Creating ‘The Portrait of a Lady’

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…

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