- - Friday, September 7, 2012

By Michael Gorra
W.W. Norton/Liveright, $29.95, 416 pages

”The Portrait of a Lady” was the first true success for Henry James; with it he established his literary reputation. Today it is recognized as one of the great American novels, the link, as author Michael Gorra states, “between George Eliot and Virginia Woolf.” As such, the book continues to sell 25,000 copies a year.

James conceived the story while traveling in England, France and Italy while he was coming to terms with the cultures of Europe and America. The novel began as a serial run in October 1880 in both the Atlantic Monthly and Britain’s Macmillan’s Magazine; it did not appear in book form until the following year, and it quickly became a commercial success. James revised it in 1906; this is the edition most read now.

Michael Gorra, an established author who teaches English at Smith College, has taken a unique approach to James‘ work. “Portrait of a Novel” is not a biography, nor is it straight criticism. Instead, it is the story of a work: how James came to write “Portrait of a Lady”; what happened to him while he was doing so; what the book’s relation is to contemporary fiction; and how it was published, received and revised.

Mr. Gorra has given special attention to the places James visited while writing his opus. Like the British writer Richard Holmes, Mr. Gorra is a romantic, combining biographical sleuthing, memoir and travel. Walking through Florence with a 19th-century guidebook in hand, Mr. Gorra retraced James‘ footsteps, mapping out locales and visiting villas where the author had stayed. This, interwoven with a careful reading of James‘ work and personal background, has resulted in a highly satisfying account charting the evolution of a classic.

We all know the story. Isabel Archer, high-spirited and penniless, is taken by her aunt to Europe. Unlike many American beauties of that period who roved the Continent in search of husbands, Isabel declares she is “very fond of my liberty. I wish to choose my fate.” She brings to the Old World a refreshing abundance of innocence and self-confidence (some might say conceit) that emboldens her to spurn every desirable suitor who adores her. Then, thanks to the intervention of cousin Ralph Touchett, she is bestowed a fortune, making her rich enough to “reach the requirements of my imagination.”

As James biographer Leon Edel once pointed out, Isabel’s theme is universal: What do people make of their lives, and why? Why is it that certain people, brimming with every gift that life can bestow — youth, beauty, talent and money — take certain fatal steps and so fill their lives with bitterness and sorrow? When she marries the fortune hunter Gilbert Osmond, Isabel’s freedom is smothered; it’s a choice that fills her life with neither light nor air. By cutting herself off from her true nature, she is forced “to learn to hide every independent thought away.”

And so we read Isabel’s story, Mr. Gorra writes, “wishing we could warn her against the others” — the conniving Madame Merle, poignant and repulsive at once, and especially against the predatory Gilbert, whose egotism lies “hidden like a serpent in a bank of flowers.” Isabel’s realization of her mistake, in famous Chapter 42, with its use of stream of consciousness predating Virginia Woolf, stands, as Mr. Gorra says, “as one of James‘ greatest achievements and a turning point in the history of the novel.” The death of Ralph Touchett fills Isabel (and the reader) with the ache that comes with regret and wisdom.

Mr. Gorra takes us along this journey of self-discovery with the erudition and friendly tone of a master essayist. His discussion of how James used his cousin Minny Temple as the model for Isabel and of his mysterious sexual life is handled responsibly, as is the reading of changes James made to the text.

Mr. Gorra can be evocative when imparting atmosphere to his narrative, but then he seems to get carried away. I will cite one example. “Picture them there: the windy hump of Mt. Washington sits in the distance, and on the lawn of a wood-framed New England house, the young people sit and talk. To the soldiers it must all seem strange, an atmosphere of lemonade and muslin after years of blood and bullets.” Then, the very next sentence: “But the summer breeze is pregnant with futurity, and James would remember that their conversation was full to the brim with freedom.” What?

For all this, it is a testament to Henry James that “The Portrait of a Lady” remains as powerful and as touching since its publication, and thanks to Michael Gorra’s “Portrait of a Novel,” readers will be inspired to return to it anew with a more learned eye.

• Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the editor of H.L. Mencken’s “Prejudices,” released by the Library of America.



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