Portrait of a Lady
By Henry James
Review by COLM TÓIBÍN
Globe and Mail
December 20, 2008
Henry James used everything he knew, including his own complex self, when he wrote The Portrait of a Lady.
He dramatized his own interest in freedom against his own egotism, his own bright charm against the darker areas of his imagination.
He also used the ghost of his young cousin, Minny Temple, who had died in 1870.
He wrote to a friend who believed his heroine in the book, Isabel Archer, was a direct portrait of Minny: "Poor Minny was essentially incomplete and I have attempted to make my young woman more rounded, more finished.
"In truth everyone, in life, is incomplete, and it is [in] the work of art that in reproducing them one feels the desire to fill them out, to justify them, as it were."
In 1878, James had published Daisy Miller, a tale of a spirited young American woman in Italy who was punished for breaking the rules.
And also, a tale called An International Episode, in which another spirited young American woman was, to the surprise of her English friends, not in search of a rich husband, or any husband at all; she sought something more interesting from life than the mere prospect of money and rank.
The idea of creating a great female character loomed large in James's imaginative ambitions as the 1870s progressed.
When he came to write his preface to The Portrait of a Lady a quarter of a century after it was published, James insisted that the novel, which has a dark and fascinating plot, had not come to him first as a plot, "but altogether in the sense of a single character, the character and aspect of a particular engaging young woman."
As he wrote his preface, he was alert to the idea that a young woman as the central subject of a work of art had to be defended, or at least explained.
He appealed to the example of George Eliot, to her placing female characters such as Hetty Sorrel, Maggie Tulliver, Rosamond Vincy and Gwendolen Harleth at the very centre of her novels, remarking how difficult the task was, so difficult indeed that "Dickens and Walter Scott, as for instance even, in the main, so subtle a hand as R.L. Stevenson, has preferred to leave the task unattempted."
His decision, he wrote, was to "place the centre of the subject in the young woman's consciousness. … Stick to that — for the centre. … Press least hard, in short, on the consciousness of your heroine's satellites, especially the male; make it an interest contributive only to the greater one."
He used imagery associated with architecture throughout his preface: "On one thing I was determined; that, though I should clearly have to pile brick upon brick for the creation of an interest, I would leave no pretext for saying that anything is out of line, scale or perspective."
Part of the genius of the novel is its structure, its handling of time, its use of small-scale scenes where two or three of the characters dramatize their needs and desires.
Mostly, however, in sequences some of which have considerable intensity and power, we the readers live inside Isabel's tender mind and watch her change and respond; we understand nothing more than she does about what is coming her way.
In this novel, James conjured up real houses; he described the cities of Rome and Florence, which he had come to know and love; he weaved in English manners, which he had, by the time he wrote the book, come to appreciate.
He created a number of minor characters filled with eccentricity, such as the American journalist Henrietta Stackpole, the outspoken and independent Mrs. Touchett and the darkly and elegantly mysterious Madame Merle.
In The Portrait of a Lady, James drew a portrait of an American in Europe who had high ideals, immense charm and considerable moral seriousness.
He dramatized her need for freedom against repression and secrecy and dark restriction.
In concentrating on her fate in the world, her relationship with her cousin Ralph and two other men who wanted her, he created one of the most magnificent figures in the large and sprawling house of fiction.
Colm Tóibín was a finalist for the 2004 Man Booker Prize for his novel about Henry James, "The Master."