In his posthumous contribution to the Times Literary Supplement on 23 March 1916 called 'the Refugees in Chelsea', Henry James – who had died four weeks earlier – examined the validity of fiction and narrative in the face of historical challenges as posed for instance by the sheer existence of refugees. The following is a selection of his TLS piece. Quite some striking relevance for today's ongoing humanitarian crisis.
"This is not a Report on our so interesting and inspiring Chelsea work, since November last, in aid of the Belgians driven thither from their country by a violence of unprovoked invasion and ravage more appalling than has ever before overtaken a peaceful and industrious people; it is the simple statement of a neighbour and an observer deeply affected by the most tragic exhibition of national and civil prosperity and felicity suddenly subjected to bewildering outrage that it would have been possible to conceive. The case [...] has had no analogue in the experience of our modern generations, no matter how far back we go; it has been recognised, in surpassing practical ways, as virtually the greatest public horror of our age, or of all the preceding[...]"
However, the difference between today’s worrying climate of xenophobia that has taken hold in Europe as it struggles to cope with the crisis and a refugee crisis one hundred years ago lies in the presence of so much being “done in direct mitigation of it”.
“We live into — that is, we learn to cultivate — possibilities of sympathy and reaches of beneficence very much as the stricken and suffering themselves live into their dreadful history and explore and reveal its extent; and this admirable truth it is that unceasingly pleads with the intelligent, the fortunate, and the exempt, not to consent in advance to any dull limitation of the helpful idea.”
Henry James had already been involved in charity towards the Belgian refugees. When Edith Wharton, who stayed in France during the First World War organizing relief for Belgian refugees there, asked her circle of friends to look for contributions for a charity book, published in 1916 as The Book of the Homeless the proceeds of which were used to fund accommodation for displaced people, Henry James had asked W.B. Yeats whether he would contribute. Yeats replied with a short poem called "To a friend who has asked me to sign his manifesto to the neutral nations", which became “A Reason for Keeping Silent" first and finally "On being asked for a War Poem" in Yeats's wartime poetry collections "The Wild Swans at Coole". Henry James himself contributed The Long Wards.
It has been argued that after Henry James had taken an active interest in the relief of the Belgian refugees, his allegiance to Britain and that country’s welcoming of refugees fuelled his decision to become a citizen of Britain in 1915. James aligned himself with the plight of the Belgian refugees in Britain very early on in the war. The first Belgians arrived around 22 August 1914, nearly three weeks after the Germans so brutally invaded their neutral home country, and James is still in his house in Rye.
“It was in September, in a tiny Sussex town which I had not quitted since the outbreak of the war, and where the advent of our first handful of fugitives before the warning of Louvain and Aerschoot and Termonde and Dinant had just been announced. Our small hill-top city, covering the steep sides of the compact pedestal crowned by its great church, had reserved a refuge at its highest point; and we had waited all day, from occasional train to train, for the moment at which we should attest our hospitality. It came at last, but late in the evening, when a vague outside rumour called me to my doorstep, where the unforgettable impression at once assaulted me. Up the precipitous little street that led from the station, over the old grass-grown cobbles where vehicles rarely pass, came the panting procession of the homeless and their comforting, their almost clinging entertainers, who seemed to hurry them on as in a sort of overflow of expression of the fever of charity. It was swift and eager, in the autumn darkness and under the flare of a single lamp — with no vociferation and, but for a woman’s voice, scarce a sound save the shuffle of mounting feet and the thick-drawn breath of emotion. The note I except, however, was that of a young mother carrying her small child and surrounded by those who bore her on and on, almost lifting her as they went together. The resonance through our immemorial old street of her sobbing and sobbing cry was the voice itself of history; it brought home to me more things than I could then quite take the measure of, and these just because it expressed for her not direct anguish, but the incredibility, as who should say, of honest assured protection. Months have elapsed, and from having been then one of a few hundred she is now one of scores and scores of thousands: yet her cry is still in my ears, whether to speak most of what she had lately or of what she actually felt; and it plays, to my own sense, as a great fitful, tragic light over the dark exposure of her people.”
Although James himself accommodated Belgians in his house in Rye, his piece in the TLS focused on Chelsea.
“I have small warrant perhaps to say that atmospheres are communicable; but I can testify at least that they are breathable on the spot, to whatever effect of depression or of cheer; and I should go far, I feel, were I to attempt to register the full bitter-sweet taste, by our Chelsea waterside, all these months, of the refugee element in our vital medium. […] I need go no further, none the less, than the makeshift provisional gates of Crosby Hall, marvellous monument transplanted a few years since from the Bishopsgate quarter of the City to a part of the ancient suburban site of the garden of Sir Thomas More, and now serving with extraordinary beneficence as the most splendid of shelters for the homeless.”
James did not refer to the fact that Thomas More’s Utopia –published in 1516 – allocated an important element to the port city of Antwerp, a city as well where about one in three of the Belgian refugees in the UK during the First World War had come from. Instead, he elaborates on the grand civic character of Crosby Hall, “one of the noblest relics of the past that London could show”, and how it is still magnificent, despite having been moved from Bishopsgate to Chelsea for the purpose of “candid commercial interest”.
“The British, James suggests, might feel safe on their island fortress, protected by the English Channel from the battles on the continent. But just as the continent has its war-displaced refugees, so too does England have its own refugees, not just the foreigners it shelters but the victims of commercialism like Crosby Hall in its original site. The point, then, is that things are not safe, since anything or anyone can be displaced. Culture, though, at least through its correlate, education, may be the best bulwark against the chaos of displacement. This too James emphasizes through the choice of the word "edified." if we read it now in its more common sense of "instructed," for it is through edification that the Belgian refugees can receive whatever sense of security is now possible to them. While post-war Modernist classics such as Ulysses and The Cantos sought to rebuild the modern world after the chaos and destruction of World War I. and James agrees that culture is the one defence against chaos, his play on re-edification is a reminder that a reconstruction is never perfectly solid and unthreatened.” (Pierre A. Walker, 1999, Introduction, in: Henry James on Culture, p.xxv).
And in 1915 that very grand place formed “the headquarters of the Chelsea circle of hospitality to the exiled, the broken, and the bewildered; and if I may speak of having taken home the lesson of their state and the sense of their story, it is by meeting them in the finest club conditions conceivable that I have been able to do so.”
“This exhibition of our splendid local resource has rested, of course, on a multitude of other resources, still local, but of a more intimate hospitality, little by little worked out and applied, and into the details of which I may not here pretend to go beyond noting that they have been accountable for the large housed and fed and clothed and generally protected and administered numbers, all provided for in Chelsea and its outer fringe, on which our scheme of sociability at Crosby Hall itself has up to now been able to draw. To have seen this scheme so long in operation has been to find it suggest many reflections, all of the most poignant and moving order; the foremost of which has, perhaps, had for its subject that never before can the wanton hand of history have descended upon a group of communities less expectant of public violence from without or less prepared for it and attuned to it.”
James then continues on the “scores and scores of thousands […]testimony to suffering, dismay, and despoilment” and that it is “because we have responded in this degree to the call unprecedented that we are, in common with a vast number of organisations scattered through these islands, qualified to claim that no small part of the inspiration to our enormous act of welcome resides in the moral interest it yields […] truly representing the exquisite in the horrible.”
Mainly in Chelsea did Henry James become involved with the Belgian community in exile there. He made no distinction between civilian refugees and wounded, convalescent soldiers, the latter “reminiscent of the bedside comfort provided by Walt Whitman to soldiers during the American Civil War” (Eric L. Haralson and Kendall Johnson, 2009 , Critical Companion to Henry James: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work, p.13).
“The strong young man (no young men are familiarly stronger,) mutilated, amputated, dismembered in penalty for their defence of their soil against the horde, and now engaged at Crosby Hall in the making of handloom socks, to whom I pay an occasional visit — much more for my own cheer, I apprehend, than for theirs — express so in their honest concentration under difficulties the actual and general value of their people that just to be in their presence is a blest renewal of faith.”The diverse otherlingual situation of the Belgians in Britain did not hinder James much as he was able to “offer verbal solace to the French-speaking Belgians and expressive sympathy to the Flemish-speaking Belgians, a virtual nation of strangers in a strange land to whom his heart went out in identifying sympathy” (Fred Kaplan, 2013, Henry James: The Imagination of Genius, A Biography, np).
In an essay on Henry James, Virginia Woolf posited that Henry James was very qualified to relate to the outbreak of war.
“For years he had been appreciating ever more and more finely what he calls “the rare, the sole, the exquisite England”: he had relished her discriminatingly as only the alien, bred to different sounds and sights and circumstances, could relish others so distinct and so delightful in their distinctness. Knowing so well what she had given him, he was the more tenderly and scrupulously grateful to her for the very reason that she seemed to him to bestow her gifts half in ignorance of their value. Thus when the news came that England was in danger he wandered in the August sunshine half overwhelmed with the vastness of what had happened, reckoning up his debt, conscious to the verge of agony of the extent to which he had committed his own happiness to her, and analysing incessantly and acutely just what it all meant to the world and to him. [...] Read, for instance, the scene of the arrival of the Belgian refugees by night at Rye, which we will not curtail and thus rob of its completeness. It is precisely the same little scene of refugees hurrying by in silence, save for the cry of a woman carrying her child, which, in its thousand varieties, a thousand pens have depicted during the past four years […] with the scene painted for us by Henry James might perhaps be credited to his training as a novelist. But […] we cannot help feeling that if all philanthropies had such advocates our pockets would never be anything but empty.” (Virginia Woolf, 1919, Henry James: 1. Within the Rim).