Teddy Roosevelt once referred to Henry James as “a little emasculated mass of inanity.” Virginia Woolf was less personal, but perhaps more damning: “I am reading Henry James…and feel myself as one entombed in a block of smooth amber.” H.G. Wells offered a full-on attack, referring to a Jamesian novel as being “like a church lit but without a congregation to distract you, with every light and line focused on the high altar. And on the altar, very reverently placed, intensely there, is a dead kitten, an egg-shell, a bit of string. . . .”
These descriptions don’t, however, take into consideration how, despite an inclination towards endless sentences and semi-colons, James’ work can also be remarkably precise. As cited in David Madden’s Revising Fiction, this week’s brief example comes from The Portrait of a Lady:
Lilly knew nothing about Boston; her imagination was confined within the limits of Manhattan.
A good line that effectively (and concisely!) offers a snapshot of the character. But for a later edition, Henry James made it better. This is the revision:
Lilly knew nothing about Boston; her imagination was all bounded on the east by Madison Avenue.
All of the qualities of the original line remain, but by making the confines of “her imagination” more geographically specific, James manages to make it much funnier—a quality even H.G. Wells could have appreciated.