Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece

Henry James's great, humane masterpiece, The Portrait of a Lady (1881), the story of a young, spirited American woman "affronting her destiny", is many readers' favourite of his books. All his critics and biographers put it at the centre of his life and work. It is his turning-point. From being a popular and promising author specialising in Americans in Europe (Daisy Miller, The Europeans, The American), he became an important, renowned figure, acknowledged as a "master" of consciousness, cultural perceptions, humour, subtlety and depth. But Portrait can also be seen as a point of no return. After that came the harsh, unpopular novels of social analysis (The Bostonians, The Princess Casamassima), the ill-fated involvement with the theatre, the awkward, darkly complex novels of the 1890s (What Maisie Knew, The Awkward Age), the epic, inward-looking subtleties of the mighty late works, and the financial catastrophe of the New York edition. Isabel Archer starts out full of hope, independence and ambition, and becomes "ground in the mill", entrapped and disillusioned. James's life-story could also be read as an ebullient comedy which turns to tragic sadness.

James's biographers always compare Isabel and her novel to his own life. Everyone notes that the early death of his lively, clever cousin Minny Temple, in 1870, when she was 24 and he was 27, was the great blow that provoked the invention of Isabel. As Michael Gorra says, "her unlived future goes on in his head". Leon Edel says James puts his own childhood and his own desire for freedom in Europe into Isabel, but also that the chilling and conventional expatriate Gilbert Osmond (whom Isabel makes the terrible mistake of marrying) is a portrait of what James would have become "if he had allowed snobbery to prevail over humanity". The real subjects of the novel are "egotism and power". Fred Kaplan thinks that Isabel's novel is a "nightmare": "Behind the sophisticated portrayal of mores and personality … the world of Portrait is a threatening, often deathly world of repression and annihilation, where no one is happy, no one is saved."

In a crowded field of biographical interpretation, Gorra argues that Portrait is "a critique of American exceptionalism". The historical paradox for Americans is that they believe in a republican egalitarianism – all are created equal – and in the freedom to pursue, competitively, individual happiness. Isabel (leaving America, turning down a nice English lord and a determined Bostonian, choosing Osmond because she thinks he is a free agent) insists that she must be free to write her own plot. She will not be measured by what surrounds her – clothes, houses, money, traditions. She believes "in her own autonomy, her own enabling isolation: a belief, and a dream, that all her later experience will challenge". As the sinister and subtle Madame Merle suggests to her, in a conversation about the limits of the self, complete "self-sufficiency" is impossible. In Europe Isabel "learns that her own life" has already "been determined". She finds that for her, as for America, there is no such thing as a "fresh start" or a "city on a hill" or a "new world". Other ways of reading Isabel – as a young woman afraid of sexual experience, as an innocent fallen into corrupt hands, as an enactment of James's passion for Europe, as a characterisation of solitude – take second place to this political interpretation.

Even if this reading could be argued with, Gorra comes at it in a highly interesting way. James said of Portrait that a "single small corner-stone" grew into a "large building", large enough in form for him to "make an ado" about Isabel Archer. Gorra, following that cue, has organised "an ado" around James's making of his novel, so as to tell us "not only what happens in the book itself but also the story of how James came to write it". It is a biography of a novel as a means to writing about the novelist.

Gorra is wary, though, about the dangers of matching life and art too neatly. Why track an author's journey through his places? Why try to fit characters on to real people? Because, he says acutely, the difference between origins and inventions "can stand as a guide to artistic practice".

Places matter very much in this novel, and Gorra tracks them devotedly, through Paris, London, Florence, Venice and Rome, pursuing the settings where James wrote Portrait, and possible models, as for the English house where the novel begins, or for the Osmonds' gloomy Roman villa. He shows well how the early chapters at Gardencourt give off a sense of "cultivated leisure", or how Isabel's desire for freedom is acted out when she walks alone through the foggy wet streets of a November London, or how she identifies with the "splendid sadness" of Rome.

He is most absorbed by the novel's treatment of consciousness. James radically alters what fiction can do by giving us, not just a story of a young woman with a high sense of herself who makes a disastrous mistake, but an illustration of how "the life within has a drama of its own". As fiction readers we are used to this now, but James is one of the writers who made us used to it. In the famous chapter when Isabel sits by the fire and thinks back over her marriage, he "changed our very sense of what counts as an event in fiction". That fictional daring, paradoxically, goes alongside his indirectness, his sexual reticence, his "peculiar mix of repression and sublimation". "Moments of refusal, events that don't happen", gaps in time, things not said, are what fire his imagination.

We get a clear sense of how that imagination develops, as Gorra outlines James's "incoherent" childhood education, his competitive relationship with his brother William, his choice of Europe's "thickened air", his reaction to his parents' deaths, his sexuality, his decision not to marry and his growing reputation. None of this is new, but it is strongly handled. Gorra is especially interesting on the relation of Portrait to other literature – to Hawthorne, to George Eliot, to the French novelists, to Turgenev – and he deals well with the publishing, the reception and James's later revising of the novel.

More here. By Michael Gorra


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