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Henry James: The Portrait of a Lady

This was another one of those unplanned reading detours that I mentioned earlier. I went to the shelf intending to re-read Dostoevsky's Demons (the novel formerly known as The Possessed), maybe in the old Constance Garnett translation, since my previous reading was the newer one. I'd been thinking of re-reading it, although it hasn't been that long since the last time, because of its relevance to what's going on politically and culturally now.

But for reasons unknown I found myself hesitating and thinking instead of Henry James, and that I would really like to read one of his full-length novels; I've only read his shorter works, and most of those were many years ago. So I picked up The Portrait of a Lady, which I think someone recommended to me relatively recently.

I very much enjoyed it, but at the same time I found myself thinking fairly often that I could really see myself coming to dislike Henry James. More about that in a moment.

Daisy Miller was one of those shorter works that I read long ago, no doubt as a class assignment. I don't remember much about it except that it was described as the encounter of a lively and somewhat innocent or naive young American woman with the staid and perhaps even corrupt, or at least cynical, traditions of Europe. Actually I think there was sort of a hint of salaciousness in that description--perhaps it was on the cover of the book and was an attempt to deceive a bookstore customer into thinking that it was something racy, which I feel pretty confident in saying it is not.

Anyway, The Portrait of a Lady might get a similar one-sentence blurb. The lady of the title is a young American woman, Isabel Archer, who comes to England full of a desire to see and experience as much of life as she can. (That is not to be taken as it might in today's culture, as suggesting wild adventures with sex and drugs and so forth. I doubt that Henry James would treat it that way even if he were writing today.) And she becomes ensnared in the machinations of profoundly duplicitous people. But it is not Europe, or at least not Europe alone, that's to blame: those people are also Americans, though tenuously, having been born in America or of American parents in Europe, but having spent most of their lives in Europe. Maybe James intended some sort of point about the mixing of the cultures, I don't know.

Isabel is like some of the female protagonists in Austen and Eliot (George): an attractive young woman with a great seriousness of purpose and an intense consciousness of personal integrity, impatient with the conventional dishonesties and compromises of social life. And of course she has suitors, and the question of whom she will marry is a major component of the plot. She has a cousin, male, of somewhere around her own age who is enchanted with her at their first meeting (and thereafter), but apart from their kinship is not eligible as a suitor because he is dying slowly of tuberculosis. For those reasons he exercises real love--the desire for her good--in the only way he can, by wishing and doing for her what he can, which is considerable, to bring about the conditions for her flowering. The working out of his beneficent intention drives the crucial developments of the story.

The reader likewise wishes the best for her. Henry James is not known for his page-turner plots, and this one certainly moves slowly, but the sense of movement builds, and by the time I was within a hundred or so pages (out of nearly 600) of the end I didn't want to put the book down. And I'll leave my remarks about the story proper at that.

One of the vague impulses that made me think of Henry James when I was heading for Dostoevsky was a sudden desire for some really well-crafted, very highly polished, even ornate, prose. And of course I got that. But if there is such a thing as prose that is too well-crafted, there is a lot of it in Henry James. And that touches on my reasons for saying that I could imagine coming to dislike him.

The long and tortuously complex sentences can be annoying. They seem forever trying to get at the last, least, most subtle and evanescent nuance of meaning, in the service of detecting and extracting the last, least, most subtle and evanescent nuance of character and intention. I was occasionally defeated by this, and forced to admit that I really did not know exactly what had been communicated in a conversation (and the book is largely conversation). There were times when the characters have clearly understood some subtlety about which I was not at all clear, and that the exchange was in effect an act as decisive as a slap in the face, but which left me not entirely sure what the act had been--as if the slap had taken place offstage, and I could only infer it by the changed relationship, and even there the change was often quite subtle.

James has a penchant for compounding negatives which sometimes got on my nerves.

It is not to be supposed that he was unaware that he could not fail to deny that the intimation that her remark displeased him was not indelicate.

I made that one up, obviously, and I don't think James actually ever puts together more than three, or maybe four, negatives. And it's justifiable, as a means of suggesting a very slight nuance. But it is a habit that is occasionally annoying and/or amusing. If he talked in anything like the way he wrote, he must have been maddening sometimes. Sometimes his work seems like a huge complex flower grown on the moon, with a stem that can't support it in earthly gravity.

Another thing that bothered me, and one I'm a little embarrassed to confess: these people are for the most part the truly idle rich, and I guess there is enough little-d democrat in me that I now and then I found myself thinking along the lines suggested by snarky remarks about first world problems: "Get a job!"

Even the guy who is said to have "no money" seems never to have hit a lick at a snake, lives in "an ancient villa crowning an olive-muffled hill," and has an envied collection of the sort of expensive and exquisite bric-a-brac--china and such--that Henry James characters tend to have collections of, and of which I have no doubt that James himself was a connoisseur.

Connoisseurship, whatever its object, is something which we are likely to admire a little (at least) in ourselves but to disdain a little (at least) in others--effete and, we suspect, very likely affected, if not fraudulent. I had the latter reaction to the kind of exquisite, snobbish, and expensive tastes exercised by some of James's characters. But however much James himself may have had the same proclivity, he sees that to extend it to people and to become a connoisseur of human specimens, not in their fullness but insofar as they may be possessed and cause their owner to be admired as a man of wealth and taste, can be monstrous.

Still: underneath all the artifice, all the human virtues and vices are still there. The beast in the jungle, to borrow the title of another James work which I have not read, is very much alive in the mansions, palaces, and parlors of these highly privileged people who live a life of artifice such that we, or at least I, can hardly imagine being able to bear.

One final mild reservation: the story ends on what struck me as a slightly strange, decidedly modern, note of liberation, something at least hinting at the follow-your-heart liberationism that flowered (so to speak) in the 20th century. Well, it is modern, in the broad sense, so I shouldn't be surprised, but I didn't really expect it of Henry James.

The_Portrait_of_a_lady_coverCover of the first edition, from Wikipedia


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This is the only James I have read, short or long, several years ago. I was entranced by the opening pages and just kept plodding along. I remember the sentences going on and on but somehow it all digested well with me and I very much enjoyed it up to the end. As I tend to do sometimes, I think I read it too fast and therefore it didn't really stay with me. My memory is Isabel Archer, an American in England visiting family. Then she is in Italy with John Malkovich (LOL, I think that actor played the antagonist in the movie), married to him of course; and then it ends as you report. As I am wont to do, I quickly picked up another James tome (The Bostonians?) and read 100 pages or so before putting it down. So Portrait remains my only read.

I picked up another James volume that I happen to have but have not read, and read the first paragraph. I think it's The Ambassadors. It was at least several hundred words long, and not all that easy to follow. And it seemed to amount to "He was not at the Liverpool docks to meet his friend, and admitted to himself that it was because he didn't really want to be." It's not going to be the next book I read.

You're referring to this 199x movie. I haven't decided whether to watch it or not.

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