March 4, 2013

Henry James in Kensington

Though Henry James at first preferred Paris, London finally took a hold of him, thanks to the majesty of its clubs and the comfort of its furnished rooms. The New Yorker found a sense of well-being in the city's furnished apartments, smothered under piles of keepsakes and trinkets, shining silver, coal fires in fact all the paraphernalia of Victorian England.

These rooms, in whose decoration morality triumphed over aesthetics and sentiment was more important than style, were turned into museums or miniature replicas of the 1851 International Exhibition.

On tablecloths embroidered by countless little nieces, you would find souvenirs of Carlsbad or Florence set out on display. Hunting trophies and silver given by worthy tradesmen as golden wedding presents would crown libraries fitted out in the chastest Gothic fashion.

Draft screens made up of thousands of magazine illustrations were there to trap the slightest breath of air. An eczema of lockets and framed paintings covered the walls. Family photographs and watercolors of the Highlands and the Lake of Geneva-both areas of good moral standing-overflowed from the frames that held them.

Tables and windows were draped in velvet like dresses by Worth. Aspidistras grew old in their stands. Antimacassars protected the velvet headrests of armchairs, glass bowls sheltered bridal crowns of fabric flowers, or even poor dead pussy, animal skins here and there overlaid the carpet and, finally, Axminster carpets covered the floor.  America never really opened her gates to this tide of bric-a-brac, for though it may have been comfortable, it never became cosy.

But Henry James needed it all: the screens to allow Maisie to come upon her parents' secret, the curtains to cast their shadow over discreditable intrigues, the lampshades, creased like crinolines, to catch in a pool of light a seedy Bostonian or some peeress who has come down in the world.

Since "Gone With The Wind," America rediscovered this style among the debris of failed London boardinghouses up for sale in the Portobello Road flea-market, and boatloads of Victoriana set off daily for the New World.