Henry James’s Fort Chester

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Part of the city wall at Chester, England. (treasuredays.com)

At the outset of his novel The Ambassadors, Henry James describes a couple meandering through Chester, England, once a Roman town, near today’s industrial city of Liverpool. His description evokes the subtleties of living architecture as well as I have ever seen it expressed. Not long ago I blogged passages from The Princess Casamassima. There is a book that compiles the best of James’s writing about cities – mostly from his novels, I suppose. I will not rest until I find that book, and when I find it I will be able, when the muse is on strike, to fill a quick post with a dear passage. Like this one:

The tortuous wall – girdle, long since snapped, of the little swollen city, half held in place by careful civic hands – wanders in narrow file between parapets smoothed by peaceful generations, pausing here and there for a dismantled gate or a bridged gap, with rises and drops, steps up and steps down, queer twists, queer contacts, peeps into homely streets and under the brows of gables, views of cathedral towers and waterside fields, of huddled English town and ordered English country. Too deep almost for words was the delight of these things to Strether.

In English Hours, which James wrote, according to a note at the rear of The Ambassadors, in 1905, he further adumbrates the joys of “the tortuous wall”:

The civic consciousness, sunning itself thus on the city’s rim and glancing at the little swarming towered and gabled city within, and then at the blue undulations of the near Welsh border, may easily deepen to delicious complacency.

Ahhh!

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Central Chester (ytimg

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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2 Responses to Henry James’s Fort Chester

  1. I honeymooned in Quebec City, Karen, and it is indeed an incredible city. Nothing like it in America. Montreal’s more like Boston, I think, and I have not been to any of the other Canadian cities you mention. I wonder whether its biggest cities, Toronto or Vancouver, with their extensive modernist skyscrapers, have any of the amenities you found in Ottawa, Calgary and Banff. At least Providence retains its great potential, if only its leaders will stop drinking that modernist Kool Aid! (Readers should know that Karen has a very long association with the Providence Preservation Society.)

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  2. Karen Jessup says:

    I especially relate to Henry James’ comment about “civic consciousness.” Having recently returned from Quebec, I remain impressed by the pride of place – civic consciousness – of the Canadian cities we visited. Ultra clean, tidy, friendly, devoid of graffiti, incredible public art, carefully cared for historic architecture as well as terrific new buildings, and heavily visited and beautifully maintained public parks. Historic landscapes respected for their cultural values and new public spaces and green environments thoughtfully incorporated into the urban fabric. Respect for a diversity of the human and physical environment. I’ve seen this civic consciousness in Ottawa, Calgary, Banff, and other Canadian cities. I’ve also traveled extensively in urban America and wonder why our cities, including Providence, lack many of these contributors to a vibrant quality of life. Even so, I remain ever hopeful. Providence has such gifts which we seem to squander.

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