The Bench of Desolation

tutorial, commentary, study resources, plot, and web links

The Bench of Desolation (1909) comes from the late period of James’s career as a writer of short stories, and with such a title readers might understandably assume it was similar to his late dark masterpieces such as The Beast in the Jungle and The Altar of the Dead. Indeed, the first two thirds of the story are marked by a mood of gloom which intensifies as the misery of the protagonist’s life becomes more protracted. But this atmosphere is completely dispelled by a resolution to the story which is as unexpected as it is improbable and unexplained.

The Bench of Desolation

a boring seafront

The Bench of Desolation – critical commentary

Is this story a lavish piece of wish-fulfilment on James’s part? It starts with the subject of one of his recurrent themes – the fearful prospect of marriage and its responsibilities. In fact it encompasses the fear of both the prospect and the consequences of marriage reflected in legal confrontation, public exposure, and financial punishment, followed by social death.

This clearly characterises the first part of the story, as Herbert Dodd is projected into his downward spiral of doom. But this scenario is completely dispelled in the latter part of the story. There is no credible justification provided for Herbert Dodd’s good fortune, and one can only think that it’s a form of wish-fulfilment on James’s part to come up with a resolution to this story which involves an old flame emerging from the past to offer both undiminished adoration and a large pot of money,

In fact the story suffers credibility weaknesses on two counts. First of all, no convincing motivation is provided for Kate Cookham’s ten year vigil. She has ruined Herbert financially by the original out-of-court settlement. He has subsequently married, become a widower, and sunk even lower in the social scale with no intervening contact between them to sustain either love or good will. But we are expected to believe that she has loved him and wished for his best interests throughout the decade. She even claims to have ‘hated’ what she was doing to him for ten years. We are given no explanation for her behaviour – only her statement of intent.

The second weakness is that not only has she worked and saved for a decade to repay him, but she is repaying his original two hundred and seventy pounds with interest. This original sum has accumulated simple interest of one hundred pounds a year to produce a total of twelve hundred and sixty pounds. That is a rate of return of thirty-seven per cent which even in the most prosperous years of the industrial revolution and the high point of British imperialism would have been impossible. Interest rates historically hover between three and ten percent. We can’t expect novelists to be professional economists or financial analysts, but we can object to their providing fairy tale pots of gold to furnish plot resolutions.

The story also has a rather uneven tone. At the beginning of the narrative Herbert Dodd is an almost comic figure – a vain, somewhat self-regarding character with a disdainful attitude to his low station in life. He could be seen as the Mr Pooter of the south coast. But as the misery of his blighted life begins to bite deeper, his seat on ‘the bench of desolation’ is a much more sombre affair. His state of tired resignation to a completely uneventful existence is something we are invited to take seriously. Having established this deeper mood, one would expect James to lead it towards a more logical and tragic conclusion, but instead of turning the screw tighter, he releases it to return to a mood of almost drawing room comedy.

Henry James portrait

Henry James – portrait by John Singer Sargeant

The Bench of Desolation – study resources

The Bench of Desolation The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon UK

The Bench of Desolation The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon US

The Bench of Desolation Complete Stories 1898—1910 – Library of America – Amazon UK

The Bench of Desolation Complete Stories 1898—1910 – Library of America – Amazon US

The Bench of Desolation The Collected Stories – Everyman’s Library Classics – Amazon UK

The Bench of Desolation The Bench of Desolation – read the story on line

Red button The Cambridge Companion to Henry James – Amazon UK

Red button The Prefaces of Henry James – Introductions to his works – Amazon UK

Red button Henry James at Wikipedia – biographical notes, links

Red button Henry James at Mantex – tutorials, biography, study resources

The Bench of Desolation – plot summary

Herbert Dodd has inherited a shop selling old books and prints in a ‘fourth-rate’ seaside town on the south coast of England. He becomes engaged to Kate Cookham, one of his customers, but when he changes his mind she threatens to sue him for breach of promise. He settles out of court for four hundred pounds compensation, mortgages his business, and in fact only pays her two hundred and seventy pounds.

He confides his plight to an old flame Nan Drury, and ends up marrying her. They have two children who die, as does she. The solicitors handling his mortgage go into liquidation because one of its partners embezzles from the firm, and his business is seized by creditors. He gets a job working as a petty clerk for the local gas works and begins to wonder in his misery at what might have happened if he had challenged Kate Cookham over the four hundred pound settlement.

Ten years pass, and his life is reduced to a meaningless void, when suddenly a much-improved Kate Cookham returns from London, seeks him out on his lonely seafront bench, and invites him to tea at her hotel. She reveals that she has taken his money, invested it, and wants to pay him back – with interest, because she loved him all the time. He is shocked by the news of her offer, but a week later he accepts the money – and her.

Principal characters
Herbert Dodd a somewhat effete dealer in old books and prints
Kate Cookham a plain private teacher and governess
Nan Drury an old flame of Henry’s who he marries
Bill Frankel a man known to Kate of whom Henry feels jealous

Henry James's study

Henry James’s study

Further reading


Red button Theodora Bosanquet, Henry James at Work, University of Michigan Press, 2007.

Red button Leon Edel, Henry James: A Life, Harper Collins, 1985.

Red button Philip Horne (ed), Henry James: A Life in Letters, Viking/Allen Lane, 1999.

Red button Henry James, The Letters of Henry James, Adamant Media Corporation, 2001.

Red button F.O. Matthieson (ed), The Notebooks of Henry James, Oxford University Press, 1988.

Critical commentary

Red button Harold Bloom (ed), Modern Critical Views: Henry James, Chelsea House Publishers, 1991.

Red button Kirstin Boudreau, Henry James’s Narrative Technique, Macmillan, 2010.

Red button Victoria Coulson, Henry James, Women and Realism, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Red button Tessa Hadley, Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Red button Donatella Izzo, Portraying the Lady: Technologies of Gender in the Short Stories of Henry James, University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

Red button Richard Poirer, The Comic Sense of Henry James, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Red button Ruth Yeazell (ed), Henry James: A Collection of Critical Essays, Longmans, 1994.

Other works by Henry James

Henry James The Aspern PapersThe Aspern Papers (1888) is a psychological drama set in Venice which centres on the tussle for control of a great writer’s correspondence. An elderly lady, ex-lover of the writer, seeks a husband for her daughter. But the potential purchaser of the papers is a dedicated bachelor. Money is also at stake – but of course not discussed overtly. There is a refined battle of wills between them. Who will win in the end? As usual, James keeps the reader guessing. The novella is a masterpiece of subtle narration, with an ironic twist in its outcome. This collection of stories also includes three of his accomplished long short stories – The Private Life, The Middle Years, and The Death of the Lion.
Henry James The Aspern Papers Buy the book from Amazon UK
Henry James The Aspern Papers Buy the book from Amazon US


Henry James The Spoils of PoyntonThe Spoils of Poynton (1896) is a short novel which centres on the contents of a country house, and the question of who is the most desirable person to inherit it via marriage. The owner Mrs Gereth is being forced to leave her home to make way for her son and his greedy and uncultured fiancee. Mrs Gereth develops a subtle plan to take as many of the house’s priceless furnishings with her as possible. But things do not go quite according to plan. There are some very witty social ironies, and a contest of wills which matches nouveau-riche greed against high principles. There’s also a spectacular finale in which nobody wins out.
Henry James The Spoils of Poynton Buy the book from Amazon UK
Henry James The Spoils of Poynton Buy the book from Amazon US


Henry James Daisy MillerDaisy Miller (1879) is a key story from James’s early phase in which a spirited young American woman travels to Europe with her wealthy but commonplace mother. Daisy’s innocence and her audacity challenge social conventions, and she seems to be compromising her reputation by her independent behaviour. But when she later dies in Rome the reader is invited to see the outcome as a powerful sense of a great lost potential. This novella is a great study in understatement and symbolic power.
Daisy Miller Buy the book from Amazon UK
Daisy Miller Buy the book from Amazon US

Henry James – web links

Henry James  web links Henry James at Mantex
Biographical notes, study guides, tutorials on the Complete Tales, book reviews. bibliographies, and web links.

Henry James web links The Complete Works
Sixty books in one 13.5 MB Kindle eBook download for £1.92 at The complete novels, stories, travel writing, and prefaces. Also includes his autobiographies, plays, and literary criticism – with illustrations.

Henry James web links The Ladder – a Henry James website
A collection of eTexts of the tales, novels, plays, and prefaces – with links to available free eTexts at Project Gutenberg and elsewhere.

Red button A Hyper-Concordance to the Works
Japanese-based online research tool that locates the use of any word or phrase in context. Find that illusive quotable phrase.

Henry James web links The Henry James Resource Center
A web site with biography, bibliographies, adaptations, archival resources, suggested reading, and recent scholarship.

Henry James web links Online Books Page
A collection of online texts, including novels, stories, travel writing, literary criticism, and letters.

Henry James web links Henry James at Project Gutenberg
A major collection of eTexts, available in a variety of eBook formats.

Henry James web links The Complete Letters
Archive of the complete correspondence (1855-1878) work in progress – published by the University of Nebraska Press.

Henry James web links The Scholar’s Guide to Web Sites
An old-fashioned but major jumpstation – a website of websites and resouces.

Henry James web links Henry James – The Complete Tales
Tutorials on the complete collection of over one hundred tales, novellas, and short stories.

© Roy Johnson 2012

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2 Responses to “The Bench of Desolation”

  1. JEP says:

    Actually, re the commentary above, the story was apparently inspired by a true story. See:

    which indicates:

    “James began with what he called a “good small ‘short-story’ donnee of the orthodox type”: he had heard of a man, “some small working or shop-keeping person,” who was sued for “breach” (as it is called in the story), made a ruinous financial settlement with the jilted lady, married another, but after this wife’s death ended up marrying the first woman after all. To this wry subject, with its twist that might have pleased a Hardy as well, James added the notion that the woman has with great effort “kept the money . . . gives it back to him augmented—she has been keeping it for him till the day when only this will save him … he accepts her charity, then he marries her.”

  2. Roy Johnson says:

    The story might be based on a real life incident – but this does not necessarily make it a convincing piece of fiction.

    It becomes an unusual or exceptional event – rather than something which has a logical inevitability.

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