A specter haunted Henry James: it was the specter of George Eliot. He visited her first in 1869, when he was twenty-six, and wrote to his father:
I was immensely impressed, interested and pleased. To begin with, she is magnificently ugly—deliciously hideous…. Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end up as I ended, in falling in love with her. Yes behold me literally in love with this great horse-faced blue-stocking.
Three years later, when Middlemarch appeared, James wrote from Rome to his friend Grace Norton:
A marvellous mind throbs in every page of Middlemarch. It raises the standard of what is to be expected of women—(by your leave!) We know all about the female heart; but apparently there is a female brain, too…. To produce some little exemplary works of art is my narrow and lowly dream. They are to have less “brain” than Middlemarch; but (I boldly proclaim it) they are to have more form.
James reviewed many of George Eliot’s books at length, using a most serious tone, beginning with Felix Holt in 1866, continuing with The Spanish Gypsy in 1868. In March 1873 his review of Middlemarch began: “Middlemarch is at once one of the strongest and one of the weakest of English novels,” reflecting the view of his brother William, who had written to him a month earlier: “What a blasted artistic failure Middlemarch is but what a well of wisdom.” Henry James’s review includes the sentence: “It is not compact, doubtless; but when was a panorama compact?” And it is clear from his own subsequent prefaces to his books and from his letters that he did not wish to follow George Eliot in writing “a panorama,” but that he did wish to follow her example in attempting to enter into the spirit of a single character, “to render the expression of a soul,” as he says of Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke. “We believe in her,” he wrote, “as in a woman we might providentially meet some fine day…. By what unerring mechanism this effect is produced—whether by fine strokes or broad ones, by description or narration, we can hardly say; it is certainly the great achievement of the book.”
As the 1870s went on, then, James began to imagine a creation of his own, a woman whom he might render in full, but in a novel which would be formally more pure than anything George Eliot was capable of, a novel which would blend architectural perfection with unerring characterization. In 1878, he published Daisy Miller, a tale of a spirited young American woman in Italy who was punished for breaking the rules, and also a tale called “An International Episode” in which another spirited young American woman was, to the surprise of her English friends, not in search of a rich husband, or any husband at all; she sought something more interesting from life than the mere prospect of money and rank.
His novel The Portrait of a Lady* was, like Roderick Hudson, which was completed five years earlier, begun in Florence in the spring of 1879 and, like Roderick Hudson and The American, serialized in The Atlantic Monthly but also in London in Macmillan’s Magazine. James continued working on it the following year in Venice. When he came to write his preface to the book a quarter of a century later he insisted that it did not come to him as plot, “but altogether in the sense of a single character, the character and aspect of a particular engaging young woman.” He was alert as he wrote his preface to the idea that a young woman as the central subject of a work of art had to be defended, or at least explained. He appealed to the example of George Eliot, to her placing female characters such as Hetty Sorrel, Maggie Tulliver, Rosamond Vincy, and Gwendolen Harleth at the very center of her novels, remarking how difficult the task was, so difficult indeed that “Dickens and Walter Scott, as for instance even, in the main, so subtle a hand as that of R.L. Stevenson, has preferred to leave the task unattempted.”
His decision, he wrote, was to
place the centre of the subject in the young woman’s own consciousness…. Stick to THAT—for the centre…. Press least hard, in short, on the consciousness of your heroine’s satellites, especially the male; make it an interest contributive only to the greater one.
He used imagery associated with architecture throughout in attempting to explain what he had in mind: “On one thing I was determined; that, though I should clearly have to pile brick upon brick for the creation of an interest, I would leave no pretext for saying that anything is out of line, scale or perspective.” This meant, of course, that he would have to justify the undue amount of floor-space given in the early part of the book to Henrietta Stackpole, which he did very gracefully and disarmingly in his preface by acknowledging that he had “suffered Henrietta (of whom we have indubitably too much) so officiously, so strangely, so almost inexplicably, to pervade…. She exemplifies, I fear, in her superabundance, not an element of my plan, but only an excess of my zeal.”
In creating Isabel Archer, rather than trying to please his readers with the broad strokes—what he calls “the cultivation of the lively”—in which Henrietta was drawn, James was concerned with consciousness, then, rather than plot, but nonetheless, he understood that a novel must have a body as well as a soul. Thus he asked in his preface: “What will she DO?” And his answer was: “Why, the first thing she’ll do will be to come to Europe.” And, he wrote, he “waked up one morning” in possession of those she would meet. “I recognized them, I knew them, they were the numbered pieces of my puzzle, the concrete terms of my ‘plot.'” Within the noise of this plot, he would place the power of silence, the slow and careful dramatization of an interior life, the silent registering of knowledge and experience, which, he wrote, for Isabel can throw “the action further forward than twenty incidents might have done.” In particular he mentioned the scene in which Isabel was alone by the dying fire when everything became clear: “It all goes on without her being approached by another person and without her leaving her chair. It is obviously the best thing in the book.”
James’s language in his fiction was both mask and pure revelation; he played with the drama between circumlocution and bald statement. So, too, his prefaces were written both to reveal and to hide. While he was interested in describing his systems in creating form, he had a large interest in concealing where Isabel might have come from in his own complex past and how the people she would meet might have been there all along at the sharp edges of his memory, waiting patiently and firmly to enter his imagination unbeckoned.
In the second volume of his autobiography Notes of a Son and Brother, published in 1914, two years before his death, Henry James remembered the August of 1865, which he spent in North Conway with his cousin Minny Temple and her sisters, in the company of Oliver Wendell Holmes Junior and John Gray, both Civil War veterans, both to become distinguished lawyers. He wrote about
the fraternising, endlessly conversing group of us gather[ed] under the rustling pines… the discussion of a hundred human and personal things, the sense of the splendid American summer drawn out to its last generosity… in especial of my young orphaned cousins as mainly composing the maiden train and seeming as if they still had but yesterday brushed the morning dew of the dear old Albany naturalness.
He remembered his cousin Minny as being “beautifully and indescribably” a “heroine.” “Everything that took place around her took place as if primarily in relation to her and in her interest: that is in the interest of drawing her out and displaying her the more…. She was absolutely afraid of nothing she might come to by living with enough sincerity and enough wonder.” He then went on to explain that within a few years it became clear that she was dying.
When he wrote about Minny’s sincerity, her curiosity, her lightness touched with gravity, her charm, the play of her mind, her origins in Albany, her orphaned state, he could easily have been describing Isabel Archer. Soon after that summer in North Conway he began work on a story, “Poor Richard,” his sixth to be published, in which a fascinating woman is surrounded and admired by three men, two of whom have fought in the Civil War, one of whom is ill. This story would have been, in its emotional contours, easy for Minny, Holmes, and Gray to recognize; it was a version of how they had spent the summer of 1865 with the author of the story. In “Poor Richard,” the heroine managed to marry none of the three and ended up living in Florence.
So, too, when he came to write The Portrait of a Lady more than a decade later he gave his lady three suitors, one of them also ill, and allowed her to turn down all three, each in a different way, so that in Florence, where he brought her to live, she would be able to exercise her considerable imagination with the help of a legacy from her aunt’s husband. (The heroine of “Poor Richard” was also independently wealthy.) Thus that summer in North Conway gave him not exactly the idea for The Portrait of a Lady—idea is too strong a term—but a set of configurations which interested him and held his imagination.
His cousin, who died in 1870, also held his imagination. She harbored, she wrote to John Gray, “an overpowering admiration and affection for George Eliot.” She wrote to Henry James as she lay ill: “Have you seen Mrs Lewes [George Eliot] yet? Kiss her for me—But, from all accounts, I don’t believe that is exactly what one wish[es] to do to her.” Now that Minny Temple was dead, James could conjure her up in his fiction without having to worry about her response. In a story, “Traveling Companions,” written soon after her death, he could imagine her in Italy, a country she had longed to visit. He could place her there once more in Daisy Miller. Now he also sought to write an ambitious novel about her. “I had [Minny Temple] in mind,” he wrote to Grace Norton as he worked on the novel, “and there is in the heroine a considerable infusion of my impression of her remarkable nature.”
But in imagining her as the central focus of a novel, in a large and well-proportioned house of fiction, he had to solve an interesting problem, which he formulated first in a letter to his brother after her death. In life, he could not imagine her married, so free and original was her spirit. His portrait now could complete her, solve the puzzle of her. He wrote to Grace Norton, who believed it was a direct portrait:
Poor Minny was essentially incomplete and I have attempted to make my young woman more rounded, more finished. In truth everyone, in life, is incomplete, and it is [in] the work of art that in reproducing them one feels the desire to fill them out, to justify them, as it were.
In finding a way to complete her, and to write the second half of his novel, offering his portrait a plot, he allowed his imagination to be nourished by two outside forces—one a book, the other an apartment. The book was George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda; the apartment belonged to his friend Francis Boott, who lived with his daughter Lizzie above Florence in Bellosguardo.
Henry James wrote his first piece about Daniel Deronda in February 1876 when the first installment had appeared. At the end of that year, when the novel was published, he wrote an extraordinary second piece for The Atlantic Monthly. It was a long conversation which he invented between three people who had read the book. It was clear, from what they said, that James had, once more, problems with the form of the book and with many of its characters. But he allowed one of his own characters in his dialogue this observation of Gwendolen Harleth, the heroine: “Gwendolen is a masterpiece. She is known, felt and presented, psychologically, altogether in the grand manner.” Her husband Grandcourt was “a consummate picture of English brutality.”
James had in front of him then for his contemplation a novel which he viewed, as did his brother William, as a failure, but whose central image of marital tyranny, pursued with such skill and brilliance by Eliot, could offer him an idea for his own novel. The drama surrounding the marriage of a passionate woman to a bully had appeared in scenes in other novels too, such as one in Trollope’s Phineas Finn(1867) in which Lady Laura confessed to an unmarried man her deep unhappiness and sense of entrapment in marriage, much as Gwendolen did to Daniel Deronda, much as Isabel finally did to Ralph Touchett. James had merely to set about refining the passion, the bullying, the entrapment, the unhappiness, the confession, but he did not dilute them; instead, by playing a game between what was unspoken and what was unspeakable, he made his drama more powerful.
Francis Boott, whom James had known in Boston, had reared his daughter Lizzie in Italy “as if she were a hot-house flower,” as Leon Edel has written. In Florence, as he worked on his novel, James visited them very often in their apartment in Bellosguardo overlooking the city, using their relationship as bedrock for the relationship between Gilbert Osmond and his daughter Pansy and placing his fictional characters in the very rooms in which his friends lived, much as he had placed Isabel at the opening of the book in his own grandmother’s house in Albany, also of course the house of Minny Temple’s grandmother.
While James was in Florence working on the book he saw a great deal as well of the American novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson, who had come with a letter of introduction to him. As Leon Edel has written: “He turned on the full power of his charm for Miss Woolson.” She was to become one of his best friends, but as he worked on the book it was enough for him that she was intelligent, deeply receptive to the sights of the city, and utterly American. Like most novelists, he used whatever came his way to deepen the texture of his novel. Osmond and Isabel would walk together in the places in Florence where he and Constance walked. When the book appeared Constance wrote to him: “With no character of yours have I ever felt myself so much in sympathy…. I found myself judging her and thinking of her with perfect…comprehension, and a complete acquaintance as it were; everything she did and said I judged from a personal standpoint…. I always knew exactly all about Isabel.”
James used everything he knew, including his own complex self, when he wrote The Portrait of a Lady. He dramatized his own interest in freedom against his own egotism, his own bright charm against the darker areas of his imagination. He also used the ghost of his cousin; he conjured up real houses; he described the cities of Rome and Florence which he had come to know and love; he wove in English manners which he had, by the time he wrote the book, come to appreciate; and he allowed the books he had been reading, especially the novels of George Eliot, which placed a deeply intelligent and passionate woman at the center of a novel, to encourage him to make his young woman even more deeply intelligent and even more subtly passionate. He was fearless in his depiction of the play of her consciousness; her high ideals, her need for freedom were dramatized against repression and dark restriction. In concentrating on her fate in the world, he created one of the most magnificent figures in the large and sprawling house of fiction.
July 19, 2007