Saturday, 24 March 2012

Henry James's funeral

I used to be on the list of guides to Chelsea Old Church, which entailed reporting for duty for a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon with another local resident and sitting chatting while a steady trickle of visitors came in and looked round the various monuments therein. One quiet Sunday afternoon, my friend Sheila and I were gassing away, vaguely aware that a young couple were looking round the church. They were French, and explained that they had come to see the plaque commemorating the novelist Henry James, who became a British subject just before his death during World War One. After they left, we were stunned to see that they had each left £20 in the collecting salver by the porch. Sheila and I decided to use the money to provide a leaflet about the great man, which I wrote and she designed. Sheila was - is - a considerable artist with a studio in Chelsea. During World War Two she was drafted, as an art student, into the British army's map-making service based in remote rural West Wales, and just before I left the house that had been my home for 38 years in December 2009, her work, with other contemporaries', was honoured with an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. This story of unexpected generosity has a twist in its tail. While researching the text for the leaflet, I became intrigued by the guest list at Henry James's funeral at the Old Church, which will be the subject of a paper I will be giving at an international conference in London at the end of June.

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