Crawford’s Consistency

tutorial, critical comment, plot, and study resources

Crawford’s Consistency first appeared in magazine form in Scribner’s Monthly for August 1876. Featured in the same issue were stories by popular American writer Bret Harte and Anglo-American novelist Frances Hodgson Burnett (who was born in Manchester) as well as a story The Living Mummy by Ivan Turgenev.

Crawford's Consistency

Crawford’s Consistency – critical commentary

This is one of the many tales by Henry James which explores the ‘dangers’ of marriage. In fact of all the cautionary studies he produced on the subject, this is possibly the most virulent and dramatic. James gave repeated thought to the matter on his own behalf, but always came down on the side of remaining a bachelor.

Crawford is a character who has everything, but ends up with nothing. At the outset of the tale he is popular, wealthy, and single by conviction. He has rationalised his state of being, and has no reason to change.

But then he is smitten by a woman’s good looks. Elizabeth Ingram is pretty – but cold and unresponsive. Nevertheless, he is desperately in love with her surface charm – and is rewarded by being suddenly rejected, almost with no reason. Only later do we learn that the reason is financial caution on her mother’s part and preference for a wealthier suitor.

In fact it is interesting to note that she is later disfigured – so even if the marriage had gone ahead, Crawford would have ended up with the loss of the very thing he had chosen – a pretty woman.

But there is worse to come. He repeats the same mistake by giving way to an impulsive and very superficial attraction. And true to the formula, the woman who becomes Mrs Crawford is interested only in his money. He generously gives her more than half his wealth, and even when that evaporates due to the bank’s collapse, he feels obliged to give her what he has left, because he wishes to honour his original offer of support through marriage.

If these warnings again the possible dangers of marriage were not enough, James then underscores (and possibly overplays) his message by having this vulgar termagant become an alcoholic .with violent tendencies. Having already impoverished him, she then renders Crawford a cripple and makes his life a misery for another decade before expiring – leaving him with nothing but his ‘consistent’ temperament.

To quote the much-used adage, you do not need a brass plaque on your front door to realise that this reveals a profound psychological mistrust of women (to put it mildly) on James’s part. Crawford may have retained ‘consistency’ throughout his ordeals, but the lessons James offers here are that to remain single is a state of potential bliss, whereas the experience of giving way to heterosexual impulses leads to humiliation, rejection, disappointment, misery, personal injury, and financial ruin.

Crawford’s Consistency – study resources

Crawford's Consistency The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon UK

Crawford's Consistency The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon US

Crawford's Consistency Complete Stories 1874—1884 – Library of America – Amazon UK

Crawford's Consistency Complete Stories 1874—1884 – Library of America – Amazon US

Red button The Cambridge Companion to Henry James – Amazon UK

Crawford's Consistency Crawford’s Consistency – Paperback edition

Red button Henry James at Wikipedia – biographical notes, links

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

Crawford’s Consistency – plot summary

The narrator’s friend Crawford is a wealthy, personable, and eligible bachelor who has made it a personal philosophy to avoid marriage. But when he meets the beautiful Elizabeth Ingram he falls in love with her and immediately proposes. Her strict mother thinks that Crawford isn’t really rich enough, but he is eventually accepted by the family. He immediately becomes abundantly happy, and reverses all his previous opinions on the subject of marriage.

However, when the narrator goes to present his good wishes to the Ingrams, they reveal that they have suddenly broken off the engagement. Crawford arrives and is shocked at this news. He demands to speak to Elizabeth. She tells him that she does not love him any more. Crawford is mortified by the insult and the emotional blow. There is widespread social sympathy for him, and the Ingrams go off early to spend the summer in Newport under public disapprobation.

Subsequently, Crawford meets a woman in a park to whom he is instantly attracted, even though she is rather commonplace. The narrator reflects wistfully on the frailty of human nature, which can be so inconsistent. Later in the summer he discovers that Crawford has actually married the woman, who is even more vulgar that she appeared at first. The two men remain friends, but the marriage is never discussed between them. Crawford throws a lavish party which attracts the curiosity of all his friends, but they are shocked by the obvious vulgarity of his wife.

Elizabeth Ingram meanwhile becomes engaged to a rich southern plantation owner. Then suddenly the narrator receives news that Crawford’s bank has gone into liquidation, wiping out his fortune. The signs of this collapse were visible to the initiated six months previously, and the narrator suspects that this might have been the reason for the Ingrams’ sudden decision – because Mrs Ingram keeps a close watch on the financial markets. The new Mrs Crawford is incandescent with rage and disappointment, and Crawford asks the narrator not to visit him at home any more, to spear them both embarrassment.

Crawford goes to live on one floor of a small house and gets a job as a clerk. He feels obliged to give his vulgar wife all his remaining money. The two friends meet in public at weekends. It is reported that Elizabeth Ingram gets small-pox and is horribly disfigured by the disease – at which her fiancé cancels their engagement and goes back to Alabama.

Mrs Crawford turns to drink, and Crawford has long bouts of depression. His wife then pushes him down a flight of steps, causing him to fracture his knee, which renders him lame. He endures misery and poverty for another ten years, until finally Mrs Crawford dies of delirium tremens.

Principal characters
I an un-named narrator, a doctor
Crawford the narrator’s friend, the ealthy son of a cotton-broker (27)
Elizabeth Ingram Crawford’s fiancé, a distant cousin of the narrator
Sabrina Ingram Elizabeth’s stern mother
Peter Ingram Elizabeth’s hen-pecked father
Mrs Crawford a vulgar lower-class woman

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 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.

Crawford's Consistency Buy the book at Amazon UK
Crawford's Consistency 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

© Roy Johnson 2013

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.

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