The Beldonald Holbein

tutorial, critical comment, plot, and study resources

The Beldonald Holbein first appeared in Harper’s Magazine for October 1901. It was later collected with other tales in The Better Sort published in London by Methuen and in New York by Scribner in 1903.

The Beldonald Holbein

Holbein – Catherine Howard (1540)

The Beldonald Holbein – critical commentary

This is one of a number of stories Henry James wrote about artists – usually portrait painters. As a young man James had studied art, and the interest stayed with him throughout his long career as a novelist. In fact it is the relationship between visual and literary art which lies at the centre of this tale – and creates its central problem.

James enthusiastically records in his notebooks the original idea for this story – what he often calls the donné of the tale:

… little old ugly, or plain (unappreciated) woman, after dull, small life, in ‘aesthetic’ perceptive ‘European’ ‘air’. Element in it of situation of some other American woman (who has had lots of ‘Europe’ always) —thought so pretty (and so envied by my heroine) when younger&mdsh;and now so ‘gone’.

All these elements are present in the finished tale. Mrs Brash comes from her obscure American life and is specifically employed as an ugly old woman by the vain Lady Beldonald to act as a contrast to her own good looks. But the narrator and his friend Outereau see in Mrs Brash an unappreciated beauty of a kind they liken to a portrait by Holbein.

More than that, Lady Beldonald eventually realises that Mrs Brash is failing to fulfil the role for which she has been employed, and we are led to believe that Mrs Brash is despatched back to America where she sinks once again into plain obscurity.

This presents readers with a problem. How can Mrs Brash be ‘ugly’ when she first appears in the narrative, then miraculously becomes ‘attractive’ in the eyes of the narrator, Outereau, and Mrs Munden? It is obvious that they appreciate something in Mrs Brash’s appearance which has been neglected by her fellow Americans. But we have no way of knowing if these critical assessments are valid or not: all the information at our disposal is mediated via the un-named narrator.

The Beldonald Holbein – study resources

The Beldonald Holbein The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon UK

The Beldonald Holbein The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon US

The Beldonald Holbein Complete Stories 1898—1910 – Library of America – Amazon UK

The Beldonald Holbein Complete Stories 1898—1910 – Library of America – Amazon US

The Beldonald Holbein The Beldonald Holbein – Paperback – Amazon UK

The Beldonald Holbein The Beldonald Holbein – Paperback – Amazon US

The Beldonald Holbein The Beldonald Holbein – eBook formats at Project Gutenberg

Red button The Cambridge Companion to Henry James – Amazon UK

The Beldonald Holbein Henry James at Wikipedia – biographical notes, links

The Beldonald Holbein Henry James at Mantex – tutorials, biography, study resources

The Beldonald Holbein – story synopsis

Part I   Mrs Munden proposes to the un-named narrator, an artist, that he paint a picture of her sister-in-law, the elderly but beautiful Lady Nina Beldonald. The commission is agreed but delayed because of the death of Nina’s black servant Miss Dadd, who has been hired to throw Nina’s beauty into sharp contrast.

Part II   Miss Dadd is replaced by an American relative Mrs Louisa Brash, who Nina employs because she is old and plain. But the narrator and his friend Paul Outreau feel that she is in fact a specially attractive ‘type’ – like a figure in a Holbein painting. The narrator asks Nina if he can paint Mrs Brash’s portrait, but she finds his suggestion offensive.

Part III   Nina cancels the commission for her own portrait. The narrator reconstructs Mrs Brash as an attractive figure who has not appreciated her own advantages. Having been ‘plain’ all her life, he wonders if she will be able to cope with being seen as attractive.

Part IV   The narrator and Mrs Munden feel responsible for Mrs Brash, who they fear may be turned away if she fails to perform the function for which she has been hired – which is to present a contrast to Lady Beldonald. However, they also feel they owe it to her to celebrate her attractiveness.

Part V   Mrs Brash eventually declines to sit for her portrait. Lady Beldonald then realises that she is an attractive woman, and sends her back to America, where she reverts to her former state of being – an elderly and plain woman. Lady Beldonald hires a new young and pretty servant, and offers to sit for her portrait after all – whereupon the narrator agrees.

The Beldonald Holbein – principal characters
the un-named narrator, an artist
Paul Outereau the narrator’s friend, a French painter
Mrs Munden an American friend of the narrator
Lady Nina Beldonald an American ageing beauty
Miss Dadd a small black servant (who does not appear)
Mrs Louisa Brash Nina’s cousin, an ugly older 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 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 2014

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