The Two Faces

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

The Two Faces first appeared in Harper’s Bazar in December 1900 – which was a remarkably fertile period for Henry James in terms of his production of shorter fiction. It was a year which saw the publication of Maud-Evelyn, Miss Gunton of Poughkeepsie, Broken Wings, The Abasement of the Northmores, The Third Person, The Tone of Time, The Tree of Knowledge, The Great Good Place, 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).

The Two Faces

Victorian fashion

The Two Faces – commentary

The crux of this story turns upon the almost hidden detail that Mrs Grantham is a former lover of Lord Gwyther. He has ‘played a trick’ on her only six months previously, which suggests that he has broken off a socially accepted relationship.

After only a short period, he has also broken the London society code of conduct by ‘turning up’ at Mrs Grantham’s house unannounced at a time when Sutton is consolidating his position as her currently accepted admirer.

This explains the social unease which ensues when he arrives at Mrs Grantham’s house at the start of the story, and why it is so surprising (and somewhat gauche of him) to wish to introduce his new wife to his (quite recent) former lover. It might also explain the ‘something new’ that comes into Mrs Grantham’s beauty when she conceives of her plan.

Thus too the significance of the story’s title. When Sutton witnesses the arrival of the Gwythers at Burbeck he sees Mrs Grantham’s face (which he normally finds very beautiful) transformed by the malevolence of her trick. Valda’s appearance of naive innocence amidst this piece of social theatre and personal vengeance is the contrast that leads Sutton to leave the party early, and with it the implication that he will abandon his pursuit of Mrs Grantham.

The Two Faces – study resources

The Two Faces The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon UK

The Two Faces The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon US

The Two Faces Complete Stories 1898—1910 – Library of America – Amazon UK

The Two Faces Complete Stories 1898—1910 – Library of America – Amazon US

The Two Faces The Two Faces – Digireads reprint edition

The Two Faces The Two Faces – eBook formats at Gutenberg

The Two Faces The Two Faces – 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 tales and novels

Red button Henry James at Wikipedia – biographical notes, links

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

The Two Faces – plot summary

Part I. Mr Shirley Sutton is visiting Mrs May Grantham in whom he seems to have a particular interest, when they are joined by Lord Gwyther. He has come to announce his recent marriage to a young half-German girl Valda. He also expresses a wish that Mrs Grantham will introduce her into London society.

Part II. Mrs Grantham wonders about Gayther’s motives, but she agrees to take responsibility for the young woman, much to everybody’s surprise.

Part III. The characters assemble at Burbeck, an English country house and estate for a weekend party. Sutton discusses the arrival of the Gwythers with Miss Banker, who seems to know everybody’s business, and even secrets. When the Gwythers arrive, Sutton is shocked to see that Mrs Grantham has chosen for her a hideously inappropriate collection of dressware. Knowing that Valda Gwyther will never recover socially from this gaffe, Sutton leaves the party early.

Principal characters
Burbeck an English country house and estate
Mrs May Grantham a beautiful society lady
Bates her butler
Mr Shirley Sutton an admirer of Mrs Grantham
Lord Gwynther Mrs Grantham’s former lover
Miss Banker a society gossip

Henry James portrait

Henry James – portrait by John Singer Sargeant

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

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

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

Other works by Henry James

Henry James Washington SquareWashington Square (1880) is a superb early short novel, It’s the tale of a young girl whose future happiness is being controlled by her strict authoritarian (but rather witty) father. She is rather reserved, but has a handsome young suitor. However, her father disapproves of him, seeing him as an opportunist and a fortune hunter. There is a battle of wills – all conducted within the confines of their elegant New York town house. Who wins out in the end? You will probably be surprised by the outcome. This is a masterpiece of social commentary, offering a sensitive picture of a young woman’s life.
Henry James Washington Square Buy the book from Amazon UK
Henry James Washington Square Buy the book from Amazon US


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 – 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.

Henry James web links Henry James on the Internet Movie Database
Adaptations of James’s novels and stories for the cinema and television – in various languages. Full details of directors and actors, production features, film reviews, box office, and even quizzes.

© Roy Johnson 2012

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