Going off in a million different directions – but sticking with The Master

September 28, 2012 at 3:38 pm (Book review, books, California, Italy)

If I don’t simply sit down and start writing, I’ll never get back to it. So, here goes:

Ron and I have just returned from California. More specifically, we were in the South Bay Area, aka Silicon Valley as it is now known. I loved it last year, and loved it twice as much this year. It is an utterly magical place. My head is still swimming with visions of seals and sea lions, majestic redwoods, and Stanford’s spectacularly beautiful campus. More to come on this journey, which now seems to me to have been momentous for several reasons.

Meanwhile, I find myself entangled, at least to some degree, in three different book clubs. I’m making it a rule simply to opt out if I really don’t want to read the selection – or if the date’s not good for me – or whatever. The only time I require myself to attend is if I’m involved in presenting. (Big of me, isn’t it?)

And speaking of books, the reading I brought with me had nothing to do with California. Let me provide a bit of background to explain my seemingly eccentric choice of reading matter.

Several weeks ago, I read a review of a book that I knew, beyond question, I wanted to read:  .  I immediately realized that it made no sense to do so, however, without first revisiting  its subject, a novel I read many years ago, in my English major days. And so I obtained a copy of Portrait of a Lady from the library. They carry the Penguin Classics edition, with its arresting cover featuring a detail from John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler:  .

I have seen this painting; it hangs in one of my favorite places, the Smithsonian American Art Museum: . Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler – slightly imperious, even more mysterious –  became, in my mind, the image of James’s heroine, Isabel Archer.

I finished Portrait of a Lady last night at 3 AM. Reading it at times felt like a massive undertaking, but the rewards were commensurate with the effort. The pacing is at once stately and urgent, a seemingly impossible narrative coup on the part of the artful Henry James. It keeps the reader glued to the page – at least, it did so with this reader.

Meanwhile, I had almost forgotten how reverent, how brilliant, a great novel can be. Isabel Archer is so very alive for me at this moment.  Another thing I’d forgotten was open-ended nature of the novel’s concluding paragraphs. For Isabel, almost nothing concerning her relations with Gilbert Osmond has been resolved.  Why has she determined, in the teeth of a profound crisis, to embark on a seemingly perverse course of action? What is to become of her?

One of the few things I remembered from my long-ago first reading of the book is Henrietta Stackpole’s ringing declaration, in the novel’s penultimate paragraph: “‘Look here, Mr. Goodwood,…just you wait!'”

One of the many joys of Portrait of a Lady is the strongly evocative nature of  some of the descriptive passages. In this one, Isabel, Henrietta, and several others are exploring Rome:

The  herd of reechoing tourists had departed and most of the solemn places had relapsed into solemnity. The sky was a blaze of blue, and the plash of the fountains in their mossy niches had lost its chill and doubled its music. On the corners of the warm, bright streets one stumbled on bundles of flowers. Our friends had gone one afternoon – it was the third of their stay – to look at the latest excavations in the Forum, these labours having been for some time previous largely extended. They had descended from the modern street to the level of the Sacred Way, along which they wandered with a reverence of step which was not the same on the part of each. Henrietta Stackpole was  struck with the fact that ancient Rome had been paved a good deal like New York, and even found an analogy between the deep chariot-ruts traceable in the antique street and the overjangled iron grooves which express the intensity of American life. The sun had begun to sink, the air was a golden haze, and the long shadows of broken column and vague pedestal leaned across the field of ruin.

Two thousand year old ruts made by chariot wheels, broken columns casting their shadows courtesy of the brightness of the sun, the intense blue of the sky….I remember it all from my last visit to Rome, more than forty years ago. It came back to me as though it had been yesterday, and the longing to be there along with it. (My journey to Italy three years ago, wonderful as it was, did not include a stop at the Eternal City.)

And as for Henrietta Stackpole: what a pleasure it was, after so many years, once again to spend time on her company! She’s a wonderful, down to earth, straightforward person, utterly immune to the affectations of languid aesthetes like Gilbert Osmond. She is unmistakably a woman of the future, and she is also a fast and immoveable friend to Isabel Archer. The two women have vastly different personalities, yet in the ways and at the moments that matter the most, each is for the other a tower of strength. (The need is invariaby more urgent on Isabel’s side.)


  1. kdwisni said,

    Roberta, you’ve just caused me to add Portrait of a Lady to my Kindle library so I can have it for MY next trip. There’s something about the masters that is so comforting when traveling. For me, that usually means one of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels, but he’s not quite in the same league with James.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Kay, I too am a fan of the Barchester series, though I read it some time ago.

  2. Angie Boyter said,

    Adding on to Kay’s comment, why didn’t you just put it o your e-reader? It’s free, after all! (And the library can lend its copy to someone without an e-reader)>

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Well, Angie, I guess I still enjoy reading hard copies of novels, especially when they’re beautifully packaged, as the Penguin Classics invariably are. This trade paperback edition weighs very little & takes up very little space in one’s carry on luggage. In addition, it has lots of valuable material in the form of an annotated bibliography & an exceptionally lucid introduction. (The library system owns nineteen copies of this edition of Portrait of a Lady.)

      As it happens, I’m now the proud owner of an iPad, a gift from my brother who currently works at Apple. We’ll see what happens when I start loading it with reading matter!

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