Back “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes,” Henry James

From Henry James: Complete Stories 1864–1874

Detail from The Bride, 1856, oil on canvas by English painter Abraham Solomon (1823–1862). (WikiCommons)

When he was 20, Henry James published the first of his 112 stories and novellas. Over the next half century, he would often serve as his own severest critic, but his brother, the philosopher and psychologist William James, occasionally vied for a close second. Even when William enjoyed one of Henry’s stories, he might offer backhanded praise. He greeted one early story, “A Romance of Certain Old Clothes,” as “having a great suppleness and freedom of movement in the composition”; it was “in a different tone from any of yours, seems to have been written with the mind more unbent and careless, is very pleasantly done, but is, as the Nation said, ‘trifling’ for you.” The critic in The Nation had dismissed the story as “trivial” because it changed suddenly from a “tantalizing” tale about sibling rivalry to a ghost story. (Henry would eventually agree with that assessment.)

William was, at the time, in Europe, where Henry desperately wanted to be. Their family finances, however, permitted only one wayfaring son at the time, and Henry was stuck in Massachusetts until his older brother returned. “Life here in Cambridge—or in this house, at least, is about as lively as the inner sepulchre,” Henry complained. His biographer Leon Edel sees an unconscious rivalry between the brothers playing out in several stories of the period, including “Certain Old Clothes,” about two sisters who hope to marry the same man. “It was written, singularly enough, not long after Henry ordered from his tailor the suit of clothes made from the same cloth as William’s suit of the previous summer,” Edel added half-jokingly.

Recent critics have argued that Edel’s claims to sibling rivalry are exaggerated, and there is little doubt that the brothers admired each other and eagerly sought the other’s opinion. “Their occasional differences were due to genuine divergences of taste and opinion,” writes William’s biographer Gerald E. Myers; “their temperaments and professions were sufficiently disparate to foreclose competitiveness.”

Whatever the case, “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” has withstood the test of time; although rarely considered the best of Henry James’s eighteen tales of the supernatural (“The Turn of the Screw” has endured as the critics’ favorite), it remains among the mostly widely read and anthologized.

We present it as our Story of the Week selection, with an introduction that describes Henry’s lifelong effort to merge realism with the ghost story.

Read Henry James’s “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes”

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