A Visit to St. James Place

James D. Wallace, Boston College


The problem with being an Americanist is that you don't have many excuses for traveling abroad, but during a recent trip to England, I decided to try looking for traces of James Fenimore Cooper's stay there. In 1828 Cooper spent three months in England, chiefly to conduct business with his British publisher, Richard Bentley, and for most of that time he lived in London at 33 St. James Place. This is the way he described it in Gleanings in Europe: England:
 

We finally took a small house in St. James's Place, a narrow inlet that communicates with the street of the same name, and which is quite near the palace and the parks. We had a tiny drawing-room, quite plainly furnished, a dining-room, and three bed-rooms, with the use of the offices, &c. for a guinea a-day. The people of the house cooked for us, went to market, and attended to the rooms, while our own man and maid did the personal service. I paid a shilling extra for each fire, and as we kept three, it came to another guinea weekly. (20)
As Donald Ringe and Kenneth Skaggs point out in their "Historical Introduction" to England, St. James Place represented "a most desirable location" (xvii). It is close to the centers of political power in England--St. James Palace, Buckingham Palace, and #10 Downing Street are not far away. Cooper's neighbors on the street included William Wilberforce and Samuel Rogers, a genial and well-connected writer; Lord Spencer and Sir James Mackintosh lived nearby as well.

The 33 St. James Place of Cooper's time no longer exists, but I wanted to visit the site anyway, to try to get a feel for what it meant for him to live there. If you walk from Trafalger Square to St. James Street, you can go along The Mall or Pall Mall, wide streets flanked by the gigantic architecture of Imperial Britain. St. James Place opens across St. James Street from the Pall Mall; Christie's, the famous auction house, is on the corner opposite. At the south end of St. James Street stands St. James Palace, an imposing brick castle with two crenelated towers, two red-coated palace guards, and scores of foreigners with video cameras.

St. James Place, by contrast with all this grandeur, seems small and intimate. It is still a narrow inlet, an L-shaped dead end scarcely wide enough for automobile traffic. The sense of a quiet retreat from the city is very strong, especially in late July, when I was making my visit and London was swarmed under by tourists. No one bothered to come here.

33 St. James Place is now a modern apartment building, but you can see the character the street must have had in Cooper's time by the 5-story Georgian townhouses across the street, solid urban housing. Nothing marks Cooper's short residence, which was neither long enough nor important enough to interest more than a handful of people, but there are plaques commemorating other famous residents of the street. One at #28 reads,

William Huskisson
1770-1830
STATESMAN
lived here.
Huskisson was a contemporary of Cooper's, best known for his advocacy of free trade and his liberal Toryism, but Cooper, who thought of free trade as "bottomed on a complete fallacy" (England, 129), considered him a hypocrite. In January of 1828, shortly before leaving Paris, Cooper had meditated in a letter to Charles Wilkes on the perfidy of politicians everywhere: "Culpable and inconsistent as our own politicians are, they are still more respectable than those we meet here. In England, during the last twelve months, the Duke of Clarence, the Duke of Wellington, and Mr. Huskison [sic], Canning, etc., have been both lauded and lampooned in the same papers with a barefacedness that is astonishing" (Letters and Journals I, 243). He doesn't mention ever meeting Huskisson in England, but he does take another swipe at Huskisson's integrity: "I hold it to be a pretty safe rule that the man who is jesuitical on any one fact, is to be distrusted on all others. That Mr. Huskisson is self-contradicted and insincere in his Free Trade doctrines, is as obvious as any moral truth I know" (290).

Cooper may have despised Huskisson, but he would have appreciated a much later denizen of the street. This is the plaque posted at #9 St. James Place, the door directly across from #33:
 

Pioneer aviator, Sailor and Author,
Sir Francis Chichester KBE
1901-1970
singled-handed circumnavigator of the World
1966-67
lived here 1944-1972.
Chichester's The Lonely Sea and the Sky (1964) represents as well as any other twentieth-century text the way Cooper liked to think of himself: a literate salt, Long Tom Coffin as the author of his own story, the fiercely independent sailor whose life and book are a gentle but firm rebuke to the flabbiness of modern life. The spirit of Leatherstocking may have fled from Templeton, as Home As Found laments, but it is still possible for human beings to generate the romance and live the adventure that he represents, and Chichester has reminded us of that.

A few doors down at #4 another plaque testifies to a still closer affinity:

From this house in 1848 Frederic Chopin 1810-1849 went to Guildhall to give his last public performance.
Though this was well after Cooper's residence, the themes of romantic individualism of that marked Chopin's life and work accord well with Cooper's own. Moreover, political forces generated by the Polish rebellion had thrown the two men into the same circles. At this last concert on 16 November 1848, nearing the end of his long struggle with tuberculosis, in a final patriotic gesture, Chopin played for the benefit of Polish refugees, a cause to which Cooper also had devoted considerable energy. In 1831 he had organized an "American Polish Committee," and his home in Paris served as a kind of focus of Polish republican activity. As Nathaniel P. Willis recalled,
Mr. Cooper's house . . . was, at that time, the "hospice de St. Bernard" of the Polish refugees, and, as the nucleus of republican sympathies in the great capital, his intimacy with Lafayette, personal reasons aside, was necessarily very close and confidential. At his daily breakfast table, open to all friends and comers-in, (and supplied, we remember, for hour after hour of every day with hot buckwheat cakes, which were probably eaten nowhere else on that side the water,) many a distinguished but impoverished Polish refugee ate his only meal for the twenty-four hours, and, to the same hospitable house, came all who were interested in the great principle of that struggle, distinguished men of many nations among them. (210-11)
According to James Grossman, Susan Cooper had "danced once in a great Parisian house to waltzes played by Chopin and Liszt while the hired musicians were at supper" (247). The coincidence of these two men having dwelt, however briefly, in this unassuming street is one of those historical poignancies that gladden the traveler's heart--at least, this traveler's heart.

I left St. James Place well satisfied with my visit. True, there were no statues, no plaques, no James Fenimore Cooper museums where one could view the great man's writing desk and fire bucket. Yet the quiet little street, even in its indifference to Cooper's passing through, seemed better to harbor the spirit of his life than all the Leatherstocking Restaurants and Mohican movies of our much more commercial memory.


Works Cited

Cooper, James Fenimore, Gleanings in Europe: England, ed. Donald A. Ringe et al. (Albany: SUNY Press, 1982).
______ Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, ed. James Franklin Beard (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1960-68).
Grossman, James. James Fenimore Cooper: A Biographical and Critical Study (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1949).
Willis, Nathaniel P. "Fennimore [sic] Cooper," in Hurry-graphs; or, Sketches of Scenery, Celebrities and Society (New York: Charles Scribner, 1851).