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Thursday, 24 September 2015

The Portrait of a Lady: a bit English, a bit Russian

Henry James doesn't only show. He tells. He tells a lot.
What can we say about Isabel Archer after 9 chapters? Unexpectedly pretty, charming. Free-spirited, independent, fond of her own ways. Several incidents show that not only is she not shy but she can also be quite bold and straightforward, sometimes to the point of lacking manners: her arrival at Gardencourt (she plays with the dog and comfortably talks to people she has never met, staying where she is, and doesn't come to greet Mr Touchett), her 1st meeting with Mrs Touchett ("you must be our crazy Aunt Lydia!")...
In some parts Isabel's naturalness is reminiscent of James's other American girls. In some ways, she resembles Gwendolen Harleth (her charm, her way of talking, her illusion- "She had no talent for expression and too little of the consciousness of genius; she only had a general idea that people were right when they treated her as if she were rather superior", her ambition "She had a theory that it was only under this provision life was worth living; that one should be one of the best, should be conscious of a fine organisation (she couldn't help knowing her organisation was fine), should move in a realm of light, of natural wisdom, of happy impulse, of inspiration gracefully chronic", ...); in some ways, she is like Dorothea Brooke ("most girls are horridly ignorant", "I'm said to have many theories", "great passion for knowledge"...) More interestingly, Isabel has the traits that make one realise how similar Dorothea and Gwendolen are: all 3 are young and inexperienced, all 3 are narrow, all 3 are ambitious and not content with an ordinary life, all 3 strike others as different from most girls, all 3 believe in their own superiority (even Dorothea), all 3 are self-willed, etc.
The narrator says:
"Altogether, with her meagre knowledge, her inflated ideals, her confidence at once innocent and dogmatic, her temper at once exacting and indulgent, her mixture of curiosity and fastidiousness, of vivacity and indifference, her desire to look very well and to be if possible even better, her determination to see, to try, to know, her combination of the delicate, desultory, flame-like spirit and the eager and personal creature of conditions: she would be an easy victim of scientific criticism if she were not intended to awaken on the reader's part an impulse more tender and more purely expectant."
That summing-up of Isabel fits Gwendolen perfectly, and to some extent, Dorothea. Isabel is an American Gwendolen mixed with Dorothea.
Speaking of the writing, James now doesn't make me think of Jane Austen or George Eliot, to whom I've seen a few people compare him. He feels like an American Turgenev. The Portrait of a Lady feels like a Turgenev novel with English names. Positively, I'm thinking of the coherence, symmetry and balance, the harmony and control, the economy, the withdrawal of the author, the presentation of incidents and people as they are, the quiet tone, the serenity, the subtlety and suggestion of something deeper, larger, etc. Negatively, I'm afraid that there is no fall but there is no rise either. The writing is generally good. There is irony. There is humour. Now and then some passages, some phrases, some words are particularly delightful. Take this line about the Misses Molyneux: 
"Their friendliness was great, so great that they were almost embarrassed to show it..."
Or this passage about the journalist Henrietta Stackpole: 
"She rustled, she shimmered, in fresh, dove-coloured draperies, and Ralph saw at a glance that she was as crisp and new and comprehensive as a first issue before the folding. From top to toe she had probably no misprint. She spoke in a clear, high voice—a voice not rich but loud; yet after she had taken her place with her companions in Mr. Touchett's carriage she struck him as not all in the large type, the type of horrid "headings," that he had expected." 
But the book in general doesn't overwhelm, doesn't evoke intense emotions, doesn't cause strong admiration, but that of course is the impression of 9 chapters and I may feel differently later. I suppose it's the kind of writing that must be taken slowly, and our appreciation also comes slowly.

3 comments:

  1. Yes, a mix of the two Eliot heroines. Or not a mix, but a point in between the two. I didn't see this reading Middlemarch, but it was obvious reading DD, in part because the tone of the Harleth section was more like the tone James commonly uses. Portrait of a Lady sounds like Eliot to me! But Eliot without the "wisdom" mode and more - far more - banter. Too much banter.

    Those three long, long paragraphs about Isabel in Chapter 6 are a perfect example of James telling. How am I am supposed to remember all of that? The earlier scene in New York, in Isabel's "reading room," is a good example of James showing.

    "Slowly" - I think that is right. Unlike in Eliot, there won't be any parallel plots here, so James has room to stretch.

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    1. Hmmm, that's probably a better way of putting it: a point in between the 2.
      I don't knooow, man. Eliot sounds a lot more serious than that, even though she can be funny now and then. The author is always there, commenting, forcing her opinions down my throat; she's in almost every sentence, definitely in every observation.

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  2. Honestly, I think James is often there, too. I would not say he "withdraws" - he is hardly Flaubert. See a couple of pages into Chapter 12 for a good example - "Smile not, however, I venture to repeat..." Like Eliot, James feels he has to intervene to direct his reader - doesn't want the reader to get the wrong idea.

    Or maybe James is a trickster, and is deliberately misdirecting the reader!

    If the comparison is one of tone - Eliot is more often somber, James more arch - I don't think Turgenev is the author you want to put with James.

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