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Portrait of A Novel

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As I Lay Dying
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The Portable Conrad

Henry James
. By Abbot H. Thayer. Crayon on paper, 1881.

(By permission and from the Collection of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City)





Henry James and the Making of

an American Masterpiece



A Division of W. W. Norton & Company

New York    •     London



An Old Man in Rye

he would remember the way the book had begun. He was old then, and in England, at home in the place he had made for himself, a eighteenth-century brick building called Lamb House in the small Sussex town of Rye. It was a marsh country once known for its shipwrecks and smugglers, thirty miles down the Channel from Dover, and with the town itself resting on top of a hill. Centuries before, it had been directly on the water, but now the coastline had changed, the harbor had silted up, and the flecked blue of the sea lay at a distance of two miles. The ancient port remained charming but had lost its purpose, and the town itself had become an attractive spot for a genteel retirement. It was an odd place for an American novelist, and an odder one for a man whose habits were entirely urban: a figure of clubs and cabs, of dinner parties and first nights. But then he had rarely done the expected thing. He was a famous man, with elaborate manners, and kind; and yet someone whose eyes could drill your spine with their knowledge. Famous—but now little-read, as his royalty figures all too often reminded him. Sometimes he joked about how little his books brought in. 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.

He had lived in Europe for thirty years—he had taken possession of it, inhaled it, appropriated it. It had been the great adventure of his life. Or rather his expatriation had made other adventures possible, the adventure contained in the litter of printed sheets on his desk. His literary agent had taken two copies of one of his early novels and cut their bindings, slicing the pages free, and had then pasted each one onto a larger sheet. That gave him a single unbound copy with a few inches of white space on all sides, plenty of room to scrawl. He dipped his pen and blackened half a line of type, wrote four words in the margin and drew a circle around them, with a faint thread of ink tethering them to their place in his paragraph.
He blotted
two more lines, italicized a word of dialogue, turned “I am” into “I’m.” Another line gone, but this time a new one replaced it, and his characters no longer “rejoined” in answer to each other’s speech; instead they “returned.” Now and then, he revised his first revision. The pen sliced, it cut and it qualified, and sometimes it discovered so many ineptitudes that his quarto sheet became an illegible tangle of lines and arrows. The compositors, he knew, had already complained about such pages, and he put them aside to be typed.

Most nineteenth-century novelists touched up their work in the months between its first publication in a magazine and its appearance as a bound volume. A serial installment might have been rushed to make a deadline or trimmed to match the space, and its opening chapters were usually in print long before the book was finished. But Henry James took the business of revision much further than that. He lived in a world of second thoughts, and in the early years of his career he treated his proofs as but a clean copy, something little better than a draft to scribble over. The pieces a magazine had already printed often got the same treatment. A story from the
might be revised for an American collection, and overhauled again for an English one. He believed that almost every sentence could stand a little work, and could hardly bear to reread his earlier things except with a pen in his hand, making changes as he went. One of his best stories, “The Middle Years” (1893), gives that habit to its main character, a novelist called Dencombe, who in the story’s first pages reworks an advance copy of his latest book. Only this time the new work seems good, and he marks it up with a sense of promise. It makes him realize what he might yet do, and he longs for the chance to grow into a magnificent
“last manner.”
But Dencombe is also a sick man and he dies before can he grab it.

His creator had better luck. James had made the character die at fifty, but he himself was now sixty-three, and in the spring and summer of 1906 he lived in a season of second chances. The sheets on his desk were from a book he had published in 1881, a quarter of a century ago:
The Portrait of a Lady
, the novel in which, after a period of careful apprenticeship, he had first allowed his imagination full stretch. He didn’t think it was his best book—he preferred
The Ambassadors
(1903), a bittersweet comedy about a group of Americans in Paris—but still it was the one from which he
“would pretend to date.”
The novel told the story of a girl named Isabel Archer; a girl who claims she’s fond of her freedom but who stands just the same, after the death of her spendthrift father, on the verge of marriage to a New England mill owner. Then she suffers a fairy-tale rescue at the hands of an aunt. Taken to Europe and furnished with an unexpected inheritance, Isabel finds what looks at first like an ever-expanding field in which to exercise her own sense of independence. At first. For she will soon make the mistake of her young life, and her mixture of
“curiosity and fastidiousness,”
brittle intelligence and inflated confidence, would make her an easy mark for the reader’s criticism if she were not, as James wrote, meant to awaken our sense of tenderness instead.

The Portrait of a Lady
was Henry James’s first true success, and though as a young man he had made fun of the idea of the Great American Novel, greatness had always been on his mind. He had taken pains with the book, and it had changed his reputation. It had made him important enough to be attacked on all sides, and now it was to have a new life. In 1904, James had gone back to the United States, making his first visit in twenty-one years. He saw the places where he’d grown up, in New York and Newport and Boston. He gave lectures and gossiped with old friends and was both fascinated and appalled by the way the country had changed, by skyscrapers and a new American language that he barely recognized as his own, so different was its slang and pronunciation. He went to Florida and California and to the battlefields of the Civil War, in which he had not fought, and brought home a mind of gathered impressions that he began to turn into a travel book called
The American Scene
. But he also matured another plan along the way, arranging with the help of his agent, J. B. Pinker, for the publication by Scribner of a definitive edition of his work; an edition
“selective as well as collective; I want to quietly disown a few things.”
The early books that had made his name—stories like
Daisy Miller
, novels like
The American
The Portrait of a Lady
itself—would have their surfaces rubbed over, their style nudged or even kicked into line with that of his later work. And to each novel or collection of tales James planned to add a
“frank critical”
preface; prefaces that now stand, and that to the
in particular, among the most idiosyncratic, and greatest, of his achievements.

The Portrait of a Lady
appears to look backward and forward at once, offering a Janus-faced lens on the history of the novel itself. It is the link between George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, the bridge across which Victorian fiction stepped over into modernism. James used his heroine to crystallize one of his period’s central concerns, that of what George Eliot herself had described as the
“delicate vessels”
of female experience. Isabel’s story touched the limits of what could and couldn’t be said about sex in the Anglo-American fiction of the period, and James also flouted the conventions of his era by risking an ending that was both unhappy and open; the novel’s final pages leave her fate more unsettled than ever. Moreover, the book challenged its readers’ assumptions about the nature of fictional events. In James’s hands the drama of the interior life took on the thrill that other writers might find in
“the surprise of a caravan or the identification of a pirate,”
and the result was the most searching account of the moment-by-moment flow of consciousness that any novelist had yet attempted.

But the book looks two ways in another sense as well, not temporally but spatially. In 1888, James told his brother, the Harvard philosopher William James, that he wanted to make it impossible for his readers to know whether he was
“an American writing about England or an Englishman writing about America.”
Sometimes he managed the trick and sometimes he didn’t, but one mark of his overall success lies in the different contexts within which his work is now read. That’s especially true of
The Portrait of a Lady
. It appears as often in discussions of the Victorian novel as it does in those of American literature, and rightfully so. For its richly suggestive picture of what it is to be an American depends, paradoxically, on the way it uses both its European setting and the thematics of European fiction—the marriage plot, the novel of adultery—to mount a critique of American exceptionalism.

In this book I will tell that novel’s story. Most people don’t read criticism, not beyond the length of a review. They read narrative—that’s why biography is so popular. But
Portrait of a Novel
is not a biography as such, and it offers the tale not of a life but of a work. It shows how Henry James created Isabel Archer’s portrait, and to what end: tells not only what happens in the book itself but also the story of how James came to write it and what happened to him while he was doing so; of the book’s relation to the major fiction of the decades around it, and of how it was published and received and then, many years later, revised.

One part of my tale offers a picture of James’s career between 1878 and 1884, the years for which his own
provides a fulcrum. At the start of that period he wrote
Daisy Miller
, an account of a high-spirited and impossibly well-dressed American girl. Men cluster wherever she goes, but Daisy doesn’t understand that in Italy she can’t flirt with the same freedom as at home in Schenectady, and she will pay for that misunderstanding with her life. Some readers found the story a celebration of American innocence, others an attack on the purity of American women; and it remained James’s best-known work long after he had written greater things. At the end of this time he published “The Art of Fiction,” a sharply worded essay that began as a knife-cut in the literary debates of his period, but which endures as a major theoretical statement. In between, James not only wrote his first full-length masterpiece but also returned twice to America from his home in London, buried both his parents, and settled his choice of a European residence once and for all. He confirmed the choices he had already made: of the Old World, of his art, and of what he always presented as his consequent decision not to marry.

That decision was one he found himself insisting upon in the early 1880s, even as he made Isabel turn down one proposal after another. Yet there are other ways to think of it, and one element in my story is an account of James’s own sexuality. Nobody now doubts the directions of his sexual leanings. His deepest erotic longings were for men, and at a certain point in his life he came to understand that. The precise date of that point has, however, proved impossible to fix, and nobody actually knows if he ever acted upon a physical desire. He burned most of the letters he received, hoped others would burn his, and his stories often depend on the things his characters cannot quite manage to say to each another. His work presents us with a paradox: this apparently celibate writer nevertheless kicked harder than any of his Anglophone contemporaries at the period’s conventional distinction between
“that which people know”
about the sexual life, and that which on the page “they agree to admit that they know.”

I will describe the writing of the novel itself, defining James’s plans and progress and reconstructing the rhythms of his working life. In doing so I give special attention to the places of the writing—to his work in London, Florence, and Venice, and his settings in the Thames Valley, Florence, and Rome. So I have walked through the Tuscan capital with a nineteenth-century guidebook in my hand, mapping out the various places in which James stayed, and visiting the villa in which he located some of his characters; working throughout to define the difference between those actual places and the uses he made of them. Another part of the tale provides an account of the novel’s publication—its serialization on both sides of the Atlantic, its reception and sales—and locates the book within the institutions of the Victorian novel as a whole. Throughout, I alternate sections on the novel with others that place James and his work in their moment, a dialectical structure that allows the fiction itself to suggest just when to pick up on certain issues in the writer’s own life; when James takes his characters to Italy, I will take him there too. But above all I will tell the story that the novel tells, watching Isabel Archer make the choices she has insisted upon making, and using my commentary on its plot to carry the burden of argument, as the best movie criticism often does. One of the things Isabel learns is that her field of action is not free, has never been free. The decisions of others have always impinged upon her own, and her belated recognition of those constraints—of the limits placed on her Emersonian self-reliance—has been described as an American version of
Paradise Lost

The novel began its serial run in October 1880, appearing in both the
Atlantic Monthly
and in Britain’s
Macmillan’s Magazine
, and had its first book publication in the fall of the following year. James always dreamed of a good market, and was almost always disappointed. Only a few of his shorter works were bestsellers, but not even
Daisy Miller
The Turn of the Screw
(1898) could rival the appeal of Dickens or Mark Twain. By his own measure, though,
The Portrait of a Lady
was a commercial success, selling over 5,500 copies in five American printings during its first year, and it remains today the most popular of his novels.

BOOK: Portrait of A Novel
9.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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