'Portrait of a Novel': Inside the complex making of Henry James' 'Portrait of a Lady'
Henry James lived his adult life in Europe, residing in England, France and Italy, writing in hotels or rented rooms. He was a self-exiled American whose subjects were other American exiles and, although James and his biographers wrote volumes about him, little is known about his intimate life.
Michael Gorra, professor of English at Smith College, parses this well-trod ground through the writings and in person, searching for the physical traces of the enigmatic novelist's European life in his sympathetic interpretation of "The Portrait of a Lady," James' most successful novel.
James composed the story of American Isabel Archer around 1879, much of it in Florence. Mr. Gorra "in the milky light of an April morning" visited the Florence villa where James lived, one of several hunting expeditions he took following the path of the novelist's wanderings. Mr. Gorra admits he was too timid to get inside an apartment in the villa, but does re-create a sense of the environment where James wrote.
"Portrait of a Novel" then works quite nicely as a perceptive travelogue, a sort of Frommer's Guide to the world of Henry James. If you're a fan of the novelist, you'll find the book a pleasant way to get a feel for his milieu, but, as I discovered in my visits to Ernest Hemingway's and Gertrude Stein's homes in Paris, there's a lifeless quality to those excursions, and Mr. Gorra's experiences reflect that feeling.
His real destination is the heart of his subject, and that journey is fraught with detours largely because of James' reticence. Mr. Gorra's map is the revised "Portrait of a Lady," released in 1908. James is a rarity among writers in that he assiduously reworked his earlier books, particularly "Portrait of a Lady" in order to reflect "the gap between 'the march of my present attention ... and the march of my original attention.' "
The revisions James made to his 1881 novel after writing the demanding books of the early 20th century -- "The Wings of a Dove," "The Ambassadors" and "The Golden Bowl" -- and a memoir, "The American Scene," are clues to his emotional maturity, Mr. Gorra believes.
To a casual reader, the changes are subtle -- this is Henry James, after all. But to Mr. Gorra, they reflect the novelist's sexual and romantic awakening in his 50s. James locked his attraction to men in a Victorian closet and threw away the key, despite living in the open society of Europe. He reflected the puritanical properness of his fellow Americans and was offended by such writers as Balzac and Zola, whom he knew from his Paris days.
Yet, the 1908 version of "Portrait of a Lady" was a bit more explicit in its description of Isabel's own sexual awakening in the arms of Caspar Goodwood, whose own state of arousal threatens to overwhelm her. James had fallen in love a few years earlier with a Norwegian sculptor, Hendrik Andersen, but it came to naught. Mr. Gorra believes, however, that James had found a deeper understanding of passion and love.
He now had the freedom, constricted as it was, to release some of those inner feelings through Isabel in his rewriting of the scene, a release that was forbidden in 1881 standards, Mr. Gorra argues. This change elevates Isabel to a more human and sympathetic character by giving readers a deeper understanding of her experiences. She had been used and mistaken in her marriage to Gilbert Osmond and would not allow herself another foolish mistake.
While "Portrait of a Novel" breaks no new ground in academic research about James, Mr. Gorra's critical interpretation of James' breakthrough fiction can enlighten readers familiar with his work and guide those coming to Henry James for the first time.
First Published September 9, 2012 12:00 am