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On ‘The Portrait of a Lady’

With some books, the reading of them leaves an impression as vivid as their contents. I first read The Portrait of a Lady as a young man of twenty-three in New York City, in the very World’s Classics edition which I am invited, forty-three years later, to introduce. Back then, because the book was physically small, and James one of the great names of literature that my formal education had but nominally included, I would slip the handy volume, with its pleasingly severe blue cover, in my coat pocket before leaving the modest, triangular apartment I shared with my wife and infant daughter on Riverside Drive near 85th Street; I would walk over to Broadway, catch the subway at 86th Street, and stare into the closely printed pages for the seven stops and twenty minutes it took to arrive at Times Square. And so, in reverse, on the way back.

During those rush hours I usually had to stand, swaying, jostled, gripping a porcelain loop while I buried my head, ostrichlike, in the accreting sands of James’s tale as it made its leisurely way from England to Paris to Florence and Rome and back to England, to betranced and lovely Gardencourt, the home of successive invalids. There was a certain swank, it certainly occurred to the vain youth I was, in dulling the indignities of my twice-daily passage with a fiction so refined, so aloof in its voice and milieux from the underground congestion of the American metropolis. But the method of such short, distracted doses may, possibly, have weakened my overall impression of the book, for most of what I remembered was the tea party at the beginning and the kiss like lightning at the end.

In preparation for this present task of introduction, I took the same nostalgic volume with me to China, where, on the all but endless trans-Pacific flight and in brief bedtime snatches at the weary end of many a sightseeing day, I made my way through it again, conscientiously. The sense of conscientiousness recurred, without, this second time around, a young man’s exultant confidence of a practically infinite life ahead of him, with time in which to read and write any number of books. Instead, a much older man took a certain sour comfort in the likelihood that he would not be setting himself to read this particular masterpiece a third time. Again, the circumstances of the reading may have been un-ideal. The novel’s beginning felt unnecessarily arch and the ending unnecessarily frustrating. Between beginning and end, of course, there was marvelous writing, as James lovingly drew the filaments of his rather thin and Gothic tale into momentary marvels of witty metaphor and daintily particular sensation:

It was not that his spirits were visibly high—he would never, in the concert of pleasure, touch the big drum by so much as a knuckle.

Time had breathed upon his heart and, without chilling it, given it a relieved sense of having taken the air.

To cease utterly, to give it all up and not know anything more—this idea was as sweet as the vision of a cool bath in a marble tank, in a darkened chamber, in a hot land.

James does not begrudge Gilbert Osmond, otherwise deprived of sympathetic features, the author’s own gift for adroit simile: Osmond, taking a perverse liking to Caspar Goodwood, imagines marriage to him as “like living under some tall belfry which would strike all the hours” and, extending the trope, says that to have conversation with him “you had to climb up an interminable steep staircase, up to the top of the tower; but when you got there you had a big view and felt a little fresh breeze.”

In the years 1880-1881, when James was composing The Portrait of a Lady, supplying monthly installments simultaneously to Boston’s Atlantic Monthly and London’s Macmillan’s Magazine, he turned thirty-eight and enjoyed his sixth consecutive year of residence abroad. After attempts, in the 1870s, to live in New England and New York, he settled in the Old World, with London as his base and Paris and Italy as his spas for spiritual refreshment. Portrait is not only his longest and most variously populated novel up to this time but his most geographically expansive; no mere snapshot acquaintance deepens the brilliant verbs in these swift watercolors of Rome’s most visited sites:

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.

…The first time she found herself beneath the far-arching dome [of St. Peter’s] and saw the light drizzle down through the air thickened with incense and with the reflections of marble and gilt, of mosaic and bronze, her conception of greatness rose and dizzily rose.

We are seeing the light drizzle and the shadows lean through the eyes of Isabel Archer, the epitome of the young American female, a figure to whom James had given some celebrity in his short novel Daisy Miller, of 1878. Daisy, “an inscrutable combination of audacity and innocence,” dies young, as had James’s loved cousin, Minnie Temple. Minnie had died helplessly of tuberculosis, and Daisy of a recklessly courted malaria; Isabel is reckless in another regard, marring with an ill choice what looks to be a long life. Recast as Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove, one of the three ample novels with which James rounded out his career, the pliant wraith of Minnie Temple both dies and is betrayed by a female friend, who shares with Isabel’s friend an ornithological name of sinister hue: Croy/crow and Merle/”blackbird.”

When Minnie Temple died at the age of twenty-four, James was not quite twenty-seven; he wrote to his brother William, “She represented, in a manner, in my life several of the elements or phases of life at large—her own sex, to begin with, but even more Youth, with which, owing to my invalidism, I always felt in rather indi-rect relation.” “Twenty years hence,” he wrote his mother, “what a pure eloquent vision she will be.” And in memoirs composed late in life he recalled her as “the very figure and image of a felt interest in life…the supreme case of a taste for life as life, as personal living, of an endlessly active and yet somehow a careless, an illusionless, a sublimely forewarned curiosity about it.”

Graham Greene, in his unsurpassable introduction to the Oxford edition that I read in that subway of long ago, does eloquent justice to the large sentimental intention that underlies the portrait of Isabel Archer.

When we remember how patiently and faithfully throughout his life he drew the portrait of one young woman who died, one wonders whether it was just simply a death that opened his eyes to the inherent disappointment of existence, the betrayal of hope.

It remains for me to wonder how fully James realized his wish to embody something as abstract and glamorous as “a taste for life as life” within the lineaments of this particular heroine. She comes clear visually—“undeniably spare, and ponderably light, and proveably tall…. Her hair, which was dark even to blackness, had been an object of envy to many women; her light grey eyes, a little too firm perhaps in her graver moments, had an enchanting range of concession”—but this promising outline does not effortlessly fill in. As the installments of Portrait arrived at The Atlantic Monthly, William Dean Howells, its editor and an invaluable champion of James, suggested that Isabel was being overanalyzed; James replied that he “intended to make a young woman about whom there should be a great deal to tell and as to whom such telling should be interesting.”

But in truth we are assured of Isabel’s superb qualities more than we are permitted to see her demonstrate them. Her life abroad is one of reaction, usually negative; there remains something comically schematic in the ready way in which two suitors, each a paragon in his fashion, press marriage upon her, and a third admirer, handicapped by his own fragile health, must content himself with brooding upon her image and arranging that she inherit a fortune. Though James assures us that “her imagination was…ridiculously active,” the Countess Gemini late in the novel has occasion to marvel, to Isabel’s face, at all “the things, all round you, that you’ve appeared to succeed in not knowing.” The Countess, Madame Merle, Mrs. Touchett, and even the broadly brushed Henrietta Stackpole (not to mention Catherine Sloper, the touchingly lumpish and limited heroine of James’s preceding novel, Washington Square) outdo Isabel in palpable vitality. It is not until the later stages of Portrait, as dark revelations gather, that she acquires an edged voice, a speaking personality—suggesting the surely unintended moral that a woman needs a bad marriage to become interesting.

But the plot should be left between the reader and the author. James was very proud of the shapeliness of this plot, “a structure reared with an ‘architectural’ competence, as Turgenieff would have said,” while admitting, with that disarming and intricate frankness that makes his prefaces like no other author’s, a danger of “thinness” in this “ado about Isabel Archer,” a thinness he intended to forestall with his “cultivation of the lively.” As I maneuvered, among the present hordes and ancient wonders of China, through this studied ado, I tried to picture those magazine readers of over a century ago, who, with no disciplinary incentive bred of James’s now unchallengeable status as an American classic, followed the monthly installments as they were published.

What sparked and maintained their interest? The spectacle of a young woman struggling for her soul, in a male world which heavily favors those who would dominate, exploit, and numb her, of course interests female readers and men who wish to be privy to female secrets. Jane Austen’s novels, Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and—especially present, I think, to James’s mind as an exemplar to be reckoned with—George Eliot’s Middlemarch preceded this particular “ado” over a “frail vessel.” To this day females write fiction and read it with what seems greater facility than men, as if their more sensitive and “relational” natures find its reports more urgent. James’s insight into femininity—into his own feminine side, it might be said—and his mature preference for female protagonists conjure up few American parallels; one thinks of Hawthorne in a few soaring passages and of a writer in point of refinement and social settings far removed from James, Theodore Dreiser. The readers of The Atlantic Monthly of the early 1880s would have recognized human truth, I imagine, in this sentence concerning two old lovers:

They stood there knowing each other well and each on the whole willing to accept the satisfaction of knowing as a compensation for the inconvenience—whatever it might be—of being known.

Those readers, too, would have been flattered by their entry, via James’s early novels, into the exotic and rarefied world of Americans living, more or less richly, in Europe. “There’s nothing for a gentleman in America,” says little Ned Rosier, one of the set of Parisian Americans whose portrait is surprisingly acid, for James was after all one of these expatriates, and exploration of their corruptible innocence was his stock in trade. Though Henry James, Senior, had traded in his Scots Presbyterianism for the more expansive doctrines of Swedenborg, and his son Henry was less orthodox still, there is something of the lost and damned about these escapees from their vast young land, what Isabel calls “the great country stretching away beyond the rivers and across the prairies, blooming and smiling and spreading till it stops at the green Pacific!” In their exile they don’t do anything, by and large, except live on inherited money, and to a hard-working professional like Henry James this was something of a scandal. The villains of his “ado” here, Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle, are both failed artists, he a watercolorist and she a pianist of considerable but unmarketable accomplishment, both subsisting bitterly on barely adequate incomes amid the borrowed elegancies of European culture.

There was a mercenary reason for the humming expatriate colonies that the United States established in Europe: the Gilded Age dollar went farther here than at home, and a life of some luxury could be afforded by those who might find, as did the young Henry James in 1875, New York City too expensive. Money is what the tall vaults of James’s novels, with their portentous intimate betrayals and conspiracies cloaked in the velvet language of politeness, rest upon. His grand tone veils an ignoble scramble for money among people incapable of earning any. The bare facts glint through, now and then; beneath the exquisite frescoes that James executed on European models lies a coat of plain Puritan whitewash.

The attenuation of James’s expatriate scene, with its glamour like that of a threadbare theater company, manifests itself as comedy. The comedy of names, for instance: a century before “wood” became known as porn-film slang for an erection, James coined Caspar Goodwood for the personification of “hard manhood,” whose “stiff insistence” Isabel flees from even as it obscurely delights her. Is there a funnier line in the annals of courtship than Lord Warburton’s expressed fear that it is not he she finds unacceptable but his castle: “Some people don’t like a moat, you know”? This demur finds echo, in its startling concreteness, much later when to the rejected lord Isabel upholds her husband by affirming, “He has a genius for upholstery.” James, too, had a genius for upholstery, which leads us to forget the underlying spareness of his stories. There is no ignoring, however, the abrupt and unsatisfactory ending in which the heroine is, as Greene said, “deserted even by her creator,” a creator who has so meticulously supplied her with all the tools and supplies she needs to make her escape.

The last paragraph is a study in deflation, each clause of which leads us and the faithful Mr. Goodwood lower into hopelessness.

On which he looked up at her—but only to guess, from her face, with a revulsion, that she simply meant he was young. She stood shining at him with that cheap comfort, and it added, on the spot, thirty years to his life. She walked him away with her, however, as if she had given him now the key to patience.

Its elaborations were grafted, in the course of James’s revisions for the New York Edition (1908), upon a concluding sentence (in the Houghton Mifflin edition of 1881) of singular starkness: “On which he looked up at her.” Stark, but with an implication of action in its rhythm. His kiss of a page before was elaborated, for the New York Edition, into intimations of enduring penetration—intimations then deliberately dashed. Sex existed for James mostly as a rumor, a hidden center of ado, and some impatience attends his treatment of it. Age strengthened in him his propensity, whether born of rueful observation or submerged animus, to let his most appealing female characters—Isabel, Kate Croy, Charlotte Stant, Madame de Cintré in The American, Madame de Vionnet in The Ambassadors—stew, as it were, in their own juices.

The reader, then—a subscriber to an 1880s magazine or to a 1990s tour of China—runs the risk of clipped wings and dashed hopes in submitting to the endlessly productive but resolutely pessimistic sensibility of Henry James. His sense of life comes down to denial and limitation. His 1908 preface states:

The question comes back thus, obviously, to the kind and the degree of the artist’s prime sensibility, which is the soil out of which his subject springs. The quality and capacity of that soil, its ability to “grow” with due freshness and straightness any vision of life, represents, strongly or weakly, the projected morality.

In locating the morality of art with such narrow squareness upon its creator’s sensibility, rather than upon any corroborating interchange with an audience’s social needs and expectations, James sounded, with superb intelligence, the clarion note of modern art. The creator owes his public nothing but himself (or herself, needless to say). If the finished designs, in James’s case, seem somewhat vengefully claustral, the designer’s ease, the joy and pride felt in each phrase of the fashioning, make a liberating air still delicious to breathe. No other American novelist thought so well of his craft, or thought so well on it, or gave the novelist at large such a generous mandate.

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