The Portrait of a Lady, and Portrait of a Novel: Henry James, twice over

October 28, 2012 at 6:36 pm (Book review, books)


First, I read The Portrait of a Lady – or rather reread it, for the first time in decades. Then I read Portrait of a Novel by Michael Gorra. Subtitled “Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece,’ this book is a consummate work of literary criticism, at once cogently argued, extensively researched, and beautifully written. Gorra, a professor of English language and literature ant Smith College, has  done something miraculous here, producing a deeply scholarly volume that is also immensely readable. I am in awe of this achievement!

Over the years, I’ve read the occasional short story by Henry James. (In particular, my review of Dark Water sent me to an early tale called “The Madonna of the Future.”) And I’ve revisited The Turn of the Screw several times; I have been haunted by that disturbing tale for most of my adult life. But I was afraid to tackle one of  the full length works, fearing that I simply would not be up to the task.

So it was with some trepidation that I picked up Portrait of a Lady. In the event, though, I need not have worried. I was captivated right from the very beginning:

Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.

From this graceful, seemingly innocuous beginning, characters crowd onto the canvas, fateful decisions are made, and above all, we meet Isabel Archer, the young orphan from Albany, New York. Oh the twists and turns her story will take…. It seems to me that much of the power of Portrait of a Lady turns largely on the question of fate. To what degree can we control it? It is indeed the age-old desire to dominate one’s own destiny that is the primay driving force of the novel.

At one point, Isabel asks a question of her aunt, Mrs. Touchett. This rather cold and remote person has spirited Isabel off to England as part of the process of  “taking her up.” (People are always ‘taking up’ other people in the fiction of Henry James. I think this is partly, due to the fact that so few of these individuals actually have to earn a living; they are therefore in need of distraction and amusement. No end of mischief results from this practice.) At one point, as she is settling in, albeit tentatively and temporarily, to her new life in England, Isabel questions her aunt as to just what were “the things one shouldn’t do.” Her aunt immediately asks  if Isabel desires this knowledge so that she may do those very things. On the contrary, Isabel responds coolly; she only desires the right to choose for herself. The world is all before her so to speak, and she wants to be solely responsible for her decisions as she moves forward into that world.

To some readers – this one included – the most crucial decision made by “our young lady,” as James occasionally calls her, seems almost perverse. And the fallout from that fatal move – well, read the novel, and discover it for yourself. (And I’m thinking right now: haven’t all of us, at one point or another in our lives, made a choice that seemed all but inexplicable to others?)


I’m not sure how to write about these  two books. For one thing, they are both so festooned with post-it flags – really, I do hope I have stock in 3M! At any rate, I’m just going to start where it feels right to start – oddly enough, at a crisis point in Isabel’s life. Also, I should stipulate that I’m going to assume that you, Dear Reader, are sufficiently familiar with The Portrait of a Lady so that I don’t have to worry over much about so-called ‘spoilers.’ If not, I’ll give fair warning, starting with what now follows.

Michael Gorra focuses intensely on Portrait‘s Chapter 42, ”…a chapter that stands as one of James’s greatest achievements and a turning point in the history of the novel.” It’s  a large claim, but one which Gorra effectively substantiates it by observing the way in which  “James’s work here offers a new way of presenting the interior life, a new kind of fiction….”

Here is a passage from that chapter:

…her short interview with Osmond half an hour ago was a striking example of his faculty for making everything wither that he touched, spoiling everything for her that he looked at.It was very well to undertake to give him a proof of loyalty; real fact was that the knowledge of his expecting a thing raised a presumption against it. It was as it he had the evil eye; as if his presence were a blight and his favour a misfortune. Was the fault in himself, or only in the deep mistrust she had conceived for him? This mistrust was not the clearest result of their short married life; a gulf had opened between them over which they looked at each other with eyes that were on either side a declaration of the deception suffered. It was a strange opposition, of the like of which she had never dreamed – an opposition in which the vital principle of the one was a thing of contempt to the other. It was not her fault – she had practised no deception; she had only admired and believed. She had taken all the first steps in the purest confidence, and then she had suddenly found the infinite vista of a multiplied life to be a dark, narrow alley with a dead wall at the end.

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