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Why Did Isabel Go Back?

Museo Hendrik Christian Andersen
Henry James and the sculptor Hendrik Andersen in Andersen’s studio, Rome, 1907

“Perhaps the greatest breach in nature,” wrote William James in The Principles of Psychology (1890), is “the breach from one mind to another.” He went on to describe two brothers waking up in the same bed, each reconnecting to the thoughts he had had before falling asleep. Peter may be able to conceive of Paul’s last twilight state of mind—Paul might tell him about it—but he cannot remember or feel it with any of the “warmth and intimacy and immediacy” of his own inner experience.

James called this chapter of his book “The Stream of Thought,” specifically defining consciousness as a stream rather than a chain or a train: “It does not appear to itself chopped up in bits…. It is nothing jointed; it flows…. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life.” [Italics in original]

How does thought appear to itself? Over one hundred years later, it remains as exhilarating to follow William James’s forthright march into a new “science of mind” as it is to read the novels in which his brother Henry broke open the form of nineteenth-century fiction to portray his characters’ interior experience, their private streams of consciousness—beginning with The Portrait of a Lady in 1881. After Henry James, literary modernists dispensed with linear time and conventional plot, capturing the flow, drift, and tumbling associations of their characters’ minds.

That William and Henry James directed their formidable gifts to the subject of consciousness itself is perhaps not entirely surprising—although genius always is. Their father, Henry James Sr., an eccentric, independently wealthy Swedenborgian, devoted his life to his ideas—one of which was to provide his children with as free, liberal, and “sensuous” an education as he had felt his own to have been constricted and severe. By “sensuous,” he meant immersion in the arts, culture, history, foreign travel, and languages. He dragged his large troupe—five children, his wife, her sister, and a maid—back and forth across the Atlantic in search of a perfect education that existed only in his mind. They stayed nowhere long enough for the children to make real friends, and the rarefied, isolated world of the family became their whole world. William in effect described them all when he said years later that Henry was “really a native of the James family, and has no other country.”

Henry Sr. probably bequeathed to all his offspring a predisposition to depression. And though he encouraged them constantly to offer up their private perceptions and sensations for public (family) consumption, he imposed bizarre limits on what they could actually know about themselves. He defined morality according to his own anguished fight against powerful demons—“The natural inheritance of every one who is capable of spiritual life, is an unsubdued forest where the wolf howls and every obscene bird of night chatters,” he wrote—and took solace in what Swedenborg called “Divine Natural Humanity.” Yet he could not bear to think of his children having demons. He believed so ardently in their natural goodness that he denied the reality of their suffering, effectively constraining their freedom of choice.

The only right the James children did not have was the right to be unhappy, noted the critic F.W. Dupee. “Ah!” wrote Alice, the youngest child and only girl, in her diary, “those strange people who have the courage to be unhappy! Are they unhappy, by-the-way?” She spent most of her life as a “neurasthenic” invalid, tartly observing the struggle between her body (bad) and her will (good), in which “the former was to be triumphant in the end.” During one of her worst breakdowns, she asked her father whether it would be a sin to commit suicide. Not, he replied, if she did it in a perfectly gentle way so as not to distress her friends. Her brother Robertson once told William: “I am in the suburbs of hell, but not in the town.”

Henry Jr., too, suffered from multiple ailments, but did not have a full-blown depressive collapse until he was nearly seventy. He was his mother’s uncomplaining “angel”—the one she loved more than the others. When he traveled abroad in his early thirties, she reached across the Atlantic by mail, asking about his eating and sleeping habits, longing, she wrote, “to fold you in my own tenderest embrace…. Your life must need this succulent, fattening element more than you know.” She could think of only one solution to the problem she diagnosed as his languishing affections: “You would make dear Harry…the most loving and loveable and happiest of husbands. I wish I could see you in a favorable attitude of heart towards the divine institution of marriage.” She couldn’t. He didn’t.

The “sensuous” European education had its most lasting effects on the imagination of the younger Henry James. He moved to London in 1875, at age thirty-two, and wrote to his family on arriving: “I take possession of the old world—I inhale it—I appropriate it!” He stayed for the rest of his life, and made the American encounter with Europe one of his major themes. Over the next six years he published short fiction, travel pieces, essays on French and English writers, a biography of Hawthorne, and the novels Roderick Hudson, The American, The Europeans, Daisy Miller, Confidence, and Washington Square. And on a spring day in Florence, in 1880, he began to write The Portrait of a Lady—one of his greatest novels (I’d rank it in a first-place tie with The Golden Bowl), and certainly his most popular.

In his 1906 preface to the revised New York Edition of The Portrait, James wrote that the germ of his idea for the book was not a “plot” but a single character—“a certain young woman affronting her destiny,” a “mere slim shade of an intelligent but presumptuous girl”—and that he would place the center of the story in her consciousness.

He had asked himself at the outset, “Well, what will she do?” She will come to Europe. In the novel’s opening pages, Isabel Archer arrives late one summer afternoon at Gardencourt, an old country house above the Thames that belongs to her aunt and uncle. Both her parents have died, and the aunt, Mrs. Daniel Touchett, has “taken her up,” bringing her from Albany to England. Greeted by her cousin, Ralph, as she stands in the doorway of the house admiring its perfect lawns and grounds, Isabel asks him to identify two gentlemen conversing under the trees. Ralph points out his elderly father, an American banker living in England, and says that the other man is “a friend of ours—Lord Warburton.”

“Oh, I hoped there would be a lord,” exclaims Isabel: “it’s just like a novel!”

In a scant few pages James sets an incomparably lovely scene at Gardencourt, sketches the trio of men as they discuss Miss Archer’s impending arrival, draws the outlines of his tall, intelligent, imaginative girl—and induces his readers to fall in love with her as swiftly as all three men on the lawn do.

Isabel has grand if naive ideas about her independence and liberty as she sets out to inhale the old world. What she does not want to do at the start of her European adventure is have her freedom constrained by marriage. James definitively chucks the marriage plot. He has, for Isabel, something much larger in mind.

Michael Gorra, who teaches English at Smith College, had the inspired idea of writing a book about James writing this book. In his Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, Gorra interleaves passages about the novel itself with passages about its author’s life and other work. He traveled to the places in which James lived or stayed while he worked on the novel, as well as to the places in which Isabel lives—journeys that lend physicality and drama to the notably undramatic story of a writer writing. Read or reread James’s Portrait before beginning Gorra’s, to gain the greatest pleasure from this tour de force of a literary guided tour.

In his generous admiration for James, Gorra ranges widely through cultural and personal history, exploring the nineteenth-century publishing world, the economics of magazine serialization, James’s disappointing sales figures, his themes, achievements, friendships, crushes, losses, failures, breakdown. He looks at ideas about America from both sides of the Atlantic, as well as ideas about women, sex, self-reliance, and freedom. Telling the story the novel tells, Gorra deftly lets the fiction cue in the many other elements of his own tale.

And as he locates The Portrait in the history of the novel—calling it “the bridge across which Victorian fiction stepped over into modernism”—he gives special attention, as James gave special attention, to Turgenev and George Eliot. Although James admired Eliot more than any other British novelist, he criticized both Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda for having too many separate plots, for dividing their attention among multiple characters. For his own work, he chose the “deep-breathing economy and…organic form” of a single story.

About Isabel’s story, he wrote in 1906: “It is a long novel, and I was long in writing it.” In astonishing fact, he wrote it in just over a year, from the spring of 1880 to the late summer of 1881—and it began to be serialized in magazines on both sides of the Atlantic long before he completed the final chapters. Nonetheless, The Portrait of a Lady has such a sure, organic arc that it is difficult to imagine even James composing and publishing it in installments.

In quick succession Isabel turns down marriage proposals from the immensely attractive Lord Warburton and the enterprising American mill owner who has followed her to England, Caspar Goodwood. Nothing tempts her about Goodwood (names, in James, are never accidental), whom she came to Europe in part to escape: “his jaw was too square and set and his figure too straight and stiff.” Her rejection of Warburton, however, is as baffling to James’s readers as it is to the viscount, and even to Isabel herself. She likes him enormously yet rejects him without a moment’s hesitation: the thought of marrying him makes her feel like “some wild, caught creature in a vast cage.” He asks her to give his question time. She promises to write to him soon: “I only want to collect my mind a little.”

Warburton: “Do you know I’m very much afraid of it—of that remarkable mind of yours?”
James: “Our heroine’s biographer can scarcely tell why, but the question made her start and brought a conscious blush to her cheek. She returned his look a moment, and then with a note in her voice that might almost have appealed to his compassion, ‘So am I, my lord!’ she oddly exclaimed.”

Isabel’s creator will not cross the breach in nature to read her remarkable mind—at least not yet.

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