Henry James and Whitsuntide

I believe Henry James somewhere said that the supreme virtue of the novel is its truth of detail, its air of reality, its solidity of specification.

To the best of your knowledge has the following lack of truth and solidity ever been raised within the realm of Jamesian scholars?

Whitsuntide in ‘The Portrait of a Lady’

Henry James has Edward Rosier arriving in Rome on 1st of November 1876 (Chapter 36), where he discusses his love for Pansy with Madame Merle. Concurrently, James has Ralph Touchett arriving in Rome for that winter (1876/1877) and leaving Rome at the end of February 1877 (Chapter 48) with Henrietta Stackpole and Caspar Goodwood escorting him back to England to eventually die in May 1877.

James says Ralph’s funeral was on a day ‘on one of the last of the treacherous May-time’ (Chapter 55). Let us assume it was between Monday 28th and Wednesday 30th. Earlier would have been a weekend and James infers it is a week day. It could have been Friday 25th but would this have qualified as ‘one of the last’? I don’t think so. It could have been Thursday 31st but, in that case, surely James would have said ‘THE last day of treacherous May-time’. So let us settle on Tuesday 29th May as a reasonable candidate for Ralph Touchett’s funeral.

‘About a week later’ (say the week commencing Monday 4th June) James tells us that Lord Warburton visits Gardencourt and speaks with Isabel. He tells her that his sisters are visiting at Whitsuntide and asks her to visit them (as she has promised in the past) but Isabel declines. However, in 1877 Whit Sunday was on Sunday 20th May (seven weeks after Easter Sunday which was on the 1st of April in 1877) over a week before Ralph was even buried! Therefore, Lord Warburton’s suggestion for Isabel to visit at Whitsuntide was complete and utter tosh! Considering it was only three years after 1877 when James had ‘Portrait’ published this seems to be a clumsy error for him to have made. For Warburton’s invitation to have made any sort of sense at all Ralph would have had to have been buried prior to Sunday 13th May—hardly ‘…one of the last of the treacherous May-time.’

I’ll be very interested in your own comments and whether or not this faux pas has been considered before.

With best wishes and regards,

Henrietta Stackpole.

PS I was reminded to put this to the list by my reading of ‘Mrs Osmond’, John Banville’s recently published sequel to ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ which falls into the error of copying Mr James on this matter. My own earlier sequel (see below) avoids the issue.

Published in ebook form in 2015, ‘A Kind Of Justice’, my sequel to ‘The Portrait Of A Lady’ and in paperback in October 2017. Available from Amazon or the Kindle Store.

Another sequel to The Portrait Of A Lady

I hear from the University of Chicago’s website that renowned Man Booker prize winner, John Banville, is writing a sequel to Henry James’s The Portrait Of A Lady which is due to be published at the end of this year.

I look forward to how he approaches the subject. It will certainly be written as a literary work whereas my sequel, A Kind Of Justice, is more like one of John Banville’s Benjamin Black novels. In the UofC article Banville describes his endeavour as maybe ‘arrogant, foolhardy and stupid’. When I was considering writing the sequel to James’s acclaimed but ambiguously-ending novel I dismissed attempting to write in the great author’s voice as clearly being arrogant and totally beyond me. Therefore, I thought, to take a style diametrically opposed and produce my solution to the enigmatic end of Portrait as a Victorian ‘sensation’ novel and who better to write it than Henrietta Stackpole. Henrietta is a support character in Portrait, an unused rôle model for Isabel Archer and a ‘celebrated authoress’. I cannot describe better Mr James’s notion of ‘me’ better than by re-quoting what my ‘agent’ has written about the relationship.


Henry James seems ambivalent about Henrietta. In his preface to his amended version he refers to her as ‘ so broken a reed (from her slightness of cohesion)’ and as a wheel or body to the coach, ‘or is for a moment accommodated with a seat inside’. He says she is ‘of the light ficelle‘ – a thin string perhaps – rather than a trivial stage trick. Contradicting himself he continues this theme by noting that she can run beside the coach until she is visibly out of breath and will never board it; she will always ‘…tread the dusty road’ and be a fishwife accompanying the royal coach into Paris at the start of the French Revolution. He conceded that he will be asked to explain why he has allowed Henrietta ‘…so almost inexplicably to pervade’.  Eventually he resolves the paradox by explaining that she is ‘…only an excess of my zeal’ and that to avoid ‘thinness’ in his work he cultivates the lively. ‘Henrietta must have been at that time part of my wonderful notion of the lively.’

In the book itself he has this light ficelle, looking after her widowed sister and family from her own income; he has her as a rôle model for the undirected Isabel (a rôle Isabel never lives up to during The Portrait I might say); he has her showing more great humanity when she offers and proceeds to nurse the dying Ralph Touchett on his way back to England and as well as referring to her as a ‘celebrated authoress’ Mr James has Ralph Touchett bequeathing to her his valuable library ‘for services to literature’, thus making her a wealthy woman. All along he has Henrietta as a very modern woman with strength of mind and purpose. Undoubtedly Isabel is the subject of the book – the portrait, but Henrietta is no mere carriage wheel, no chaser on a dusty road, no fishwife, no weak twine – not even a stage trick; she is the glue which binds several flaky characters and situations together. James says his novel has no plot – no story – it is an ‘ado’ – an ado about Isabel Archer. Without Henrietta I suspect it would vie with Shakespeare for the use of his title ‘about nothing’.

I think Mr James was as fascinated as I by Henrietta Stackpole and found it impossible to control her thoughts and actions whenever she stole into his book. He betrays his secret love for her by the amount of preface space he grants her and the excuse he makes for her pervasiveness and super-abundance in his writing. I wonder he never wrote a novel about the gritty, determined and utilitarian Miss Stackpole – perhaps she was just a little too energetic and interesting for his taste.


The University of Chicago article can be found at http://www.uchicago.edu/features/irish_novelist_channels_henry_james/

and my sequel, A Kind of Justice can be purchased at


Where am I up to?

It’s been a long time and this seems to be a long winter [2016/2017].

I have been working on a new Woodvines ‘Sensation’ novel but it has been the worst struggle I have yet had with my writing. I have started the book off in three different places up to now (I’m pretty sure I’m settled in the right place and time now, but you never know) and have struggled to formulate a meaningful plot. At times the whole thing seemed trite and at others too unbelievable but now I can see the end. It isn’t close but it is reasonably clear. As a consequence I resolve to complete the first draft by April 30th and the editing by the end of May 2017.

Too long since my last post

It’s been a disappointing eleven months. My second novel, Some Choose The Pen took much longer to complete than anticipated and will now be published before the end of the year. Worse still is that I have found the marketing and admin side very arduous and have not yet got A Kind Of Justice listed on Amazon and Smashwords BUT I am adamant that I will get these two tasks done by the weekend. Searching out places willing to do reviews is proving difficult but we will get there.

There is some good news though and that is that my third novel, Noxious Vapours is in final edit mode, the last edit before final polishing. So hopefully I can get that out early in 2016 and get on with the next book in January.

I’ll add to this post when I have A Kind Of Justice on Amazon and Smashwords.

Both A Kind Of Justice and Some Choose The Pen are now on Amazon. The former is also on Smashwords and other channels but for the time being I am trying the latter on KDP Select only.

Publish in Parts?

Novel No. 2, Some Choose the Pen is quite long at around 140,000 words I am considering publishing it in parts, somewhat like the old Victorian way. The arc is such that I can split it into three novella-sized chunks or two small novel volumes. This would give some scope to charge less for the first volumes enabling readers to see if they like what they read at a lower entry price—or even for free.

I like the idea and will consider it more as I finish off the editing of the finished full volume.

On later consideration I decided to go ahead with three volumes but have not yet decided whether the first part should be at a lower cost or free.

This whole concept filtered into my brain and I decided to do a prelude to A Kind of Justice and to couple it to the first four chapters. for free. I’m in the process of doing this and have a target date of the end of January to complete.

I was a week late which I put down to the task being harder than I thought and a very dreary and permanently cold January. The desire to hibernate was hard to shake off but now it is done and available for free of this website.

Now to the final polishing stage of Some Choose The Pen!

How does this end?

I’m struggling. It’s because I’m a pantster. I let the plot, the characters and the locations carry me willy-nilly where they wish to go. Whatever idea I had for an ending when the idea for the novel (Book Two) was first conceived went out of the window many weeks ago.

It feels to me that I could go on forever working up some new twist or turn. That won’t do; the first draft is already too long… and that’s another thing. Is it too long? What determines how long a novel should be? Convention, rule of thumb, a literary agent, editor, publisher or the author? I have read somewhere that the story tells you how long it needs to be and that would seem to fit with my status as a pantster.

I do know its time to wind Book Two up but there are three or four chapters to go yet and I don’t know how it finishes. So what! Isn’t that what a pantster should expect? Well it doesn’t feel right, it feels that I could produce a really weak ending if I allow the random walk to continue. What to do?

I’ll stop writing for a short time and I’ll create a strong ending in the form of ideas, scenes, outcomes etc. sewing up all the loose ends and providing some surprises. Then I’ll write the last chapter and then join A to B. It’s not often I write out of chronological sequence but this might break the constant wandering towards an ending that finishes with a ‘whimper not a bang’ (with thanks to TS Eliot!).

I’ll let you know how it goes—when I get there.

WELL THAT WORKED OK! (update on Nov 12 2014) I’m now in the process of final edits to be followed by the final polishing. Still hoping to get it out by the end of 2014.


A Kind of Justice is now available in e-book format and PDF.


You can order here.


Kindle version
4 Chapters


Epub version
4 Chapters


PDF version
4 Chapters

Fractal Geometry and fiction.

Fractal Geometry and fiction writing.

I’m no genius at Fractal Geometry but I do find Benoit Mandelbrot’s The Fractal Geometry of Nature (Freeman) to be a very inspiring book.

As I understand it, reduction or increase in scale does not alter the inherent fractality of the geometry. Take a country’s coastline for instance. It has a craggy outline, one of small and large curves, if you look down upon it from a great height it is still craggy and remains so as you zoom in on individual rocks and shingle and then beyond to sand and its craggy nature when seen through a microscope. If I have this wrong then I would welcome some enlightening comments.

It struck me that the same principles should apply to fiction writing. We all know that the novel needs to portray a beginning, middle and end (or some other structure chosen by the author). My contention is that; so should the Chapter (or Book), the Chapter sections and then the paragraph, the sentence and the clause.

The reason for the structure is—what? This made me think! I guess from my point of view I expect and expect my readers, to have a desire: for a beginning which explains the conflict or problem; an end which resolves all the issues raised; and a middle which joins the two together through a plausible journey. I contend that as much care and creativity needs to be applied to all the smaller component parts as to the overall structure. If it is, you will end up with concision, coherence, pace and readability. Every clause needs to bear its message, be entirely needed and contribute to the maximum its meaning.

I feel sure that this is not a new concept, the idea that words make up into clauses and clauses into sentences and sentences into paragraphs… and so on, is, no doubt, as old as the hills but perhaps what I have described is another way of looking at it and hence potentially an aide memoire when editing one’s work.

Match Fit for Writing

As I wrote this, the World Cup was about to start in Brazil. At the same time I had been participating in a creative writing course which urged, like all such it seems to me, that one should practice writing as much as possible or at least during the time one isn’t reading avidly. Writing reviews of other authors work, developing characters, describing settings with interesting detail all being advocated.

This reminds me of the football training ground (or the equivalent facility for any sport); every professional knows you can train and train as much as you like but until you get on that competitive pitch you aren’t going to get match fit.

In writing you must get stuck in to that novel, short story or poem to become match fit. Too much ‘training’ of the above type doesn’t help you become match fit for writing—the only thing that does, is the actual writing of that actual piece of creation you have been cooking up for some while. As Michael Frayn once remarked on BBC Radio 4. ‘Just do it!’

It doesn’t matter that you write a trashy chapter in the middle of purple prose; unlike a footballer you can always go back and edit this below par period of play, so ‘Just do it!’

While I was editing my first novel I started writing my second novel, I think this kept me match fit and I intend to repeat the exercise when the time is right.

Adding this at the end of February I note that having had a struggle to keep writing during the dull grey days of winter I’m not match fit and finding it hard to get revved back up.

When the Plot goes wrong…

What do you do when the plot goes wrong?

It’s a bit like when cream splits, the plot doesn’t thicken. This recently happened to me; our plots fly by the seat of my pants and one of them came tumbling down three-quarters through the first draft. Let me explain, one of the characters was biographical, they really had existed and we began to become uncomfortable, the way the plot was going, that I could end up libelling or misrepresenting a real person and really upsetting, unnecessarily, relatives of the real person. Is this important? Well I think so, we are not engaged in writing a biography of someone in which any opinions or events expressed carry (it is to be hoped) the weight of evidence, in which case, fair game. This is a piece of fiction, a piece of make-believe, solely an invention. So what do you do?

Firstly, we analysed the situation and decided that to leave the biographical and named character in under the present situation was unfair and unethical. To leave them in but to play them down would render the plot’s structure and surprises innocuous. Was there another route?

We found one, it means a major rewrite of parts in order to render the same character as a child of fiction, with a new name, occupation, history, relatives and most importantly  a reason to exist. It was quite a wrench to come to this conclusion and we delayed longer than we should. We have lost valuable time which I doubt we can make up but at least we should be happier with the result. If you end up with this type of problem I recommend grasping the nettle early on, the quicker you do, the quicker you will find the dock leaves!