The Portrait of a Lady was first published in serial form by The Atlantic Monthly and Macmillan’s Magazine in 1880/81 and in book form in 1881 by Houghton, Mifflin and Company in Boston (though with a title-page date of 1882) and Macmillan and Co in London.
In his surprisingly thoughtful bagatelle How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, Pierre Bayard challenges the binary division of books into those we have read and those we haven’t. He suggests a more nuanced approach, reflecting how we really experience literature. To buttress his argument, Bayard throws out the concept of the collective library, “the larger set of books on which our culture depends at that moment”. Anyone acquainted with the collective library is granted a degree of latitude:
To a cultivated or curious person, even the slightest glance at a book’s title or cover calls up a series of images and impressions quick to coalesce into an initial opinion. […] For the non-reader, therefore, even the most fleeting encounter with a book may be the beginning of an authentic personal appropriation.
The work of Henry James would seem to merit at least a shelf in Bayard’s hypothetical repository. Educated readers with only a glancing knowledge of James feel they can intuit what the adjective “Jamesian” denotes: a prolix prose style, tortuous conversations, and a cast of usually wealthy and sometimes effete individuals gathered in well-appointed drawing rooms.
Familiarity with the putative characteristics of James’s writing can easily curdle into a certain contempt. For example, The London Train, a 2011 novel by Tessa Hadley ‑ a writer to whom the “J” adjective has been sometimes attributed ‑ includes the following brittle exchange between two train passengers who later become lovers:
‑ The Golden Bowl is my favourite novel. I reread it every couple of years.
‑ Well, you’re one, he said. – You’re the one. You’re a rarity. You’re the rare, exceptional reader that the book was looking for. It found you, across the years. Rather you than me.
As the centenary of James’s death appears on the horizon ‑ he died in Rye, Sussex, in 1916 ‑ the “Master” has become a remote deity in the literary pantheon. Writers and readers still genuflect before the altar, but many do so with an agnostic’s indifference.
Even when he was alive, James’s success, in commercial terms at least, was modest. The opening pages of Michael Gorra’s new book-length study of The Portrait of a Lady provide a self-deprecating comment that shows James was keenly aware of his select readership: “His friend Edith Wharton might sell enough to buy a new automobile, but his own checks, he claimed, would only cover the cost of a wheelbarrow.”
That James’s sales were eclipsed by those of his contemporaries and recent predecessors is hardly surprising given the author’s determination to eschew the crowd-pleasing techniques that, in his view, marred the Victorian novel ‑ those “large loose baggy monsters” in his famous phrase.
James’s opinions about what is often acclaimed as the acme of the English realistic novel, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, are particularly revealing. For it is inarguable that Eliot’s masterpiece served as an inspiration ‑ in both positive and negative ways ‑ to James when he came to composing his own. The character and fate of Middlemarch’s heroine, Dorothea Brooke, are at first blush strikingly similar to those of James’s protagonist, Isabel Archer. Both Dorothea and Isabel are highly intelligent and independent women who chafe at the roles assigned to their sex by contemporary society. Both decide to defy expectations through their unorthodox choices in husbands. And in both cases the marriage is a disaster.
To say that the principal difference between Dorothea’s and Isabel’s stories lies in the space each author devotes to them may appear a banal distinction. But even in novels as long as Middlemarch and Portrait the writer is faced with the decision of what to leave in and, perhaps more significantly, what to leave out. It was in regard to the latter choice that James broke with the pack.
The subtitle of Middlemarch underscores the work’s didactic, even anthropological stance: A Study of Provincial Life. And in chapter 15 of the novel Eliot famously described her task as “unravelling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven”. Eliot enlisted for her project an army of characters, as though a sample size large enough would minimise her survey’s margin of error. Naturally, Dorothea is obliged to share the stage with a host of other figures deployed to show how disappointment and compromise can divert people from what they consider to be their true path. In particular, the story of Lydgate, the provincial doctor whose noble ambitions are thwarted by his vain wife, shares nearly equal billing with Dorothea’s.
In an 1873 review of the novel, James argued that the book’s sheer busyness sapped it of its potential power:
With its abundant and massive ingredients Middlemarch ought somehow to have depicted a weightier drama. Dorothea was altogether too superb a heroine to be wasted; yet she plays a narrower part than the imagination of the reader demands. She is of more consequence than the action of which she is the nominal centre.
In contrast to Eliot’s panorama of a society on the cusp of transformation, James tightened his focus to allow his protagonist to dominate the canvas. That is not to say that Portrait is underpopulated or lacking in incident. Indeed, a synopsis of its plot exposes its melodramatic aspects: a young woman, plucked from obscurity in upstate New York, is left a fortune by her uncle at the death-bed prompting of her cousin. Rejecting two suitors ‑ an English lord and a Yankee industrialist ‑ Isabel travels to Europe, where she falls into a trap set by two duplicitous adventurers, the inscrutable Madame Merle and the villainous Gilbert Osmond.
Despite its sizable cast list and several subplots, everything exists in Portrait to amplify or refract the plight of the heroine. Even on the rare pages that do not explicitly feature Isabel, the other characters’ trajectories are modified by the heroine’s gravitational force. The novel’s milieu, a floating band of American expatriates adrift in Europe, is in its way as narrow and conformist as a mid-nineteenth-century English Midlands town. Yet rather than questioning the mores and values that underpin that society, as Eliot does, James accepts them as axioms that must be accommodated rather than challenged.
Zooming in on a solo character was one thing, but James sought to push the boundaries further by bringing a new sophistication to the way character was developed. He deplored the proclivity of English novelists ‑ Dickens in particular ‑ to populate their pages with “grotesque creatures” who were a “mere bundle of eccentricities”. Too many novels offered up clockwork characters whose movements were regulated by the chiming of the plot. In contrast, James envisaged an aesthetic dialectic in which the thesis of character and antithesis of incident were harmoniously synthesised. A passage from his key 1884 essay “The Art of Fiction” can be read as a manifesto:
What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character? What is a picture or a novel that is not of character? What else do we seek in it and find in it? It is an incident for a woman to stand up with her hand resting on a table and look out at you in a certain way; or if it be not an incident, I think it will be hard to say what it is. At the same time it is an expression of character.
How did James’s theory work out in practice? In other words, if the success of James’s novel can be judged by the skill of his characterisation, one would expect the execution to be immaculate from the get-go. Yet it is hard to gainsay the observation made by James Woods in his book How Fiction Works:
[It] often seems that James’s characters are not especially convincing as independently vivid authorial creations […] It is very hard to say what Isabel Archer is like, exactly, and she seems to lack the definition, the depth if you like, of a heroine like Dorothea Brooke, in Middlemarch.
Indeed, the first, exhaustively dissected chapters of Portrait seem to go out of their way to alienate the reader, such is the dilatory handling of Isabel’s debut. Beginning with a dubious assertion about the unparalleled appeal of afternoon tea, chapter one eventually provides specifics in the form of three men on the riverside lawn of a country house. The seated figure is Daniel Touchett, an elderly banker whose health is failing fast. The men pacing the lawn, engaged in “in desultory talk” are Ralph Touchett, son of Daniel and also none-too-robust, and Lord Warburton, a country neighbour whose possessions include a seat in parliament and half a dozen houses.
Conversation during this unhurried overture involves speculation about the young woman, the niece of Daniel Touchett’s wife, who is due to arrive at any moment. Their banter about the possibility of Lord Warburton falling in love with the visitor is almost risibly prophetic. It’s as if James is poking us in the ribs as the machinery of the marriage plot creaks into life. Given such expectations, even the most dazzling of entrances risks being an anti-climax. And when Isabel does materialise at the start of chapter two her remark about Lord Warburton’s presence feels like another knowing reference to the tropes of realist fiction:
“Oh, I hoped there would be a lord; it’s just like a novel!” And then, “Oh you adorable creature!” she suddenly cried, stooping down and picking up the small dog again.
Such self-conscious artifice at the start of the book does, however, have the benefit of not hammering down things too early. The reluctance to win readers over with a vivid character sketch provides flexibility ‑ Isabel is given space to grow.
Once again, it is instructive to look at what James avoided as a way of beginning to appreciate what he did do. In this case, the evidence can be found in a eulogy he delivered in 1903 following the death of the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev, whom he had known since the year he spent in France in the 1870s. James praised Turgenev’s skill in managing the business of creating characters:
They stood before him definite, vivid, and he wished to know, and to show, as much as possible of their nature. The first thing was to make clear to himself what he did know, to begin with; and to this end, he wrote out a sort of biography of each of his characters, and everything that they had done and that had happened to them up to the opening of the story. He had their dossier, as the French say, and as the police has that of every conspicuous criminal.
Underneath James’s warm words there is a glint of steel. For is there not something cut-and-dried about the idea of a dossier detailing a character’s traits? (Policemen, moreover, are not known for their imagination.) One wonders whether James is telling us, sotto voce, that such methods may have worked very well for Turgenev, but it wasn’t really his style.
If the art of fiction shares anything with a criminal inquiry, then James approached his investigations with a supremely open mind. At the outset, the pages of his dossier are blank. And it is through interrogation that the case will be made. Portrait is a novel full of talk, great chunks of conversations in which the speakers’ delivery is garnered with modifications. But conversation is not simply a medium of persuasion or a means of exchanging information. It is also a path to self-knowledge for Isabel, as she sharpens her mind against the whetstones of other intellects.
Interactions in which characters continually calibrate their reactions require the mental keenness of a chess grandmaster, adept at working through the dizzying permutations of available moves. For example, deep in the latter half of the novel Isabel is conversing with Lord Warburton, who has turned up like a bad penny in Rome. Warburton is supposed to be paying court to Osmond’s daughter but Isabel suspects this is merely a tactic so he can remain near to her:
She met his eyes, and for a moment they looked straight at each other. If she wished to be satisfied she saw something that satisfied her; she saw in his expression the gleam of an idea that she was uneasy on her own account ‑ that she was perhaps even in fear. It showed a suspicion, not a hope, but such as it was it told her what she wanted to know. Not for an instant should he suspect her of detecting in his proposal of marrying her step-daughter an implication of increased nearness to herself, or of thinking it, on such a betrayal, ominous. In that brief, extremely personal gaze, however, deeper meanings passed between them than they were conscious of at the moment.
Present-day readers, raising their eyes from such depths and reappraising their surroundings, might contemplate again why James is considered “difficult”. The mandarin style ‑ that formal, sometimes prissy tone ‑ is usually identified as the culprit. But what if a society deluged in texts, tweets, and updates ‑ prioritising communication through the screen over the face-to-face kind ‑ can no longer fully comprehend a writer who places faith in the ability of individuals to draw each other out by exchanging words and glances in the flesh? “On or about December 1910 human character changed,” announced Virginia Woolf. If Woolf believed in the 1920s that an unbridgeable chasm had opened up between the old forms and the new, imagine how she’d feel after an afternoon checking her Twitter timeline.
Of course, someone less in thrall to the decline-of-the-west narrative could simply counter that all novelists, except those engaged in experimental forms, smoothly tidy up the halting, fragmentary nature of actual conversation. A more engagé objection might assert that almost all of the characters in Portrait occupy a vanishingly thin stratum of the era’s population. Their anguished explorations of emotion and motivation are indulgences funded by income that appears wholly isolated from any evidence of labour. The only two figures who appear to have connections with the world of work are Daniel Touchett and Caspar Goodwood. But Touchett has long since retired from banking when he appears enfeebled on the Thameside lawn. The square-jawed Goodwood is the inventor of the “Goodwood patent”, which allows him to desert his inherited Massachusetts cotton mills and fruitlessly pursue Isabel across Europe. Only rarely is the reader given a glimpse of a world beyond the tight circle of monied conversationalists. Outside the Touchetts’ London residence in which Ralph and Isabel are talking:
…the pavements were a vacant expanse, and, putting aside two small children from a neighbouring slum, who, attracted by symptoms of abnormal animation in the interior, poked their faces between the rusty rails of the enclosure, the most vivid object within sight was the big red pillar-post on the southeast corner.
What is shocking is not so much the irruption of destitution into the haute bourgeois realm as James’s apparent indifference to it. Slum kids and street furniture are treated interchangeably, neither presumably being much capable of interesting thought.
James may be coldly uninterested in poverty but he is very interested in wealth. How the rentier class obtain their rents is a subject close to his heart. In fact, the issue of money, how it is obtained and how it is passed on, propels the novel towards its crisis. Isabel’s cousin Ralph has persuaded his father to detach a portion of his inheritance and will it to Isabel. With the considerable amount she is left ‑ according to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator £70,000 worth of goods and services in 1880 would cost over seven million pounds today ‑ Isabel is free to ignore tiresome suitors and live her life according to her own terms. Explaining her conception of freedom, Isabel provides a dramatic metaphor to her friend and comic foil Henrietta Stackpole:
“Do you know where you’re drifting?” Henrietta pursued, holding out her bonnet delicately.
“No, I haven’t the least idea, and I find it very pleasant not to know, rattling with four horses over roads that one can’t see – that’s my idea of happiness.”
But in Italy Isabel falls under the spell of Gilbert Osmond, “an obscure American dilettante, a middle-aged widower with an uncanny child and an ambiguous income” as seen through the eyes of Lydia Touchett. Thoroughly, even decadently Europeanised, Osmond occupies a villa in Tuscany. The “uncanny child” is Pansy, whose upbringing Osmond appears to have largely outsourced to the nuns of a convent in Rome. Osmond believes that his daughter should be brought up in a manner appropriate to his elevated aesthetics and must marry well. But lacking a substantial “dot”, or dowry, Pansy is unlikely to attract suitors of suitable rank.
And then Isabel comes on the scene, with a fresh fortune of £70,000 ready to be plucked.
Generations of readers have groaned inwardly with disbelief and dismay when they perceive that Gilbert Osmond will play a significant role in Isabel’s future. Having allowed his heroine to escape the limp embrace of Lord Warburton and the turgid wooing of Casper Goodwood, James has decided to lumber Isabel with this character? A “sterile dilettante”, as Ralph Touchett accurately describes him?
It seems that one of the advantages of having the reputation of being an extremely subtle artist is that you can avail of outrageous contrivances to advance your tale. Isabel, as we are continually reminded, is exceptionally intelligent, but we are expected to believe that she has no inkling of Osmond’s hidden motivations in wooing her. Of course, people of outstanding intellect frequently make blunders people far stupider instinctively sidestep. And as the Countess Gemini, Osmond’s cheerfully corrupt sister, points out while detailing the extent of her brother’s betrayal: “Ah, my good Isabel, […] with you one must dot one’s i’s!”
Aside from ascribing the fact of Isabel’s marriage to Osmond either to jaw-dropping naivete or the exigencies of plot, one must also take into account that Osmond’s very faults in the eyes of society ‑ his lack of wealth, his vague status ‑ are transmuted into positive qualities in Isabel’s eyes. With marriage to Warburton or a union with Goodwood, Isabel’s path is mapped out in grey cartography. With Osmond, a man who is “off the map”, the future is considerably less clear-cut. In a way, Osmond represents that swift carriage rattling through the night’s darkness.
But Isabel’s gamble fails to pay off. With an audacious leap, James elides several years, taking us from the heyday of Isabel and Osmond’s courtship to the psychological trench warfare that characterises their married life. (We are also told, in passing, that the couple had a baby boy, who died six months after his birth. Remarkably, this huge loss plays no apparent part in the disintegration of the marriage.)
Isabel’s suppressed discontent is finally given vent after she walks in on a conversation between her husband and Madame Merle. There is nothing about the scene that is obviously incriminating but Isabel subconsciously induces the truth about the pair’s relationship from the sight of “her husband and Madame Merle unconsciously and familiarly associated”.
This inchoate epiphany provokes the famous tableau of chapter forty-two: it is simply Isabel, alone in a drawing room. The passage is remarkable for its lack of outward drama. At the start of the chapter a servant enters the room and Isabel asks him for fresh candles. At the end of the chapter, the lamp has “long since gone out and the candles burned down to their sockets”. When the clock strikes four Isabel eventually rises from her chair and goes to bed.
On the surface nothing has happened but everything has changed. We have followed the feverish progress of Isabel’s thought as her mind, “in a state of extraordinary activity”, is “assailed by visions”. James highlighted the significance of the chapter in the preface to the novel: “Reduced to its essence, it is but the vigil of searching criticism; but it throws the action further forward that twenty ‘incidents’ might have done.”
Isabel has finally seen the true face of Osmond and has recognised that marriage to such a man is a kind of imprisonment: “[She] had suddenly found the infinite vista of a multiplied life to be a dark, narrow alley with a dead wall at the end.” Gilbert Osmond, with the conniving assistance of Madame Merle, has opened Isabel’s eyes to the banal realities underpinning her noble ‑ and misguided ‑ notions. Earlier in the book, before the world crashes down around her ears, Isabel proudly countered Madame Merle’s argument that one’s property, dress, and position ‑ in sum the “shell” of each human being ‑ define the individual in a social context:
“I don’t agree with you. I think just the other way. I don’t know whether I succeed in expressing myself, but I know that nothing else expresses me. Nothing that belongs to me is any measure of me; everything’s on the contrary a limit, a barrier, and a perfectly arbitrary one. Certainly the clothes which, as you say, I choose to wear, don’t express me; and heaven forbid they should!”
Isabel here gives voice to the great American dream of self-invention, that individuals should be allowed create destinies for themselves ex nihilo. In chapter forty-two, however, Isabel discovers that the fact of having £70,000 expresses her very clearly.
The “vigil of searching criticism” crystallises the novel’s concern with an irresolvable conflict: between the individual as autonomous agent and the social being hemmed in by outside forces. The tension between the two identities has both destructive and creative aspects. Isabel believes she is free, but her liberty was secured by a windfall given to her by her wealthy uncle. Her marriage to Osmond may be a fraudulent contract, but it forces Isabel to attain of a level of self-understanding that would have maybe eluded her in a happier union.
James’s melding of the psychological and social aspects of character produced a landmark in the history of the English-language novel – it’s a broad bridge connecting the societal narratives mastered by Austen, Dickens and Eliot and the Modernist canon of the twentieth century. Isabel’s inner self is inviolable and unique but it has also been moulded by her experience in the world. In contrast, the hallmark of the great Modernist works is extreme subjectivity, with the world existing principally as raw material to be consumed by the narrative consciousness. Think, for instance, of Stephen Dedalus, musing on “the ineluctable modality of the visible”.
The central concern of Portrait ‑ the way the social fabric in which we are enmeshed both empowers and constrains ‑ remains as germane as ever. Moreover, the world today, with its charismatic plutocrats and yawning income inequalities, shares dismaying similarities with that of James’s time. But “relevance” is a mealy mouthed tribute to a work of art. And so, too, is the assertion that the novel ushered in the transition between different literary “isms”. It should be sufficient to say that in the penultimate decade of the nineteenth century the novel, in James’s hands, fulfilled its potential as a mature art form. His successors merely did things differently.
Contemplating afresh The Portrait of a Lady, we may be tempted to echo the plaintive question attributed to the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky: “Why do we need the twentieth century when we have the nineteenth?”
Shane Barry lives in Dublin and works as a technical writer for an international software company. He is a frequent contributor to several online publications and blogs.