A Bundle Of Letters by Henry James, 1878
The magic trick:
Assuming the point of view of six different characters – from four different countries – and making each unique and believable
Henry James, it is good to remember, was the brother of one of the most important figures in 19th century psychology, William James. So it shouldn’t be surprising to find so much human psychology seep into his fiction. And yeah, of course, human psychology is the foundation of any piece of fiction. But I mean, something like “A Bundle Of Letters” is almost like a series of case studies, the human psychology element is so thick. In fact, nothing really happens at all in this story. The only element is human psychology. And comedy. James does a wonderful job of mocking his characters in this story.
It’s an epistolary story, so there is no exterior narration. Just a bundle of letters. The form gives James the chance to really show off his skills of inhabiting many different characters. Each one is wholly unique and wholly believable. It’s not my favorite Henry James story. It feels pretty lightweight. But there is no denying the talent for characterization. It is exemplary use of first-person characterization and observation. And that’s quite a trick on James’s part.
I have received a great deal of politeness — some of it really most pressing, and I have experienced no drawbacks whatever. I have made a great many pleasant acquaintances in travelling round (both ladies and gentlemen), and had a great many most interesting talks. I have collected a great deal of information, for which I refer you to my journal. I assure you my journal is going to be a splendid thing. I do just exactly as I do in Bangor, and I find I do perfectly right; and at any rate, I don’t care if I don’t. I didn’t come to Europe to lead a merely conventional life; I could do that at Bangor. You know I never would do it at Bangor, so it isn’t likely I am going to make myself miserable over here. So long as I accomplish what I desire, and make my money hold out, I shall regard the thing as a success.
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