The Abasement of the Northmores

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

The Abasement of the Northmores first appeared in the collection of tales, The Soft Side in 1900 – which was a remarkably fertile period for Henry James in terms of his production of tales. It was a year which saw the publication of Miss Gunton of Poughkeepsie, The Third Person, The Great Good Place, The Tone of Time, The Tree of Knowledge, and the story which is widely regarded as his finest – The Beast in the Jungle. James produced all of these (and more) in addition to working on his next novel, The Sacred Fount (1901).

Henry James portrait

Henry James – portrait by John Singer Sargeant

The Abasement of the Northmores – commentary

Towards the end of his career, James wrote a number of pieces which fictionalise his concern for public reputation and the use which might be made of his private papers after his death. He destroyed most of his own private papers during the period 1909-1915 when he suffered a number of severe illnesses.

He also wrote in stories such as The Papers of inflated and completely bogus public reputations established by nonentities and in The Private Life people who do not have any personal substance behind the facade of their public personae.

The most remarkable feature of this story is that almost nothing in the narrative is dramatised. The whole story is delivered via omniscient third person narration. And in addition, none of the active participants in the drama actually talk to each other on the page.

The reader is kept at a considerable distance from events, because no extracts from any letters are quoted, so we have no way of judging the true extent of John Northmore’s fatuousness or of Warren Hope’s neglected talents. In this sense the story is told, not shown.

The ending of the story seems particularly hurried. Within the space of less than a page, two major strands of the story are finished off and a third introduced. First, Mrs Hope concludes that Northmore’s two volumes of letters will themselves undermine his reputation. This would be ending enough, if only we had evidence on which to judge its veracity. But she then burns her own packet of letters from John Northmore – which have contributed little to the drama of the story. Then she prepares the rival collection of her own correspondence with her husband Warren that she hopes will vindicate him in public estimation. Finally she arranges for posthumous publication by changing her will.

It is significant that in the notebook entry on the original ideas for this story, James was not certain how the story would conclude:

She wants to score. She publishes—and does.—Or is there anything ELSE in it?—in connection with the letters she eventually publishes ????—???—

The Abasement of the Northmores – study resources

The Abasement of the Northmores The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon UK

The Abasement of the Northmores The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon US

The Abasement of the Northmores Complete Stories 1898—1910 – Library of America – Amazon UK

The Abasement of the Northmores Complete Stories 1898—1910 – Library of America – Amazon US

The Abasement of the Northmores The Abasement of the Northmores – Penguin Classics – Amazon UK

The Abasement of the Northmores The Abasement of the Northmores – Penguin Classics – Amazon US

The Abasement of the Northmores Tales of Henry James – Norton Critical Editions – Amazon UK

The Abasement of the Northmores The Abasement of the Northmores – read the story on line

Red button The Cambridge Companion to Henry James – Amazon UK

Red button Henry James at Wikipedia – biographical notes, links

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

The Abasement of the Northmores – plot summary

Part I. Having made a great reputation by using other people, Lord Northmore dies to widespread public sorrow. Mrs Warren Hope feels aggrieved that Northmore has particularly exploited her husband – his oldest friend. When Mr Warren Hope attends the Northmore burial service he contracts pneumonia and dies.

Part II. Mrs Hope subsequently receives a request from Lady Northmore for any letters written by her late husband, to be used in a memorial publication that is designed to inflate his reputation even further. Mrs Hope has a bundle of letters from Lord Northmore, who was once her suitor, but she decides not to send them. Warren Hope however has kept all Lord Northmore’s correspondence, and despite her temptation to thwart the plan, Mrs Hope hands over all the letters.

Part III. There is a great public response to Lady Northmore’s request for material, which piques Mrs Hope into the idea of publishing correspondence between herself and her husband, which she thinks will be much more interesting. She too makes a public appeal – but nobody has saved any of her husband’s letters.

Part IV. When Lord Northmore’s letters are published (in two volumes) Mrs Hope realises that they reveal nothing except his inanity, and she suspects that her late husband might even have saved so many for the very purpose of revealing the fact. She visits Lady Northmore intending to enjoy some form of triumph over her, but she leaves feeling nothing but pity.

Part V. She burn her own bundle of letters from Lord Northmore, edits her correspondence with Warren Hope, has a single copy printed, and leaves instructions in her will for it to be published after her death. ‘Her last was to hope that death would come in time.’

Principal characters

Lord John Northmore ‘a great political figure’
Lady Northmore his wife
Warren Hope an old friend and colleague of Northmore
Mrs Warren Hope his wife

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 F.W. Dupee, Henry James: Autobiography, Princeton University Press, 1983.

Red button Leon Edel, Henry James: A Life, HarperCollins, 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 Fred Kaplan, Henry James: The Imagination of Genius, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999

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

Critical commentary

Red button Elizabeth Allen, A Woman’s Place in the Novels of Henry James London: Macmillan Press, 1983.

Red button Ian F.A. Bell, Henry James and the Past, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1993.

Red button Millicent Bell, Meaning in Henry James, Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press, 1993.

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 J. Donald Crowley and Richard A. Hocks (eds), The Wings of the Dove, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1978.

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

Red button Daniel Mark Fogel, A Companion to Henry James Studies, Greenwood Press, 1993.

Red button Virginia C. Fowler, Henry James’s American Girl: The Embroidery on the Canvas, Madison (Wis): University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.

Red button Jonathan Freedman, The Cambridge Companion to Henry James, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Red button Judith Fryer, The Faces of Eve: Women in the Nineteenth Century American Novel, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976

Red button Roger Gard (ed), Henry James: The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge, 1968.

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

Red button Barbara Hardy, Henry James: The Later Writing (Writers & Their Work), Northcote House Publishers, 1996.

Red button Richard A. Hocks, Henry James: A study of the short fiction, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1990.

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

Red button Colin Meissner, Henry James and the Language of Experience, Cambridge University Press, 2009

Red button John Pearson (ed), The Prefaces of Henry James, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993.

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

Red button Hugh Stevens, Henry James and Sexuality, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Red button Merle A. Williams, Henry James and the Philosophical Novel, Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Red button Judith Woolf, Henry James: The Major Novels, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

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

Other works by Henry James

Henry James The BostoniansThe Bostonians (1886) is a novel about the early feminist movement. The heroine Verena Tarrant is an ‘inspirational speaker’ who is taken under the wing of Olive Chancellor, a man-hating suffragette and radical feminist. Trying to pull her in the opposite direction is Basil Ransom, a vigorous young man from the South to whom Verena becomes more and more attracted. The dramatic contest to possess her is played out with some witty and often rather sardonic touches, and as usual James keeps the reader guessing about the outcome until the very last page.

The Abasement of the Northmores Buy the book at Amazon UK
The Abasement of the Northmores Buy the book at Amazon US


Henry James What Masie KnewWhat Masie Knew (1897) A young girl is caught between parents who are in the middle of personal conflict, adultery, and divorce. Can she survive without becoming corrupted? It’s touch and go – and not made easier for the reader by the attentions of an older man who decides to ‘look after’ her. This comes from the beginning of James’s ‘Late Phase’, so be prepared for longer and longer sentences. In fact it’s said that whilst composing this novel, James switched from writing longhand to using dictation – and it shows if you look carefully enough – part way through the book.
Henry James What Masie Knew Buy the book at Amazon UK
Henry James What Masie Knew Buy the book at Amazon US


Henry James The AmbassadorsThe Ambassadors (1903) Lambert Strether is sent from America to Paris to recall Chadwick Newsome, a young man who is reported to be compromising himself by an entanglement with a wicked woman. However, Strether’s mission fails when he is seduced by the social pleasures of the European capital, and he takes Newsome’s side. So a second ambassador is dispatched in the form of the more determined Sarah Pocock. She delivers an ultimatum which is resisted by the two young men, but then an accident reveals unpleasant truths to Strether, who is faced by a test of loyalty between old Europe and the new USA. This edition presents the latest scholarship on James and includes an introduction, notes, selected criticism, a text summary and a chronology of James’s life and times.
Longstaff's Marriage Buy the book at Amazon UK
Longstaff's Marriage Buy the book at 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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