Native Son

In Washington Square, Henry James created a great bullying father who sought to control his daughter's destiny and prevent what he saw as a foolish marriage. In viewing his daughter as dull, Dr. Sloper missed what the reader of the novel began to see—Catherine Sloper was not merely sensitive but also deep, even passionate. Thus the book dramatized a matter that concerned James profoundly in both his life and his art—control and dominance within his own family and then within the families that he began to imagine during his long career as a novelist.

Henry James's brother William wrote that the novelist was "a native of the James family, and has no other country." During their childhood and adolescence, the James children were taken back and forth across the Atlantic by their restless and wealthy father. They got to know France and England, but they barely felt at home in America. Because their father had no profession, he spent his time watching over his five children. By the time Henry was in his twenties, he was desperate to get away to Europe. His early letters show him depending on his parents for money and guidance, and using illness as a further excuse to stay away, but also to get sympathy and attention. He was deeply involved with his family for all of his life, but the relationship, like many of the relationships in his fiction, was ambivalent. James also treasured his own solitude, his own apartness and autonomy.

He wrote well about orphans, including Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady, who is found in Albany by her aunt and brought to Europe, and Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove, all of whose family has died, leaving her wealthy and vulnerable. Both of these heroines are in search of something rich from life; they have an openness to experience, which partly comes from their having no father or mother to interfere in their lives. Their having no parents allows them to self-invent. Their solitary selves can thrive and soar or be controlled by others—including members of their families—and brought to earth; the conflict between the two processes gives the novels their stark and heightened drama.

In The Portrait of a Lady, written soon after Washington Square, James returned to the theme of a controlling and heartless father and a daughter who seems easy to mold. Gilbert Osmond lives in isolation outside Florence. Once he marries Isabel Archer, he begins to dream of a great marriage for his daughter, Pansy. Slowly, we notice that Pansy, like Catherine Sloper, may seem dull, but she has great depths of feeling. Her father's efforts to control her are much darker and more brutal than Dr. Sloper's in Washington Square, but they have the same heartlessness, the same determination; James depicts the use of power within a family with the same intensity.

Although Henry James was close to his own mother and wrote about her in letters with tender affection, he did not write much about mothers in his fiction. In fact, many of his best novels have no mothers at all. They are safe spaces for orphans, or semi-orphans. In Washington Square, the mother is dead and barely mentioned; in The Golden Bowl, Adam Verver's wife, Maggie's mother, is long dead; in The Wings of the Dove, both Kate Croy and Milly Theale are motherless. In The Turn of the Screw, the two children are orphans.

James's best mother is the noble Mrs. Newsome in The Ambassadors. Her son Chad, the heir to the family fortune, has left the United States for Paris, where he is really having a whale of a time. Mrs. Newsome sends Lambert Strether, a man with whom she is considering marriage, to Paris to talk sense to Chad. But Strether, one of James's most nuanced creations, becomes susceptible to the wiles of Paris himself. One of the reasons James's father gave for taking his children to Europe was his belief that they were not getting a "sensuous education" in America. Now both Chad and Strether bask in such an education while poor Mrs. Newsome stays home.

Her power arises from the fact that she does not actually appear in the novel at all. She sends letters, she makes her views known, she even dispatches her ghastly daughter and son-in-law to Paris. But she herself, with her fierce will, remains in the shadows. You would not like to mess with the formidable Mrs. Newsome. Most of James's fiction is not directly autobiographical, but much of it follows the shape of his feelings and indeed his fears. Thus, during his long sojourn in Europe, he must have dreamed of being recalled, or being pulled back to being "a native of the James family." It is easy to see versions of this pull toward home in his mother's letters to him.

James loved his mother and he also wanted to get away from her. It is as though those desires were oddly close to each other, both sides of a coin, or nudged each other gently. In The Ambassadors, as James made a version of his mother, he must have taken some pleasure from not allowing her to appear, and he must also have felt some pain at her desire for control over her son, a desire that was persistent and was likely to be fulfilled.

Colm Tóibín’s latest book is On Elizabeth Bishop (Princeton University Press, 2015).