By Charles Winecoff
Updated April 02, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

At the heart of this account of Henry James’ relationships with two very different women — his spirited cousin Minny Temple and suicidal novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson — is the haunting image of a middle-aged James attempting to ”drown” the late Woolson’s dresses in a Venetian lagoon. The heavy garments ballooned up, refusing to vanish. Likewise, these intense women became the blueprints for James’ enduring fictional heroines, including Daisy Miller, The Portrait of a Lady’s Isabel Archer, and The Wings of the Dove‘s Milly Theale. In A Private Life of Henry James: Two Women and His Art, Gordon evokes the muses well, especially the moody Woolson, but her James remains sketchy, elusive, and not entirely likable. B