Henry James – Cathedrals and Castles

I received this as a Christmas present from my boyfriend’s brother Jez as part of a fantastic set of Penguin books on English Journeys.  As an expat in Spain I am often wistful for the English countryside and heritage, I was therefore  really looking forward to reading this and selected this as one of the first books to read.  Unfortunately it turned out to be a bit of a disappointment.  The subject matter interests me but I just found James’ style unengaging, as I also have experienced whilst reading his novels too.

This book is based on Henry James’ travels around England visiting, unsurprisingly, castles and cathedrals.  Amongst other places, he visits Devon, Warwickshire. Oxford, and goes to Derby Day.  It has a few funny observations,  such as “women are said to  have no  sense of humour” or his interesting comments on how photography has changed sight seeing;

Coming upon a sight or object is a “pleasure still left to the tourist even after the broad glare of a photograph has dissipated so many of the sweet mysteries of travel”.

This really struck a chord with me possibly because I have a photographer boyfriend who always has a camera stuck to his face, but also because of a comment an Aborigine made when I visited Uluru (Ayers Rock)  when he said tourists come and just take their pictures but they do not really take the time to understand the spirit of a place.  Unfortunately apart from these odd jems, I largely  found myself skimming sections and not really taking it in.

Maybe it was the American in England thing,  but there were lots of descriptions of England and the English that I just could not  relate to and I am sure it is not just the fact that it was written over a century ago.  There were opinions that I strongly disagreed with as an obsesive National Trust visitor, such as;

“I am not sure.. that he (the tourist) is not tempted to accuse his English neighbours of being impenetrable and uninspired, to affirm that they do not half discern their good fortune, and that it takes passionate pilgrims, vague aliens and other disinherited persons to appreciate the points of this admirable country”.

So overall, unfortunately, a bit of an anti-climax.


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