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The Portrait of a Lady | Study Guide

Henry James

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Henry James | Biography


Born into an intellectual and powerful family on April 15, 1843, Henry James spent his early life in New York City. He was a shy, well-read child who had a lifelong friendship and rivalry with his older brother William James. William James was an esteemed Harvard professor who was known for his impact on the emerging field of psychology. He also turned his attention to philosophy, where he had a similarly large impact. Trips to Europe as children gave the five James siblings a sense of global citizenship.

James began Harvard Law School in Boston when he was 19. His childhood fascination with Europe led him, in 1869, to begin the long process of emigrating to Europe—living in France, Italy, Switzerland, and England. In 1876 James moved to England and established himself as a leading literary figure there. He befriended European realist writers such as Gustave Flaubert, Ivan Turgenev, and Guy de Maupassant. Two of James's early works, Daisy Miller (1878) and The Portrait of a Lady (1881), deal with cultural clashes between young, hopeful American women and the traditional, unforgiving "Old World" of Europe.

In the 1890s James suffered personal troubles. The deaths of both his sister and another close friend affected him deeply. He'd begun to write plays, and they weren't well received. His 1895 play, Guy Domville, was a critical failure. Still drawn to theater, James used dramatic and experimental storytelling in his prose. In 1905 after 20 years abroad, James visited America, but he was troubled by its materialism and the changes brought about by industrialization. He returned to England and continued to write short stories and novels. In 1915 James became a British citizen. He died the following year in London on February 28, 1916.
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