(C. W. Furse, 1898. Collection unknown; photograph © National Portrait Gallery, London)
She was, according to Henry James, “the minutest scrap of a little delicate black Celt that ever was – full of humour & humanity & curiosity & interrogation – too much interrogation”. In 1906 Fanny Prothero, 52, and her husband George Prothero, 58, the historian and editor of the Quarterly Review, took a weekend cottage in Rye in Sussex, close to where Henry James (63) lived in Lamb House. Although only part-time residents, both Protheros soon became part of James’s trusted innermost circle of friends there. However, it was with Fanny that he could talk most openly.
“James did like a yarn”, as the Irish writer John Banville wrote recently in the TLS. “He was fortunate in having a large number of female friends who were lively, clever and inquisitive observers of the comédie humaine. It was mainly from these sharp-eyed and sharp-eared women, and most often at the dinner table, that he had many of the instances and ideas for stories that he recorded in his notebooks.” Sharp-eyed and sharp-eared as she was, Fanny Prothero was also excellent company. Over the next ten years James would write over a hundred letters to her, warmly addressing her as “Dearest Fanny” or “Best of Friends!” In 1912 he looked forward to inviting her to his new flat in Chelsea for tea “and perhaps another opium pill at (say) 4.30. Then there will be such tales to tell!”
Fanny was born Mary Francis Butcher in 1854, and grew up in County Meath, where her father was a Church of Ireland Bishop. Both of her brothers attended Trinity College in Cambridge and Fanny herself settled there in 1882 after her marriage to Prothero, a fellow of King’s College. (Caroline Jebb, who always denied being a matchmaker, was delighted to have introduced them). Fanny became good friends with Ida Darwin and in 1890 they were both invited to join the select discussion group, the Ladies’ Dining Society. In its early days at least, the group had strict rules about sticking to the set topic of the evening – champagne and personal conversations were forbidden – an approach that suited some more than others. “Fanny Prothero never really liked it,” the group’s organizer Louise Creighton recalled, ‘she at that time always wanted intimate talk with one person.”
Talking intimately was something that Fanny did very well, with both men and women. Horace Darwin, recovering from illness in 1889, told his sister Henrietta that “I honour a few ladies by allowing them to come and see me, the sprightly and vivacious Mrs Prothero and the gentle, charming and refined Mrs Sidgwick”. Fanny kept up her energetic nature well into her sixties, and when she became friends with Henry James she was useful to him in all sorts of practical ways – helping him to sort out furnishings for his London flat, finding him a reliable cook and popping into the kitchen at Lamb House to sit with her feet on a chair, chatting to his servants. “It was her way of keeping an eye on them,” James’s biographer Leon Edel writes – it seems likely that it was also because she was so interested in other people. She was as good at listening as she was at talking, although in 1913 Henry James confessed to his sister-in-law that Fanny’s vivid interest in what he was saying occasionally irritated him.
She has a tiresome little Irish habit (it gives at last on one’s nerves) of putting all her responses (equally), at first, in the form of interrogative surprise, so that one at first thinks one must repeat and insist on what one has said… It is her only vice!
When the First World War broke out in August 1914, both Henry James and Fanny (now Lady Prothero) threw themselves into charitable work for Belgian refugees and visiting wounded soldiers in hospital. By now, though, he was increasingly struck down by bouts of poor health, and Fanny became his devoted nurse. “She is as wonderful as ever in her indefatigability,” a grateful James told his niece Peggy on 1st December 1915. It was the last letter that he would ever write. The next morning, as he was dressing, his legs gave way beneath him and he fell to the floor. Although the doctor described it as a minor stroke, it seems that James had a premonition that his death was imminent. Later that day, he told Fanny that as he fell, he heard a voice distinctly say, “So here it is at last, the distinguished thing!” He knew that she would want to hear all about it: it was quite a tale to tell.
Ann Kennedy Smith, May 2018 (all rights reserved)
Sources: I am delighted that my entry on ‘ The Ladies Dining Society’ is now included in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (May 2018 update).
Henry James letters: Dear munificent friends: Henry James’s letters to four women, ed. Susan E. Gunter (1999) 192, 228, 193; Horace Darwin, Cambridge University Library archives, Add. 9368.1.5204; Leon Edel, Henry James, A Life (1987); “So here it is at last…” Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance (1934)