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Is "Portrait of a Lady" by Henry James a great American novel?

Portrait of a Novel - review.

Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece
Michael Gorra
W W Norton, 416pp, £20

Henry James once defined criticism as the mind “reaching out for the reasons of its interest”, a process that he deemed “the very education of our imaginative life”. Michael Gorra doesn’t include this quotation in Portrait of a Novel but it is an apt description of the book he has written about James’s The Portrait of a Lady (1881).
For many readers, Portrait is the greatest of James’s many masterpieces. It was indisputably the pivot on which his fiction turned toward the problem that would absorb him for the rest of his life, the problem of consciousness. It is the novel that defined psychological interiority as drama, forever changing our ideas about what fiction can do. In particular, its famous 42nd chapter, in which Isabel Archer discovers that instead of “affronting her destiny”, as she hoped, her destiny has affronted her, must, as Gorra argues, stand “as one of James’s greatest achievements and a turning point in the history of the novel”.

I expect that mine will prove a minority perspective on Gorra’s marvellous portrait of Portrait, for I read it while in the final stages of revising my own book about the genesis of an American masterpiece, in my case F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Unearthing the roots of a classic novel is a (comparatively) novel way for the critic to reach out for the reasons of our own interests, to explore the education of our imaginative life. For Gorra, it provides an opportunity to reframe The Portrait of a Lady against the background of James’s life and art, his ideas about consciousness, desire and autonomy and his role in the invention of American literature. Like Gorra, I am also drawing on biography, correspondence, history and literary criticism to discover the origins of great fiction.

Yet, although our undertakings are virtually identical, our books are sharply divergent in style, structure and approach. This is as it should be, for so are the two novels we are exploring. In threading the story of James’s life through and around his pivotal Portrait, Gorra pays homage to the Master by finding a voice that filters and reflects James’s. Few could imitate James’s majestic style and Gorra is far too intelligent to try; but James’s sensibility suffuses his language, creating a book that feels not unlike reading James: stately, reflective, nuanced and wise.

Trying to trace the source of literature as if it were a river we can navigate is hazardous, for reasons Gorra makes clear: in seeking to recreate an author’s journey towards great fiction, one runs the risk of seeming to reduce a masterpiece to simplistic assertions of a facile correspondence between a work of imagination and the realities that may have helped inspire it. There is no “real” Isabel Archer, any more than there is a “real” Jay Gatsby, but both characters were modelled on the writer’s ideas about actual people – and upon other actualities they encountered. How could it be otherwise? “Few of James’s important characters have a source in a specific person,” Gorra writes. “What he does instead is to take not a person but a set of circumstances from the life around him.”

Gorra’s enterprise is to recreate as closely as he can those circumstances in order to interpret James’s novel. He has done a splendid job, writing a book full of felicitous observations as he creates a delicate cobweb of connections between the novel and its contexts. “The whole of anything is never told,” James remarked in his notebooks during the composition of Portrait; while respecting the truth of this observation, Gorra also wants to see how close he can come or, rather, to join in the project of redefining what we mean by the “whole” story of fiction.

Such projects are a rejection of the old critical piety that insists upon an absolute separation between life and art. If it is true that art is not identical to its origins, it is equally true that it has a relationship to those origins. The life and work are intertwined: it is folly to pretend otherwise but maintaining a false schism can be easier than the messy business of trying to think usefully about how a work of art connects to a long-lost world. Visiting Hardwick Court, the model for Gardencourt, the house in which James’s story opens, Gorra tells us: “We don’t know just where he would have done this, but the weather was warm and so let me place him in the Garden Room.” Some may see this as an affectation but it is scrupulous with the reader about what Gorra knows and what he doesn’t and it evinces a very Jamesian respect for the workings of consciousness.

James delighted in what he called “the palpable, imaginable visitable past – in the nearer distances”. We are trying to discover the visitable past, too; the question is what such sources can teach us about the work, as Gorra explains: “[T]he difference between the fictional page and the gravel of documentary truth can stand as a guide to artistic practice.” The reverse is also true, however: great fiction can show us how to read our national history. Indeed, one of Gorra’s stated goals is to think about James’s Portrait as a prismatic reflection of American ideals and their boundaries.

The Portrait of a Lady is a story about an American who believes in individual autonomy learning a very hard lesson about the limits of self-determination. Isabel will lose her innocence in every sense: as Gorra writes, she “rejects the plot that other people might write for her, and insists instead that she must be free to choose, free to make her own mistakes”. And it is a story about recovering the past: Isabel must rediscover her past in order to claim her future.

James’s Portrait is also a novel about our relationship to things, about whether what we own can represent us, to others or to ourselves. Isabel learns that things say more about her than she thought: she is not as free as she in - nocently, wilfully tried to remain. For Gorra, Portrait’s “account of the limits of self-sufficiency is what, above all, makes it stand as a great American novel” and “a critique of American exceptionalism”.

Late in Portrait of a Novel, Gorra notes that Isabel finds herself in a similar position to other well-known protagonists: “She hasn’t had the freedom she thought. The critic Arnold Kettle once called the Portrait a 19th-century version of Paradise Lost, a book about the end of a dream, about the loss of faith in the idea of in - dividual autonomy.” Before long, Gorra is noting the particular American valence of this idea: “America itself has had no separate or special creation. No fresh start, no city on a hill, no truly new world; no exception to or exemption from history itself . . . [W]hat almost 50 years later Fitzgerald would understand, too, dreaming of a green light whose promise he knows is illusory; learns a truth so at odds with the American imaginary that it must be repeated again and again, an innocence lost in each generation.”

In the end, both Gatsby and Portrait – and so both of our books about these novels – are about recapturing the past, about innocence lost and regained, America then and now. Above all, they are about the artist’s conviction that the exquisite matters, a conviction that remains one of life’s saving graces.

Sarah Churchwell is professor of American literature at the University of East Anglia

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?