Portrait of a novel

James Wood, London Review of Books

I first read The Portrait of a Lady at the age of 17, in school, as one of the set texts for A-level English. There were novels that excited me more, for extra-literary reasons, or spoke more intensely to some aspect of my development, there were contemporary novels that were great just because they were contemporary, but there was no novel that seemed to inhabit so deeply its themes, no novel so committed to the ceaseless incision of intelligent sensibility, no novel as linguistically alert. It is the one novel about which I most regularly feel – as now – that I have failed to describe the totality, the coverage of its intelligence. When I think ideally of ‘the novel’, this is the one I recur to.

One of the many pleasures of Michael Gorra’s book is that he too has loved this novel since he studied it in college, and wants to share his passion for it. He has also taught it for many years, at Smith College, and he has written the kind of patient, sensitive, acute study that gifted teachers should write but rarely do. Portrait of a Novel is effectively a new biography of James, with The Portrait of a Lady at its centre. Gorra describes the entire arc of James’s life, unobtrusively (this is made possible by the fact that James wrote it as a youngish man, and rewrote it, in 1906, as an oldish man); but he does so in order to tell the story of the novel – both as a critic and as a biographer.

As a biographer, he travels to some of the houses that may have served as models for James, and he re-creates as well as anyone could the scenes of authorial composition. Though this novel changed everything in James’s career – though it is the portal through which the writer we think of as ‘Jamesian’, or as the Master, passed – Gorra reminds us that a young man wrote it, a 37-year-old, not yet sedentary or portly, a man who ‘knew how to fence, worked out with dumbbells, liked peaches and Bass Ale’, and who wrote a prose that was ‘tart and vigorous’.

It was this writer, agile, cheerfully solitary, bearded and with thinning hair (not yet the possessor of the massive cleared cranium that glows in the later photographs), who sat in the Hôtel de l’Arno in Florence, and worked on the early chapters in the autumn of 1880, and who later travelled to Venice, where he wrote a good deal of the novel, extremely fast, in the spring and summer of 1881. He wrote it in serial instalments, for Macmillan’s in Britain and the Atlantic in the States. ‘He does not appear to have struggled with a single deadline,’ Gorra says. James writes in the preface to the New York edition that he would get up from the desk in his Venice hotel, and look out of the window, as if to see whether ‘the ship of some right suggestion, of some better phrase’ might not sail into sight.

James’s novel opens with provoking languor, and an air of leisured surplus. It is an English summer afternoon (James once said that ‘summer afternoon’ were the two most beautiful words in the language). Three men are taking tea on the lawn at Gardencourt, a country house overlooking the Thames, about forty miles from London. Daniel Touchett, the old American banker who owns the house, is nearing the end of his life – ‘taking the rest that precedes the great rest’. His tubercular son, Ralph, looks ‘clever and ill’, and keeps his hands (seemingly for the duration of the entire novel) in his brown velvet smoking jacket. A neighbour, Lord Warburton, is more robust than these two New England aristocrats. He stands with his hands behind him, and in one of his fists – ‘a large, white, well-shaped fist’ – he has crumpled a pair of dirty dog-skin gloves.

The three men dribble away the time with slightly irritating badinage – they chat about their health, about being bored, about marriage and what might constitute ‘an interesting woman’. Ralph announces that his mother, Mrs Touchett (who is estranged from his father), is arriving any minute from America, with a potentially interesting young woman, a niece. Perhaps Lord Warburton will fall in love with her? Mr Touchett smilingly suggests that she is probably engaged; ‘American girls are usually engaged.’ But Isabel Archer has already arrived. At the next moment, she steps out of the house and onto the lawn, fondles a welcoming dog, and pronounces the scene ‘just like a novel!’

Read the full analysis and review of Michael Gorra’s book by James Wood in the London Review of Books …