come closest to a kind of Joycean stream of consciousness  -- there is fragmentation and decrease of verbal coherence.

across the border
all the pieces
Individual souls.
great . . . of [word lost] on which great perfections are If one does . . . in the furfilment with the neat and pure and perfect  -- to the success or as he or she moves through life, following admiration unfailing [word lost] in the highway   -- Problems are very sordid.

One of the earliest of the consumers of the great globe in the interest of the attraction exercised by the great R.L.S. [Robert Louis Stevenson] of those days, comes in, afterwards, a visitor at Vailima and [word lost] there and pious antiquities to his domestic annals.

These final and faded remarks all have some interest and some character   -- but this should be extracted by a highly competent person only   -- some such, whom I don't presume to name, will furnish such last offices. In fact I do without names not wish to exaggerate the defect of their absence. Invoke more than one kind presence, several could help, and many would   -- but it all better too much left than too much done. I never dreamed of such duties as laid upon me. This sore throaty condition is the last I ever invoked for the purpose.

Memory, in this "last dictation," went very far back, as I hope to show in the final section of my biography of the novelist. James refers in part to the many volumes of Napoleonic lore in his Lamb House library; and there may be recall too of a more recent experience. Eight months before his stroke, James lunched with his old Napoleonic friend, Count Giuseppe Primoli, the Prince and Princess Victor Napoleon, and the Duke of Alba. The occasion, in the midst of war, had its ironies. And then the Napoleonic legend had been strong in his mid-nineteenth century boyhood  -- and he had lived so long.

Fragmentary though it is, the last dictation contains within it an extraordinary vitality, an Olympian world-weariness. It speaks for a will to live and to do; and the seventy-two-year-old James demonstrated the power of that will. He survived the stroke; he survived the pneumonia; he lived for more than two months. His mind wandered on faraway places and things; he sat watching the boats on the river through his big Chelsea windows. George V gave him the Order of Merit on New Year's Day, 1916 (for James had become a British subject six months before). He survived until February 28. The funeral was in Chelsea Old Church, and Mrs. William James brought his ashes to America.


Copyright © 1968 by Leon Edel. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1968; The Deathbed Notes of Henry James; Volume 221, No. 6; pages 103-105.

m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture