Portraits of The Portrait of a Lady

It is the business of the artist to make humanity aware of itself. Ezra Pound

Is it reasonable to write about a book I’ve never read? I’ve read a fair amount about the book, but not the thing itself. However, I have read a reverential review by Anthony Lane of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady in the New Yorker last month.

Lane writes about how much the book meant to him and reviews a recent book by Michael Gorra about James’s novel titled, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece. Once in a while I dip into a James novel, but I’ve found his formal style and ponderous loquaciousness of little appeal.

And while I don’t usually get much out of the movie reviews Lane writes for the New Yorker, his treatment of Portrait and enthusiasm about it was different. I say to myself, if I can’t write a classic novel or expect to enjoy it, the least I can do is read about it.

At this point then, what I have is second order accounts of the novel—Lane’s, Gorra’s as viewed by Lane, along with some timely quotations from James, Lane and Gorra. Lane begins his account the way James began Portrait.

Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.

This is hardly the view of anyone I have ever met, although it is one that I still continue to practice. Not the traditional English way with scones, jams and other treats. Simply a cup of tea wherever I am and if it’s in the tropics, no doubt iced tea, and if it’s in Portland, hot tea most days in that town in the far north of this land. In the best of all possible worlds, it would be good to share that time with someone else, but that is largely a dream these days.

Lane quotes a passage early in the novel, “She had been looking all round her again,--at the lawn, the great trees, the reedy, silvery Thames, the beautiful old house; and, while engaged in this survey, she had also narrowly scrutinized her companions; a comprehensiveness of observation easily conceivable on the part of a young woman who was evidently both intelligent and excited…”I have never seen anything so beautiful as this,” she declared.

Whereupon Lane remarks, “I have never read anything as beautiful as that.” He says the beauty of this passage isn’t the scene James describes but rather the excitement and quickness of Isabel Archer’s response.

Lane acknowledges, as any reader does who rereads a novel they first read when they were young, that his appreciation of The Portrait of a Lady bears little relationship to how he finds it today.

He turns to Gorra’s book about the novel and commends him for approaching James by treating, in depth, only one of his works. He reminds us there are many books about a single book, including Joyce’s Ulysses, Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, etc.

Lane asks if you love a book so much, should you “leave rough traces of that love, or should scholarship smooth them over?” Reading Lane’s essay leaves little doubt in my mind where he stands. Or, for that matter, Jeffrey Eugenides, author of widely praised The Marriage Plot, who called James’s novel, “the best marriage plot novel ever….It’s much darker than anything Austen did, and it leads straight to the moral ambiguities and complexities of the modern novel.”