She was our life, she was the house

Henry James
Photographer unknown. Wikimedia.

Henry James was thirty-eight when his mother died. A new year had just begun, and his remarkable new novel, The Portrait of a Lady, had recently been published to wide acclaim, with many critics believing it to be his greatest work. Thankfully, after many years of living in Europe, he had just returned to the U.S. for an extended visit, and it was whilst in Washington D.C. that the terrible news reached him. Twelve days later, as he grieved at the family home in Boston, he wrote about the tragedy in a notebook he used as his diary.

The Diary Entry

February 9th, 1882, Boston.

When I began to make these rather ineffectual records I had no idea that I should have in a few weeks to write such a tale of sadness as today. I came back from Washington on the 30th of last month (reached Cambridge the next day), to find that I should never again see my dear mother. On Sunday, Jan. 29th, as Aunt Kate sat with her in the closing dusk (she had been ill with an attack of bronchial asthma, but was apparently recovering happily), she passed away. It makes a great difference to me! I knew that I loved her—but I didn’t know how tenderly till I saw her lying in her shroud in that cold North Room, with a dreary snowstorm outside, and looking as sweet and tranquil and noble as in life. These are hours of exquisite pain; thank Heaven this particular pang comes to us but once. . .

At home the worst was over; I found father and Alice and A.K. extraordinarily calm—almost happy. Mother seemed still to be there—so beautiful, so full of all that we loved in her, she looked in death. We buried her on Wednesday, Feb. 1st; Wilkie arrived from Milwaukee a couple of hours before. Bob had been there for a month—he was devoted to mother in her illness. It was a splendid winter’s day—the snow lay deep and high. We placed her, for the present, in a temporary vault in the Cambridge cemetery—the part that lies near the river. When the spring comes on we shall go and choose a burial place. I have often walked there in the old years—in those long, lonely rambles that I used to take about Cambridge, and I had, I suppose, a vague idea that some of us would some day lie there, but I didn’t see just that scene.

It is impossible for me to say—to begin to say—all that has gone down into the grave with her. She was our life, she was the house, she was the keystone of the arch. She held us all together, and without her we are scattered reeds. She was patience, she was wisdom, she was exquisite maternity. Her sweetness, her mildness, her great natural beneficence were unspeakable, and it is infinitely touching to me to write about her here as one that was. When I think of all that she had been, for years when I think of her hourly devotion to each and all of us—and that when I went to Washington the last of December I gave her my last kiss. I heard her voice for the last time—there seems not to be enough tenderness in my being to register the extinction of such a life. But I can reflect, with perfect gladness, that her work was done—her long patience had done its utmost. She had had heavy cares and sorrows, which she had borne without a murmur, and the weariness of age had come upon her.

I would rather have lost her forever than see her begin to suffer as she would probably have been condemned to suffer, and I can think with a kind of holy joy of her being lifted now above all our pains and anxieties. Her death has given me a passionate belief in certain transcendent things—the immanence of being as nobly created as hers—the immortality of such a virtue as that—the reunion of spirits in better conditions than these. She is no more of an angel today than she had always been; but I can’t believe that by the accident of her death all her unspeakable tenderness is lost to the things she so dearly loved. She is with us, she is of us—the eternal stillness is but a form of her love. One can hear her voice in it—one can feel, forever, the inextinguishable vibration of her devotion.

I can’t help feeling that in those last weeks I was not tender enough with her—that I was blind to her sweetness and beneficence. One can’t help wishing one had only known what was coming, so that one might have enveloped her with the softest affection. When I came back from Europe I was struck with her being worn and shrunken, and now I know that she was very weary. She went about her usual activities, but the burden of life had grown heavy for her, and she needed rest. There is something inexpressibly touching to me in the way in which, during these last years, she went on from year to year without it. If she could only have lived she should have had it, and it would have been a delight to see her have it. But she has it now, in the most complete perfection!

To bring her children into the world—to expend herself, for years, for their happiness and welfare—then, when they had reached a full maturity and were absorbed in the world and in their own interests—to lay herself down in her ebbing strength and yield up her pure soul to the celestial power that had given her this divine commission. Thank God one knows this loss but once; and thank God that certain supreme impressions remain! x x x x x

All my plans are altered—my return to England vanishes for the present. I must remain near father; his infirmities make it impossible I should leave him. This means an indefinite detention in this country—a prospect far enough removed from all my recent hopes of departure.

Mary Robertson Walsh James
Houghton Library MS Am 1094

Further Reading

The majority of Henry James’ papers are held at Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, including the many diaries and notebooks in which he recorded his thoughts. In 1947, his notebooks were published, in a volume titled The Notebooks of Henry James and edited by F. O. Matthiessen and Kenneth Murdock. Forty years later, The Complete Notebooks of Henry James arrived, edited by Leon Edel and Lyall Powers. The latter volume is, as the name would suggest, more comprehensive, and includes his pocket diaries too.

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