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.


Gramercy Pictures/Photofest

Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer and John Malkovich as Gilbert Osmond in Jane Campion’s film of The Portrait of a Lady, 1996

As James directs the drama of Isabel’s growing perceptions, he shifts narrative points of view to let readers in on more than she can see. A scene that will have drastic consequences in her life takes place entirely outside her knowledge. When old Mr. Touchett is dying, his son, Ralph—the novel’s acute Jamesian spectator, ill with consumption—persuades him to leave half his fortune to Isabel, to “put a little wind in her sails,” freeing her to “meet the requirements” of her imagination.

The father, who would like Ralph himself to marry Isabel, asks whether, with £60,000 of her own, she will not fall victim to fortune hunters. Ralph acknowledges the risk, pronounces it small, and is willing to take it. She is not to know that her “inheritance” came from him.

Isabel does not care about money except as it buys her freedom. Yet old Mr. Touchett proves right: the legacy sets her up for a pair of superficially charming, deeply malevolent fortune hunters—American expatriates living in Italy, Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond. Isabel sees only the charm; James gives us chills at the malevolence. Ralph doesn’t like Osmond, a widower and dilettante who has nothing to recommend him except his good taste in objets and a perfect little daughter named Pansy. Madame Merle assiduously “sells” Isabel and her fortune to Osmond, though we don’t yet know why. As this strangely intimate pair seduces Isabel into falling in love with Osmond, he tells his coconspirator that the girl has just one fault: “Too many ideas…. Fortunately they are very bad ones…[and] must be sacrificed!”

The young lady with the remarkable mind who wants no one to “take positive possession of her” chooses the one of her three suitors who will try to do exactly that—who will in fact put her into a cage—making as atrocious a mistake as the one made by George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke. Yet James holds off on portraying the marriage itself: he does not let us see what goes so radically wrong until Isabel is fully ready to see it herself.

Then, in a passage that the novelist later pronounced “obviously the best thing in the book”—Chapter 42—Isabel sits up all night before the fire in her Roman drawing room, with candles burning down, and simply thinks. In this motionless vigil, she searches through the experience of her short married life: what she had fallen in love with in Osmond—“the beauty of his mind”; the terrors that haunt her now; her accidental glimpse of the familiarity between her husband and Madame Merle; his demand that she persuade Lord Warburton to marry Pansy; her sense of suffocating darkness—“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…. It was as if Osmond deliberately, almost malignantly, had put the lights out one by one.” Her husband, having found that he cannot control her mind, now “hated her.” In her long, meditative reverie, Isabel comes, like many later characters in James, to see where she really is.

The scene has antecedent moments in Jane Austen, George Eliot, and other writers, yet Gorra rightly calls Chapter 42 a turning point in the history of the novel: “No writer in English had yet offered so full an account of the inner life,” and these pages “change our very sense of what counts as an event in fiction.” Thinking, feeling, simply lucidly seeing now count. There is a direct line from these pages to those of Virginia Woolf, Proust, Faulkner, and Joyce.

Early and late, James is interested in the growth of the imagination. His Americans abroad stretch their perceptual wings and slowly take in cultural distinctions and subtleties, aesthetic and moral values, the dense, rich past and the fine-grained textures of a present far beyond anything they can have known at home.

The core of what they come to see has to do—not to put too fine a point on it, as their author might say—with sex. Yet a sentence like that one shatters the subtlety of James’s own imagination. Sex, in his work, is, among many other things, a metaphor for knowledge and experience; and knowledge and experience are metaphors for sex.

Isabel Archer declares at one point that she will not listen to anything young Pansy may not hear. What can she know, if she insists on remaining as innocent as a child? She and Osmond had a son who died as an infant—and who serves mainly to prove that the marriage has been consummated. Yet there is no real sexual feeling in The Portrait until the very end.

Three of James’s youngest girls are brutally exposed to adult sexuality. Nanda Brookenham in The Awkward Age (1899), taking in all the licentious duplicity of her mother’s circle, says, “Of course, what’s so awfully unutterable is just what we most notice.” What Maisie knows, in What Maisie Knew (1897), is a great deal more than she should. We don’t finally know what little Flora knows, in The Turn of the Screw (1898), or whether the story’s ghosts exist only in the mind of her governess. Still, a sinister sexual liaison drives the story’s plot, and the child is terrorized nearly to death, with a malign sexual intensity, by either the governess or the ghost.

Consistently James links the gaining of sexual knowledge to the evil of personal tyranny—of people violating others for selfish gain. Isabel says of Madame Merle, “She made a convenience of me.”

In 1918, two years after James died, Ezra Pound called him “the hater of tyranny” who wrote “against…sordid petty personal crushing oppression.” Il miglior fabbro does not seem the most likely reader of family dynamics, but what James fights, Pound went on, “is ‘influence,’ the impinging of family pressure, the impinging of one personality on another.” William Gass said of James: “In nearly all the works of his maturity his theme is the evil of human manipulation.”

Three of James’s older young women—Isabel Archer, Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove (1902), and Maggie Verver in The Golden Bowl (1904)—come to see that they have been manipulated and sexually betrayed by people they love. In light of this knowledge, Milly turns her face to the wall and dies. Maggie, alone as she gropes toward her bitter recognition, has first to see how she participated in her own betrayal—how she has unthinkingly used her husband and her stepmother—before she silently, magnificently wins him back. Her marriage, unlike Isabel’s, will have a vital erotic future, yet her triumph comes at immense emotional cost.

Near the end of The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel learns that she has not made a free choice after all. Not only have Osmond and Madame Merle cruelly used her; Ralph’s covert gift of half his fortune has impinged on her as well. Ralph had wanted, like James, to see what she would do—had wanted to meet the requirements of his own imagination. Isabel knows everything by the time she defies her husband to come see her dying cousin at Gardencourt, and in their final scene together, these matched souls reach the deepest communion in the novel. Ralph tells her to remember that “if you’ve been hated you’ve also been loved. Ah but, Isabel—adored!”

Isabel’s terrible loss of innocence, her realization that she was never free, makes The Portrait of a Lady, in Gorra’s view, a kind of American Paradise Lost. Gone are all notions of Emersonian self-reliance, the fresh start in Europe, the city on the hill, the new world, the idea of American exceptionalism. With her new freedom from illusion, Isabel has one final choice to make. She has effectively broken with Osmond by coming to England, though she promised Pansy she’ll return. Will she go back? Enter, again, Caspar Goodwood.

Gorra makes astute comparisons between the 1881 novel and the 1906 revision—most significantly in Isabel’s last scene with Goodwood. The American industrialist asks her to trust him, to come away with him rather than return to her deadly marriage. Even as she rejects his passionate plea, she feels intensely that she has never been loved before—and in 1906 James added: “This was the hot wind of the desert…. It wrapped her about; it lifted her off her feet, while the very taste of it, as of something potent, acrid and strange, forced open her set teeth.” Goodwood says, echoing Milton, “The world’s all before us—and the world’s very big.” In spite of her postlapsarian knowledge, Isabel “believed just then that to let him take her in his arms would be the next best thing to her dying,” but she begs him to go away and leave her alone.

He does take her in his arms, presses his lips to hers, and (1881) “His kiss was like a flash of lightning; when it was dark again she was free.”

In the 1906 version, the kiss is

like white lightning, a flash that spread, and spread again, and stayed; and it was extraordinarily as if, while she took it, she felt each thing in his hard manhood that had least pleased her, each aggressive fact of his face, his figure, his presence, justified of its intense identity and made one with this act of possession. So had she heard of those wrecked and under water following a train of images before they sink. But when darkness returned she was free.

The only other scene in James that approaches this one for sexual heat is the moment in The Golden Bowl when Maggie Verver’s husband and her father’s young wife—Maggie’s closest friend—agree to resume the affair they had had before their respective marriages:

And so for a minute they stood together, as strongly held and as closely confronted as any hour of their easier past even had seen them…. Then of a sudden, through this tightened circle, as at the issue of a narrow strait into the sea beyond, everything broke up, broke down, gave way, melted and mingled. Their lips sought their lips, their pressure their response and their response their pressure; with a violence that had sighed itself the next moment to the longest and deepest of stillnesses they passionately sealed their pledge.

By the time James wrote The Golden Bowl and revised The Portrait of a Lady, more than two decades had elapsed since the latter’s first publication. During those years the world of fiction had changed—partly because of him—and the world he lived in had turned from Victorian to Edwardian. His parents had died. He had fallen in love with a young Norwegian-American named Hendrik Andersen, a third-rate sculptor whom James saw only a few times, briefly, and to whom he wrote letters ripe with physical gesture and longing. None of those facts “explains” his greater freedom to write about sexual passion, any more than the James family crucible explains his and William’s ideas—but all offer richly suggestive ground.


Alice Boughton/Smithsonian/Art Resource

Henry James, circa 1906, the year he completed his revised version of The Portrait of a Lady

Isabel Archer, after Goodwood’s kiss, knows exactly what to do. She takes a train to Rome. Her decision has flummoxed, frustrated, infuriated millions of James’s readers between 1881 and 2012. Why does she go back? Out of a sense of responsibility to the choice she made, even though it was coerced? In fear of the intense sexual desire she briefly feels with Goodwood? Is it the danger she has seen all along in the idea of surrendering her whole self—not wanting to be anyone’s possession? She is no longer Osmond’s possession—and she cannot believe in Goodwood’s promise that the world lies all before them. She knows too much, about herself, her former illusions, and the world.

And what will she do when she gets back? Live in the tomb of her husband’s hatred? Wait until Pansy grows up and then leave, with or without the girl? At least Osmond can no longer hurt her—all his damage has been done. She is still young, and she is, finally, free.

James answers none of these questions. Having painted Isabel’s full-length portrait, he leaves her to face and shape her future on her own.

Michael Gorra strikes a few jarring notes in his otherwise excellent book: some of his biographical excursions seem unnecessary, and he occasionally reaches for effects of fiction, trying to enter James’s mind as if his story were not strong enough on its own.

He describes James revising the novel in the spring of 1906 at his house in Rye:

We don’t know just where he would have done [the revisions], but the weather was warm and so let me place him in the Garden Room…. Imagine the half-smile that comes over his face as he rolls the pen in his fingers…. He blackens out a phrase, allows his heroine a sentence of struggling comprehension, until at last he is pleased.

On first meeting the sculptor Hendrik Andersen, according to Gorra, “the novelist felt such an immediate and unprecedented bolt of longing that it has to be called love.” A few pages later it becomes “knee-trembling love.”

James once wrote to a friend, “Nothing is my last word about anything.” He’ll have the last word here, on the subject of authorial trust.

In the 1906 preface to his Portrait, he reflects on the novel’s secondary characters:

I seem to myself to have waked up one morning in possession of them—of Ralph Touchett and his parents, of Madame Merle, of Gilbert Osmond and his daughter and his sister, of Lord Warburton, Caspar Goodwood and Miss Stackpole, the definite array of contributions to Isabel Archer’s history. I recognised them, I knew them, they were the numbered pieces of my puzzle, the concrete terms of my “plot.” It was as if they had simply, by an impulse of their own, floated into my ken, and all in response to my primary question: “Well, what will she do?” Their answer seemed to be that if I would trust them they would show me; on which, with an urgent appeal to them to make it at least as interesting as they could, I trusted them.