tutorial, commentary, study resources, plot, and web links
A Bundle of Letters first appeared in The Parisian in December 1879. This was an English language magazine produced for a readership of expatriate English and Americans living in Europe. The tale was immediately pirated in the USA, not just once, but twice. It first appeared in legitimate book form along with The Diary of a Man of Fifty published by Harper in New York, 1880. James wrote the tale in a continuous creative burst of only two days whilst he was staying in Paris.
A Bundle of Letters
A Bundle of Letters – critical commentary
This tale is fairly rare in James’s oeuvre in being entirely composed of letters. There is very little attempt to create a narrative or to generate any development of character or plot. James’s approach is something like a mixture of Tobias Smollett and Jane Austen. His characters are writing back home to friends and relatives, recounting their experiences of staying in a Parisian boarding house. The one joke which is sustained throughout the letters is that the characters have come there to live amidst a French family so as to improve their fluency in the language – but they are surrounded by non-French speakers all doing the same thing.
The individual correspondents make self-satirising revelations of themselves – the gushingly enthusiastic aesthete (Louis Leverett); the slightly over-confident New Woman (Miranda Hope) – many of which could be said to be aspects of James’ own character, exaggerated for effect. English and American tourists are staying with a family in Paris to learn the language, but where it seems they spend most of their time talking to each other.
The tale is also connected thematically to the later tale The Point of View where the character Louis Leverett turns up again, along with characters from another earlier story, The Pension Beaurepas. In the later tale they are returning to America on a transatlantic steamer, and there is a similar entertainment offered in their various and contrasting reactions to American society.
A Bundle of Letters – study resources
The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon UK
The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon US
Complete Stories 1874—1884 – Library of America – Amazon UK
Complete Stories 1874—1884 – Library of America – Amazon US
A Bundle of Letters – Classic Reprint edition
A Bundle of Letters – Kindle edition
Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition
A Bundle of Letters – eBook formats at Gutenberg
The Cambridge Companion to Henry James – Amazon UK
Henry James at Wikipedia – biographical notes, links
Henry James at Mantex – tutorials, biography, study resources
A Bundle of Letters – plot summary
Miranda Hope is a naive but ardent American feminist who believes in democratic values and is amazed to find European women prepared to tolerate old-fashioned male dominance. She is travelling without a chaperone, and moves to the private boarding house in order to practice her French – but it turns out to be inhabited by other Americans, English, and a German professor.
New Yorkers Violet Ray and her mother end up in the same venue for similar reasons. So does a Bostonian aesthete Louis Leverett who is a name-dropping poseur. All of them write back home to their compatriots, criticising the other guests in the boarding house.
Miranda Hope feels miffed that she cannot establish any contact with the haughty New Yorker Violet Ray, but she is very impressed by Louis Leverett. She also gives an unknowingly satirical account of English arrogance in her descriptions of the English guest Evelyn Vane.
Evelyn herself writes letters packed with vacuous cliches which confirm her as a conventional upper class snob. Meanwhile, the proprietor’s cousin Mr Verdier lives there amongst them free of charge in exchange for making conversation with the guests. His letters to a friend are full of pompous and smutty innuendo concerning his flirtations with the ladies in the house.
The German professor indulges in large scale quasi-philosophic generalisations about the French, American, and English national character – all dressed up in laboured abstract language. Whilst the other characters display petty human weaknesses and vanity, the German professor’s remarks display a rather disturbing picture of what he sees as racial superiority.
There is no real story line or development of any real kind. The letters stop when Miranda Hope suddenly decides to move on to another European country.
Henry James – portrait by John Singer Sargeant
|an ardent feminist and democrat from Maine, New England
|Madame de Maisonrouge
|proprietress of the boarding house
|Miss Violet Ray
|a society girl from New York city
|a small Bostonian aesthete
|an upper-class young English woman
|the landlady’s cousin, a vain sponger
|Dr Rudolph Staub
|a self-important German professor
Henry James’s study
Theodora Bosanquet, Henry James at Work, University of Michigan Press, 2007.
F.W. Dupee, Henry James: Autobiography, Princeton University Press, 1983.
Leon Edel, Henry James: A Life, HarperCollins, 1985.
Philip Horne (ed), Henry James: A Life in Letters, Viking/Allen Lane, 1999.
Henry James, The Letters of Henry James, Adamant Media Corporation, 2001.
Fred Kaplan, Henry James: The Imagination of Genius, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999
F.O. Matthieson (ed), The Notebooks of Henry James, Oxford University Press, 1988.
Elizabeth Allen, A Woman’s Place in the Novels of Henry James London: Macmillan Press, 1983.
Ian F.A. Bell, Henry James and the Past, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1993.
Millicent Bell, Meaning in Henry James, Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press, 1993.
Harold Bloom (ed), Modern Critical Views: Henry James, Chelsea House Publishers, 1991.
Kirstin Boudreau, Henry James’s Narrative Technique, Macmillan, 2010.
J. Donald Crowley and Richard A. Hocks (eds), The Wings of the Dove, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1978.
Victoria Coulson, Henry James, Women and Realism, Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Daniel Mark Fogel, A Companion to Henry James Studies, Greenwood Press, 1993.
Virginia C. Fowler, Henry James’s American Girl: The Embroidery on the Canvas, Madison (Wis): University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.
Jonathan Freedman, The Cambridge Companion to Henry James, Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Judith Fryer, The Faces of Eve: Women in the Nineteenth Century American Novel, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976
Roger Gard (ed), Henry James: The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge, 1968.
Tessa Hadley, Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure, Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Barbara Hardy, Henry James: The Later Writing (Writers & Their Work), Northcote House Publishers, 1996.
Richard A. Hocks, Henry James: A study of the short fiction, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1990.
Donatella Izzo, Portraying the Lady: Technologies of Gender in the Short Stories of Henry James, University of Nebraska Press, 2002.
Colin Meissner, Henry James and the Language of Experience, Cambridge University Press, 2009
John Pearson (ed), The Prefaces of Henry James, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993.
Richard Poirer, The Comic Sense of Henry James, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967.
Hugh Stevens, Henry James and Sexuality, Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Merle A. Williams, Henry James and the Philosophical Novel, Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Judith Woolf, Henry James: The Major Novels, Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Ruth Yeazell (ed), Henry James: A Collection of Critical Essays, Longmans, 1994.
Other works by Henry James
The Bostonians (1886) is a novel about the early feminist movement. The heroine Verena Tarrant is an ‘inspirational speaker’ who is taken under the wing of Olive Chancellor, a man-hating suffragette and radical feminist. Trying to pull her in the opposite direction is Basil Ransom, a vigorous young man to whom Verena becomes more and more attracted. The dramatic contest to possess her is played out with some witty and often rather sardonic touches, and as usual James keeps the reader guessing about the outcome until the very last page.
The Ambassadors (1903) Lambert Strether is sent from America to Paris to recall Chadwick Newsome, a young man who is reported to be compromising himself by an entanglement with a wicked woman. However, Strether’s mission fails when he is seduced by the social pleasures of the European capital, and he takes Newsome’s side. So a second ambassador is dispatched in the form of the more determined Sarah Pocock. She delivers an ultimatum which is resisted by the two young men, but then an accident reveals unpleasant truths to Strether, who is faced by a test of loyalty between old Europe and the new USA. This edition presents the latest scholarship on James and includes an introduction, notes, selected criticism, a text summary and a chronology of James’s life and times.
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© Roy Johnson 2013
Henry James – web links
Henry James at Mantex
Biographical notes, study guides, tutorials on the Complete Tales, book reviews. bibliographies, and web links.
The Complete Works
Sixty books in one 13.5 MB Kindle eBook download for £1.92 at Amazon.co.uk. The complete novels, stories, travel writing, and prefaces. Also includes his autobiographies, plays, and literary criticism – with illustrations.
The Ladder – a Henry James website
A collection of eTexts of the tales, novels, plays, and prefaces – with links to available free eTexts at Project Gutenberg and elsewhere.
A Hyper-Concordance to the Works
Japanese-based online research tool that locates the use of any word or phrase in context. Find that illusive quotable phrase.
The Henry James Resource Center
A web site with biography, bibliographies, adaptations, archival resources, suggested reading, and recent scholarship.
Online Books Page
A collection of online texts, including novels, stories, travel writing, literary criticism, and letters.
Henry James at Project Gutenberg
A major collection of eTexts, available in a variety of eBook formats.
The Complete Letters
Archive of the complete correspondence (1855-1878) work in progress – published by the University of Nebraska Press.
The Scholar’s Guide to Web Sites
An old-fashioned but major jumpstation – a website of websites and resouces.
Henry James – The Complete Tales
Tutorials on the complete collection of over one hundred tales, novellas, and short stories.
Henry James on the Internet Movie Database
Adaptations of James’s novels and stories for the cinema and television – in various languages. Full details of directors and actors, production features, film reviews, box office, and even quizzes.
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