There is lots of dialogue in it, perhaps too much, but do you realise how much of James's novel is also about things that are left unsaid? I'm not thinking of those moments where the characters sit alone and think; I'm referring to those scenes where a character is having a conversation with someone else and wants to say something but doesn't/ can't, or those scenes where a character wants another character to say something but it doesn't happen. Other writers do this too, sometimes, but it's more remarkable in The Portrait of a Lady, because the characters' silence has reasons, purposes and effects (as in Tolstoy's A History of Yesterday).
Madame Merle is silent because she's cunning, because she has schemes, because she has a secret. Gilbert Osmond is silent because he's a selfish, dominating, cold-hearted man who sometimes chooses not to tell things to his wife. Lord Warburton is silent because he's aware of propriety and because Isabel doesn't allow him to speak of his love. Caspar Goodwood is silent because he's anxious and uncertain about Isabel and has to control himself (though later he has an outburst and asks the question he has meant to ask- whether she's unhappy). Edward Rosier is silent also because he's much in love and agitated as a consequence, but unable to speak. Pansy is silent because she's submissive and unwilling to disobey her papa.
Even Henrietta Stackpole, who we know is not afraid of talking and speaking her mind, has an important moment in which she leaves things unsaid- she deliberately comes to Rome, with Caspar, to see how Isabel's doing, but when knowing, she doesn't speak of it and sends him tracts and stuff, which she knows he doesn't need.
There are 3 especially good scenes in which James's art is in letting the characters leave things unsaid.
"On the evening I speak of, while Lord Warburton sat there, she had been on the point of taking the great step of going out of the room and leaving her companions alone. I say the great step, because it was in this light that Gilbert Osmond would have regarded it, and Isabel was trying as much as possible to take her husband's view. She succeeded after a fashion, but she fell short of the point I mention. After all she couldn't rise to it; something held her and made this impossible. It was not exactly that it would be base or insidious; for women as a general thing practise such manoeuvres with a perfectly good conscience, and Isabel was instinctively much more true than false to the common genius of her sex. There was a vague doubt that interposed—a sense that she was not quite sure. So she remained in the drawing-room, and after a while Lord Warburton went off to his party, of which he promised to give Pansy a full account on the morrow. After he had gone she wondered if she had prevented something which would have happened if she had absented herself for a quarter of an hour; and then she pronounced—always mentally—that when their distinguished visitor should wish her to go away he would easily find means to let her know it. Pansy said nothing whatever about him after he had gone, and Isabel studiously said nothing, as she had taken a vow of reserve until after he should have declared himself. He was a little longer in coming to this than might seem to accord with the description he had given Isabel of his feelings. Pansy went to bed, and Isabel had to admit that she could not now guess what her stepdaughter was thinking of. Her transparent little companion was for the moment not to be seen through."Those 2 last sentences are so good. As I wrote in a comment on Tom's blog, Pansy bothered me a bit at the beginning- her passivity and submissiveness was too much emphasised, her talk sounded odd, she was too much like a doll, but this scene and a few others give her life.
This has the same effect as Rosanette's silence in Sentimental Education.
2/ Pansy's parentage- the secret:
"'... As for her veritable mother—!' But with this Pansy's wonderful aunt dropped—as, involuntarily, from the impression of her sister-in-law's face, out of which more eyes might have seemed to look at her than she had ever had to meet.Countess Gemini doesn't say, and Isabel doesn't ask if she guessed right, but that is enough. The pathos is created by their not speaking.
She had spoken no name, yet Isabel could but check, on her own lips, an echo of the unspoken. She sank to her seat again, hanging her head. 'Why have you told me this?' she asked in a voice the Countess hardly recognised."
3/ The conversation between Ralph and Isabel in chapter 45.
"... It was the first time she had alluded to the need for help, and the words shook her cousin with their violence. He gave a long murmur of relief, of pity, of tenderness; it seemed to him that at last the gulf between them had been bridged. It was this that made him exclaim in a moment: 'How unhappy you must be!'Isabel doesn't speak because she is proud, because she has ignored everyone and made a mistake, publicly, and wants to hide her misery from everyone. Ralph can't speak because she doesn't. It's difficult.
He had no sooner spoken than she recovered her self-possession, and the first use she made of it was to pretend she had not heard him."
"Her mask had dropped for an instant, but she had put it on again, to Ralph's infinite disappointment. He had caught a glimpse of her natural face and he wished immensely to look into it. He had an almost savage desire to hear her complain of her husband—hear her say that she should be held accountable for Lord Warburton's defection. Ralph was certain that this was her situation; he knew by instinct, in advance, the form that in such an event Osmond's displeasure would take. It could only take the meanest and cruellest. He would have liked to warn Isabel of it—to let her see at least how he judged for her and how he knew. It little mattered that Isabel would know much better; it was for his own satisfaction more than for hers that he longed to show her he was not deceived. He tried and tried again to make her betray Osmond; he felt cold-blooded, cruel, dishonourable almost, in doing so. But it scarcely mattered, for he only failed. What had she come for then, and why did she seem almost to offer him a chance to violate their tacit convention? Why did she ask him his advice if she gave him no liberty to answer her? How could they talk of her domestic embarrassments, as it pleased her humorously to designate them, if the principal factor was not to be mentioned? These contradictions were themselves but an indication of her trouble, and her cry for help, just before, was the only thing he was bound to consider."Then:
"Ralph took an inward resolution that she shouldn't leave him without his letting her know that he knew everything: it seemed too great an opportunity to lose."He doesn't say that he knows, he says something else, but it's enough.
Knowing that Ralph knows, and upon him telling her to be frank, Isabel doesn't speak:
"But she made no reply; she only pulled her hand out of his own, which he tried still to hold, and rapidly withdrew from the room."This is 1 of the most beautiful and excellent scenes in The Portrait of a Lady. They can't speak despite understanding each other. Yet they understand each other despite not speaking.
James might not be very good at dialogue, but he knows sometimes the inability or refusal to speak is just as good as speech at conveying characters and relationships, and he makes use of it. And it's poignant.
Update later in the day:
As I read on, I found a marvellous passage:
"... So Madame Merle went on, with much of the brilliancy of a woman who had long been a mistress of the art of conversation. But there were phases and gradations in her speech, not one of which was lost upon Isabel's ear, though her eyes were absent from her companion's face. She had not proceeded far before Isabel noted a sudden break in her voice, a lapse in her continuity, which was in itself a complete drama. This subtle modulation marked a momentous discovery—the perception of an entirely new attitude on the part of her listener. Madame Merle had guessed in the space of an instant that everything was at end between them, and in the space of another instant she had guessed the reason why. The person who stood there was not the same one she had seen hitherto, but was a very different person—a person who knew her secret. This discovery was tremendous, and from the moment she made it the most accomplished of women faltered and lost her courage. But only for that moment. Then the conscious stream of her perfect manner gathered itself again and flowed on as smoothly as might be to the end. But it was only because she had the end in view that she was able to proceed. She had been touched with a point that made her quiver, and she needed all the alertness of her will to repress her agitation. Her only safety was in her not betraying herself. She resisted this, but the startled quality of her voice refused to improve—she couldn't help it—while she heard herself say she hardly knew what. The tide of her confidence ebbed, and she was able only just to glide into port, faintly grazing the bottom.Ah... The aesthetic bliss, the tingle along the spine!
Isabel saw it all as distinctly as if it had been reflected in a large clear glass. It might have been a great moment for her, for it might have been a moment of triumph. That Madame Merle had lost her pluck and saw before her the phantom of exposure—this in itself was a revenge, this in itself was almost the promise of a brighter day. And for a moment during which she stood apparently looking out of the window, with her back half-turned, Isabel enjoyed that knowledge. On the other side of the window lay the garden of the convent; but this is not what she saw; she saw nothing of the budding plants and the glowing afternoon. She saw, in the crude light of that revelation which had already become a part of experience and to which the very frailty of the vessel in which it had been offered her only gave an intrinsic price, the dry staring fact that she had been an applied handled hung-up tool, as senseless and convenient as mere shaped wood and iron. All the bitterness of this knowledge surged into her soul again; it was as if she felt on her lips the taste of dishonour. There was a moment during which, if she had turned and spoken, she would have said something that would hiss like a lash. But she closed her eyes, and then the hideous vision dropped. What remained was the cleverest woman in the world standing there within a few feet of her and knowing as little what to think as the meanest. Isabel's only revenge was to be silent still—to leave Madame Merle in this unprecedented situation. She left her there for a period that must have seemed long to this lady, who at last seated herself with a movement which was in itself a confession of helplessness. Then Isabel turned slow eyes, looking down at her. Madame Merle was very pale; her own eyes covered Isabel's face. She might see what she would, but her danger was over. Isabel would never accuse her, never reproach her; perhaps because she never would give her the opportunity to defend herself."
The other day I was thinking of Jane Austen and Tolstoy as the masters of subtleties- how they notice and capture all the little details, the nuances of feeling! And now it turns out Henry James's just as good. Almost.