The Sense of the Past

The Sense of the Past

Infobox Book |
name = The Sense of the Past

image_caption = The cover of first edition
author = Henry James
country = United Kingdom, United States
language = English
genre = Novel
publisher = W. Collins Sons & Co., London
Charles Scribner's Sons, New York City
release_date = Collins: 6-Sept-1917
Scribner's: 26-Oct-1917
media_type = Print (Hardback & Paperback)
pages = Collins: 351 pp
Scribner's: 358 pp
isbn = NA

"The Sense of the Past" is an unfinished novel by Henry James, posthumously published in 1917. The novel is at once an eerie account of time travel and a bittersweet comedy of manners. A young American trades places with a remote ancestor in early 19th century England, and encounters many complications in his new surroundings.

Plot summary

Young Ralph Pendrel of New York has written a fine essay on the reading of history. The essay so impresses a distant English relative that he bequeaths an 18th century London house to Ralph. Pendrel goes to London and explores the house thoroughly. He feels himself going back in time as soon as he crosses the threshold. He finds a portrait of a remote ancestor, also named Ralph Pendrel. The portrait comes alive and the two men meet.

Later, the modern-day Pendrel goes to the U.S. ambassador in London and tries to tell him of these strange occurrences. He then returns to the mysterious house, steps across the threshold, and finds himself back in the early 19th century. At this dramatic juncture, the part of the novel that James wrote in 1900 breaks off. James resumed the novel in 1914 with scenes of Ralph meeting the relatives of his ancestor, whose place he has now taken. Ralph is engaged to one of those relatives, Molly Midmore, but finds himself attracted to her sister Nan. He also meets Molly's mother and unpleasant brother, and Sir Cantopher Bland, a suitor of Nan's.

The novel breaks off completely here. James left extensive notes on how the novel would continue. The notes indicate Nan would eventually realize that Ralph is actually a time-traveller from the future. She would then sacrifice her own happiness and help him return to his own time and to Aurora Coyne, a woman who had previously rejected Ralph but would now accept him.

Major themes

James was generally not interested in long-ago eras. At most he was attracted by a more recent, "visitable" past. It's characteristic of his preference for present-day reality that "The Sense of the Past" would have ended with Ralph triumphantly returning from the early 19th century to his own time. Whether James could have managed all the complex details of Ralph's trip through the past and return to the present is a very real question. He broke off the novel in 1900 because the material was becoming too intractable and convoluted.

The new beginning James made in 1914 doesn't reassure the reader that the aging master was up to the formidable demands of the time-travel storyline. The 1914 section allows scenes to ramble far too long, and James appears to have lost his ability to impose much-needed order on his material. Still, if he could have somehow molded the novel into presentable shape, "The Sense of the Past" might have become a brilliant, subtle exploration of the influence of the past on the present, but it's impossible to judge a novel left mostly incomplete.

Literary significance & criticism

After James' death this novel was converted into a very successful play, which indicates the appeal of the subject-matter. Critics have regretted that James abandoned the book in 1900, then took up such complex material in 1914, when he was past seventy. (He returned to the novel in a futile attempt to escape the horrors of World War I.)

James brilliantly handles Ralph's initial exploration of the house, which leads to the meeting with his namesake ancestor. But James wrote that part of "The Sense of the Past" in 1900, when he was at the top of his form. By the time he returned to the novel in 1914, he simply didn't have the energy to overcome the technical challenges inherent in the material.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

"The Sense of the Past" was the inspiration for the 1920s play "Berkeley Square", frequently performed in London and elsewhere. To date two movie versions of the play have been were made. The first version, made in 1933, starring Leslie Howard, who had also starred in the stage production. The second version, produced in England in 1951 and starring Tyrone Power, was titled "The House in the Square" for British release and "I'll Never Forget You" for release in the United States. The latter version was released on DVD in July 2008 as part of the "Tyrone Power — Matinee Idol" collection.


* "The Novels of Henry James" by Edward Wagenknecht (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1983) ISBN 0-8044-2959-6
* "The Novels of Henry James" by Oscar Cargill (New York: Macmillan Co., 1961)

External links

* [ IMDb page for the movie version of "Berkeley Square" (1933)]

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