Anyone asked where to begin reading Henry James is likely to suggest, as I did recently, The Portrait of a Lady. Though he preceded it with two splendid short novels—The Europeans and Washington Square—it was with the six-hundred-page Portrait that James fully arrived and, as Michael Gorra puts it in his fine new study of this “American masterpiece,” became truly Jamesian. In 2004 Gorra, a professor of English at Smith College, gave us The Bells in Their Silence, his meditative consideration of a year spent in Europe; part travel book, part philosophic disquisition, part fiction, it didn’t easily fit literary categories. Now he has decided to treat James’s novel in a similar manner, approaching it with a leisurely, highly personal treatment that views Portrait and its author through varied perspectives. Taken together, they pay tribute to a novel large enough to deserve and sustain such a many-sided approach.
Gorra’s nicely proportioned book contains twenty-four chapters divided into five sections, each prefaced by a photograph or print appropriate to the subject considered. Assessing the early parts of James’s novel, which introduce the young American protagonist, Isabel Archer, along with many of the characters involved in her fate, Gorra mentions that some readers have lamented its slow pace; yet, he also notes, the chapters “allow us to learn our way around James’s characters, to form a sense of their habitual life, and they give the novel a sense of space that it will keep until the end.”
This sense of space, hard as it is to specify, is what distinguishes Portrait from the compact intensity of the later James, especially the formidable triad of The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl. Portrait’s justly admired opening two paragraphs, in which James patiently lays out the house and lawn of Gardencourt on its hill overlooking the Thames, set a scene of comfort and ease. As Gorra observes, these paragraphs are just as fully designed for the reader’s own comfort, right down to the tea laid out for Mr. Touchett, his son (and Isabel’s cousin) Ralph, and their friend Lord Warburton: “The simple implements of the little feast...disposed upon the lawn...in what I should call the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon.” The solicitous narrative voice is full of circumlocution and benign humor, observing that these tea-drinkers are “not of the sort which is supposed to furnish the regular votaries of the ceremony I have mentioned.” I can think of no opening to a novel that is a purer pleasure to read, indeed to read aloud.
In Portrait of a Novel Gorra carries forth the acumen as traveler-commentator he displayed in his previous book, directing us, for example, to a hilltop villa in Bellosguardo outside Florence (nameless in the novel, but James knew it as the Villa Castellani), where the American widower Gilbert Osmond lives with his daughter Pansy. Six months after Touchett’s death, with Isabel having inherited from him, via Ralph’s intervention, the money that will enable her to live as she pleases, James moves her and us to Italy for pretty much the rest of the novel. Gorra makes us feel intimate with both present and past, beginning his Bellosguardo chapter with himself at the foot of the Ponte Vecchio, near what was once a hotel where James had begun writing the novel, and moving with him through the old Porto Romano and up the hill to the villa. Ably he catches the historical hum and buzz of places, and although one can’t say precisely what difference it makes—as far as reading the novel goes—to have scene and “surround” so filled in, I found it only increased my appetite for what James wrote.
Such a leisurely, highly personal treatment of a subject carries its risks, especially when it calls undue attention to itself. (A passage in which Gorra attempts to imagine the close but guarded relationship between James and novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson—“Let us walk with Fenimore onto her terrace and look down at Henry James as he sits with his morning coffee”—comes off as too cozy). It’s also true that the panoramic survey has at times a discontinuous effect; as when, in successive chapters, we move from the James-Woolson relation to the pre-Portrait days and James’s encounters with Maupassant, Flaubert, and other Parisian writers, and then to the magazines in England and America where he brought out serially the novel’s chapters. It would be difficult to trace anything inevitable about how one chapter succeeds the previous one in Gorra’s compilation; the virtue, perhaps, is one of surprise, keeping us on our toes to see what will happen next in this portrait of Portrait.
In the climactic chapter 42 of James’s novel, Isabel, after an unpleasant talk with Osmond, sits late before the dying fire and thinks things out. Gorra makes an analogy between the chapter’s narrative method and James’s brother William’s discussion of stream of consciousness in his Principles of Psychology. He locates Henry’s procedure in tracing Isabel’s consciousness here by placing it between what George Eliot had done with Dorothea, in the great meditation in Rome, in Middlemarch, and what Virginia Woolf would do with Mrs. Ramsay’s thought stream in the first section of To the Lighthouse. Gorra correctly views the free-floating, almost disembodied consciousness of Isabel in this chapter as something truly original: “No writer in English had yet offered so full an account of the inner life,” he writes, noting that James himself in his preface to the novel called it “obviously the best thing in the book.” So too, in Gorra’s own book, is the chapter that he devotes to it.
Although I’m sure he has read everything written about Portrait of a Lady—the groaning shelves of critical writing about the book and James generally presents a fearsome sight in a college library—Gorra decided, evidently, not to deal with any of it. I wish he had made an exception for Roger Sale’s essay on James, published thirty years ago in Sale’s Literary Inheritance. At the beginning of the chapter titled “The Roccanera,” named for the palazzo where Isabel lives with Osmond and conducts her fireside reverie in chapter 42, Gorra confesses to having a split mind about James’s decision to give us almost no direct knowledge of Isabel’s unhappy marriage. Roger Sale, even as he admires the artfully indirect way in which James approaches the heroine’s situation through other characters, contrasts that focus with some of his predecessors in fiction, especially George Eliot in Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda. In Sale’s complicated argument, James’s impulse was to outdo his great predecessor by pruning her multitudinousness, and his focus on characters, Isabel not excluded, always ends with the novelist himself and the art by which he manipulates so magnificently his creations.
However one comes to terms with the ending of Portrait of a Lady—Isabel’s rejection of Caspar Goodwood’s proposal and her decision to go back to Rome—for me its truest ending occurs in the next-to-last chapter, with Isabel’s conversation with the dying Ralph, whose legacy enabled her in such a disastrous way. Michael Gorra struggles to find words adequate to convey the depth of this moment: “As they speak of what will last beyond his death, something odd seems to happen—something wonderful, uncanny, sublime.” Finally, in a one-sentence paragraph, he declares, “I cannot read this scene without tears.” Speaking as one who, in a recent rereading, found exactly the same thing happening, I am grateful to this portrait for reacquainting me with an American masterpiece.