July 7th, 2008

Harry Pussy Bysshe

I was reading Hermione Lee's review of the latest book on the famous James family, by Paul Fisher, yesterday and trying to figure out whether I liked it or not. Although it was a little too sprawling for my taste, I appreciated Lee's attention to language, as when she provided a list of some the biographer's favorite phrases. And then I came across a paragraph that made me laugh out loud in pleasure and admiration:
Fisher’s most disconcerting decision is to refer, throughout, to Henry James as “Harry.” This is fair enough when he is a little boy, but leads to trouble when he becomes a major novelist and legendary subject of biography. So we get “Harry’s smash-hit novella ‘Daisy Miller,’” and “Harry finished his final installment of ‘The Portrait of a Lady,’” and Leon Edel’s “painstaking analysis of Harry.” It’s as if I had written a whole biography of Edith Wharton referring to her by her childhood nickname, “Pussy," or as if Richard Holmes had called Shelley throughout by his family name, “Bysshe.”
I don't know whether the chain of sound association here was consciously selected, but it sure is funny, especially in a review of a book with lots of material about Henry James's presumed sexual repression.