Mrs Temperly

tutorial, critical comment, plot, and study resources

Mrs Temperly first appeared in Harper’s Weekly in August 1887. It first bore the title Cousin Maria and was later collected with other tales in the volume entitled A London Life (1889).

Mrs Temperly

Mrs Temperly – critical commentary

The story is short and slight, but it has at its core a desperately sad subject. Raymond is an eager but ill-fated young man. He has no prospects in terms of social status, and even takes a dive during the course of the story because his father becomes bankrupt. He also has feeble aspirations to be a ‘painter’ – a completely insubstantial prospect for any self-respecting family into which he wishes to marry.

He chooses as his love object Dora Temperly, the eldest of Mrs Temperly’s daughters. Her defining characteristic in the drama is that she’s plain. At the beginning of the story she is very young, so this does not seem so important. But five years later her younger sister has become very attractive, even in Raymond’s eyes

The quasi-tragic element, which is hardly mentioned in the text, is that Dora realises that even though she might be prepared to accept the advances of a ‘penniless’ Raymond who has a dubious family background, she cannot do so without harming the chances of her two younger sisters finding rich husbands. She fends off Raymond’s advances as a form of self-sacrifice – and ends up asking him to wait ten years whilst her sisters find husbands.

This point is even underscored by the slightly grotesque observation that the youngest sister is actually small and the family is waiting impatiently for her to grow, so that this waiting period can end.

It is worth noting that the appellation ‘Cousin Maria’ has a slightly different connotation in America than it would have in Britain. It is not so much a designation of genetic relationship as a symbol of kinship or fellowship, an affirmation of democratic allegiance.

The distinction is slight and very subtle, but in the context of this story it reinforces the sad gulf that exists between Raymond’s social aspirations and the higher ground upon which Mrs Temperly establishes her family.

Mrs Temperly – study resources

Mrs Temperly The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon UK

Mrs Temperly The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon US

Mrs Temperly Complete Stories 1884—1891 – Library of America – Amazon UK

Mrs Temperly Complete Stories 1884—1891 – Library of America – Amazon US

Mrs Temperly Mrs Temperly – Classic Reprint edition

Mrs Temperly Mrs Temperly – Read Books paperback edition

Mrs Temperly Mrs Temperly – eBook formats at Gutenberg

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

Mrs Temperly – plot summary

Part I. A rich widow Mrs Temperly is preparing to leave New York to live in Paris with her three children. She discusses the issue with her eldest daughter Dora, who a relative Raymond Bestwick expresses a desire to marry. He is a young man without prospects who is a would-be artist. Mrs Temperly has reservations about marriage at such a young age. On the eve of their departure Raymond talks with Dora, hoping to find some encouragement for his suit, but he is unable to make any impression on her.

Part II. Five years later Raymond visits the Temperly family in Paris. He has not made any personal progress, and his father has gone bankrupt. Mrs Temperly on the other hand has acquired fine paintings and is living in grand style. Her second daughter is much prettier, but Dora is unchanged. Raymond renews his attentions to Dora, but she politely keeps him at bay.

Raymond believes that their charming and socially gifted friend Madame de Brives is secretly searching for husbands for the Temperly girls.

Part III. Raymond continues to visit the household, and Mrs Temperly maintains the friendly and wholesome ambiance she brought with her from America. On the occasion of a grand musical evening Raymond again asks the matriarchal Mrs Temperly for her approval of his quest for Dora. She gives him permission but makes it clear that Dora will wish to stay single.

Part IV. Finally, Raymond asks Dora directly to marry him, but she says she cannot accept until her two younger sisters are married. Raymond gradually realises that if he marries into the family it will blight the prospects of the younger daughters – because he is unsuccessful and the son of a bankrupt. Dora confirms the opinions of her mother, and appeals to Raymond to wait the ten years or so it might take – as she is prepared to do.

Principal characters
Mrs Temperly a rich widow
Raymond Bestwick her relative, a would-be artist
Dora Temperly her plain eldest daughter (16)
Effie Temperly her second daughter (15)
Tishy Temperly her youngest daughter (10)
Mademoiselle Bourde the family’s French governess (40)
Marquise de Brives a glamorous and well-connected socialite

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 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.

© Roy Johnson 2013

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