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The Henry James Review 21.3 (2000) 207-221

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Henry James and Isabel Archer in Correspondence

Richard Adams, Harvard University

During the first year of his much-anticipated grand tour, which commenced when he disembarked in Liverpool from the SS China on 27 February 1869, Henry James spent a great deal of time at one bank or another. Presumably he found at these various branches the same amenities that sustain the "inscrutable" (PL 196) life of Mr. Luce, the elusive husband of one of Lydia Touchett's closest American friends in The Portrait of a Lady. This "tall, lean, grizzled gentlemen," the epitome of the taciturn Yankee, "went every day to the American banker's, where there was a post office which was almost as sociable and colloquial an institution as that of an American country town" (197). This brief description of the conservative expatriate and his haunt is one of James's finest miniatures. The gentleness and discrimination of the fond rendering of personality and setting, the good-natured satire that never descends to sarcasm, suggest that James had been on familiar terms with many a prototype for this most minor of characters. The number of times similar scenes appear during this crucial period of his career indicates, furthermore, that he took no small comfort in these chatty surroundings and indulged himself from time to time in the linguistic familiarity of their conversations and correspondence.

In the deft treatment of Mr. Luce's routine James mentions an aspect of the bank that must have made it for him an unusually congenial, not to say gravid, location. Banks customarily served as way stations for mail where patrons could direct their correspondence. In this capacity such an institution would be indispensable to a traveler like the young Henry James, whose family commanded substantial resources of expression and who himself is credited by Percy Lubbock with having "changed the letter into what may really be called a new province of art, a revelation of possibilities hitherto unexplored" (66). So as to participate in the continual unfolding of the family drama, Henry conscientiously reminds his correspondents at which banking house he can be reached as he travels about [End Page 207] England and Italy. "Address me Spada, Flamine and Cie. Banquiers, Rome," he tells William at the end of October 1869; one month later he reminds his father: "You will have been directing I suppose to Bowles frères, as I asked you" (HJL 161, 193). Determined as he is to make every "expedition" of his European venture "pay," as he solemnly tells his mother, toward "the full and proper fruition of my enterprise," he will not scrimp on words from home (126, 197).

But neither convenience nor conversation goes very far toward accounting for the sway banks were beginning to exert over Henry's imagination. Considering his reliance on the language of money throughout his career, the attraction banks held for him might seem rather obvious. 1 He discovered in these institutions the pregnant conjunction of language and capital from which his singular sensibility began to burgeon around this time. The mingling of more-or-less colloquial English with the translations of dollars into pounds and lira--the music of coincident linguistic and monetary transcriptions--rang appealingly in his ear until his last days. In order to acquire the experience of cultural insight he needed to make his trip "pay" the first installment toward the "fruition" of his "enterprise," Henry relied on the money his parents sent to whichever bank he specified. Viewed with this fact in mind, a typical remark like this one in an early letter to his brother William, "I live in the expectation of the next mail" (HJL 100), becomes freighted with meaning. To a degree unusual even for the most exigent traveler, Henry depended on a multiform correspondence that consisted of letters enfolding letters of credit. 2

And it will come as no surprise to those familiar with his manner of cultivating "friction with the market" that Henry followed his confession to William with this admonition: "I needn...


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