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Henry James's southern France tour

A Little Tour in France, by Henry James. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 256 pp. $20. Henry James set off on his ``Little Tour in France'' in 1882, to explore the country beyond Paris. Heading south through Tours, James circled through Nantes, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Carcassonne, Vaucluse, and other towns and cities, observing ch^ateaux, Roman ruins, and scenery, and concluding his journey at Dijon.

As James makes clear in his preface, his interest was mainly visual, his aim as a traveler to see France closely, and as a guide to enable us to see what he saw. Though in his observations he is reflective (it is impossible to imagine James otherwise), his text is largely descriptive. Indeed, he says of his ``impressions'' that ``if the written word may ever play the part of brush or pencil, they are sketches on `drawing-paper.'''

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In keeping with his pictorial intent, James originally hoped his text would be accompanied by a series of drawings. Although the first edition, in 1884, was unillustrated, a 1900 edition included 94 watercolors by the American artist Joseph Pennell.

Weidenfeld & Nicolson's new edition carries the visual conception a good deal further: In addition to Pennell's watercolors, it includes drawings by the French illustrator Dechemant; town plans taken from 19th-century Baedeckers; and numerous full-page color reproductions, mainly of French landscapes by Monet, Renoir, Corot, Turner, Bazille, and other artists.

This new edition is beautiful. In a sense, it is almost too beautiful: The book is too cumbersome - and really too fine - to carry about as the guide it is. But how can one carp about too much beauty? This exquisite ``Little Tour'' does justice to the text in showing how a country is revealed when its surface is vividly rendered.

Gail Pool reviews travel books for the Monitor.

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