Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece 
by Michael Gorra.
Norton, 385 pp., £20, September 2012, 978 0 87140 408 4
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Henry James was foul about Far from the Madding Crowd when it appeared in 1874. He was a young writer, ambitious, seething, silkily aggressive. There was ground to be cleared, and residents had to be deported. Thomas Hardy, with his knobbly rusticities and merry peasants, would not do. In the Nation, James complained that the novel had a ‘fatal lack of magic’, and was written in a ‘verbose and redundant style … Everything human in the book strikes us as factious and insubstantial; the only things we believe in are the sheep and the dogs.’ James got almost everything wrong about the novel (how could he have missed, say, the ‘scarlet handful of fire’ in the grate of Gabriel Oak’s hut?) but one thing perhaps lingered. Far from the Madding Crowd tells the story of a beautiful woman, Bathsheba Everdene, who is pursued by three suitors: the dashing and unreliable Sergeant Troy; the solid yeoman, Gabriel Oak; and the relentless, even fanatical gentleman farmer, Mr Boldwood. Six years later, James would begin work on The Portrait of a Lady. The repressed similarity of plot is immediately striking. A beautiful young woman, Isabel Archer, is pursued by three suitors: the dashing, reliable Lord Warburton; the dashing, demonic Gilbert Osmond; and a relentless, even fanatical American industrialist who is called not Boldwood, but Caspar Goodwood.

James accused Hardy of having ‘little sense of proportion and almost none of composition’, but it can be hard, at first, to divine much sense of form in The Portrait of a Lady. The novel opens with provoking languor, and an air of leisured surplus. It is an English summer afternoon (James once said that ‘summer afternoon’ were the two most beautiful words in the language). Three men are taking tea on the lawn at Gardencourt, a country house overlooking the Thames, about forty miles from London. Daniel Touchett, the old American banker who owns the house, is nearing the end of his life – ‘taking the rest that precedes the great rest’. His tubercular son, Ralph, looks ‘clever and ill’, and keeps his hands (seemingly for the duration of the entire novel) in his brown velvet smoking jacket. A neighbour, Lord Warburton, is more robust than these two New England aristocrats. He stands with his hands behind him, and in one of his fists – ‘a large, white, well-shaped fist’ – he has crumpled a pair of dirty dog-skin gloves. The three men dribble away the time with slightly irritating badinage – they chat about their health, about being bored, about marriage and what might constitute ‘an interesting woman’. Ralph announces that his mother, Mrs Touchett (who is estranged from his father), is arriving any minute from America, with a potentially interesting young woman, a niece. Perhaps Lord Warburton will fall in love with her? Mr Touchett smilingly suggests that she is probably engaged; ‘American girls are usually engaged.’ But Isabel Archer has already arrived. At the next moment, she steps out of the house and onto the lawn, fondles a welcoming dog, and pronounces the scene ‘just like a novel!’

Aspiring writers are usually dissuaded from the kind of gauche proscenium overture in which characters sit around discussing the protagonist, only to discover that the protagonist is conveniently at hand. And the coy titivations and velvet evasions (‘A momentary silence marked perhaps on the part of his auditors a sense of the magnanimity of this speech’) might properly alienate readers only slightly attracted to the lure of the Master. But the self-consciousness is here calculated. Isabel is a heroine in triplicate. She has just walked into a novel; she thinks of herself in heroic terms; and a group of gazers – or readers – watchful as a Greek chorus but endowed with greater agency, seems to have begun to plot this heroine’s destiny. We understand that the three men have effectively spent the first chapter in a long whine: ‘We’re so bored; give us a heroine to make things interesting!’ And here she is. But The Portrait of a Lady gets stranger before it gets more conventional. Instead of putting his heroine through her narrative paces, James slows down, and writes a kind of essay-portrait, almost a paternal introduction, on the subject of Isabel. Over the next forty or so pages, he serves up a mess of propositions, often contradictory. Isabel is bookish, and has got most of her sense of life from books, but ‘hated to be thought bookish’; indeed, ‘she really preferred almost any source of information to the printed page.’ She longs for experience, and feels that not enough unpleasant things have happened in her life, ‘for she had gathered from her acquaintance with literature that it was often a source of interest and even of instruction.’ But she tells Ralph that ‘people suffer too easily … It’s not absolutely necessary to suffer; we were not made for that.’ She has a general idea that ‘people were right when they treated her as if she were rather superior.’ She often assumes she is right, and ‘was probably very liable to the sin of self-esteem’. But it often ‘seemed to her that she thought too much of herself; you could have made her colour, any day in the year, by calling her a rank egoist.’ It isn’t surprising to learn that Isabel backed both sides in the Civil War, ‘stirred almost indiscriminately by the valour of either army’.

The advantage of this exercise in careful confusion is that James seems not quite to know what to make of his heroine either; he joins the gazers in the garden, alert, quizzical, sympathetic. His heroine is unformed, provisional. This is the irresponsibility that James would demand in 1885 when he complained that George Eliot knew her characters too well, hemmed them in with her knowing essayism. He wanted characters that were ‘seen, in the plastic irresponsible way’ – meaning probably Shakespeare, whose people, as Coleridge put it, ‘like those in real life, are to be inferred by the reader’, but also surely meaning his own new creations. We must watch Isabel make her mistakes, without too much authorial help or correction.

Her most acute irresponsibility has to do with her conception of freedom. She’s very fond of her liberty, as she puts it, and eager to get ‘a general impression of life. This impression was necessary to prevent mistakes.’ Ralph thinks she wants to drain the cup of experience, but she corrects him: ‘No, I don’t wish to touch the cup of experience. It’s a poisoned drink! I only want to see for myself.’ In fact, she says that she agrees with her friend Henrietta Stackpole, a fearless if obtuse American correspondent, who, when asked if she wanted to marry, said: ‘Not till I’ve seen Europe!’ Isabel’s idea of happiness, she tells Henrietta, is ‘a swift carriage, of a dark night, rattling with four horses over roads that one can’t see’. But just as it is hard to imagine how one can suffer and not suffer, so it is hard to imagine how one can see experience without touching it. This is an idealised, perhaps Emersonian idea of negative liberty, in which the self gets up anew each day, having shed its historical accretions overnight, like abandoned nightmares. And yet specific experiences must be used to build a general impression of life, at which point it is something more than a general impression.

The danger of Isabel’s strangely contentless idea of liberty is that it resembles innocence, which is always defined by its corruption. Empty liberty must be filled (the sexual suggestion is there throughout the book). Appropriately enough, this emptiness is filled negatively. Early in the book, Isabel turns down Lord Warburton’s marriage proposal, and is quickly defined by her renunciation. She has also sent away the stalking and sulking Caspar Goodwood, who has travelled from America to court her. Suddenly, she is the mistress of renunciation, and to Ralph, to the sinister Madame Merle, and to Gilbert Osmond, the man who will eventually marry her, she glows with the health of her refusal, is ripe with her unbartered fruit. ‘I shall have the thrill of seeing what a young lady does who won’t marry Lord Warburton,’ Ralph says, with an almost puritanical salacity. Just as her negation is made solid, so her figurative or metaphorical idea of liberty is literalised. Ralph persuades his dying father to leave an enormous sum of money, £70,000, to his young cousin. ‘I should like to put a little wind in her sails,’ Ralph says. His father, who understands the materiality of money, worries that this might be rather too much wind. ‘I should like to see her going before the breeze!’ his son replies. Mr Touchett thinks it all a little strange. When I was a young man, he tells his son, and was keen on a girl, I wanted to do more than just ‘look at her’. We realise that Isabel’s incoherent, spectatorial idea of liberty – to look at the cup of experience but not touch it – has found its devilish patron, its mirror, in Ralph’s luxurious surveillance. But with this difference: Ralph’s breezy, contentless idea of liberty is not, alas, incoherent. For you can indeed look at the cup of experience and not touch it – if you watch someone else drain it.

I first read The Portrait of a Lady at the age of 17, in school, as one of the set texts for A-level English. There were novels that excited me more, for extra-literary reasons, or spoke more intensely to some aspect of my development, there were contemporary novels that were great just because they were contemporary, but there was no novel that seemed to inhabit so deeply its themes, no novel so committed to the ceaseless incision of intelligent sensibility, no novel as linguistically alert. It is the one novel about which I most regularly feel – as now – that I have failed to describe the totality, the coverage of its intelligence. When I think ideally of ‘the novel’, this is the one I recur to. One of the many pleasures of Michael Gorra’s book is that he too has loved this novel since he studied it in college, and wants to share his passion for it. He has also taught it for many years, at Smith College, and he has written the kind of patient, sensitive, acute study that gifted teachers should write but rarely do. Portrait of a Novel is effectively a new biography of James, with The Portrait of a Lady at its centre. Gorra describes the entire arc of James’s life, unobtrusively (this is made possible by the fact that James wrote it as a youngish man, and rewrote it, in 1906, as an oldish man); but he does so in order to tell the story of the novel – both as a critic and as a biographer.

As a biographer, he travels to some of the houses that may have served as models for James, and he re-creates as well as anyone could the scenes of authorial composition. Though this novel changed everything in James’s career – though it is the portal through which the writer we think of as ‘Jamesian’, or as the Master, passed – Gorra reminds us that a young man wrote it, a 37-year-old, not yet sedentary or portly, a man who ‘knew how to fence, worked out with dumbbells, liked peaches and Bass Ale’, and who wrote a prose that was ‘tart and vigorous’. It was this writer, agile, cheerfully solitary, bearded and with thinning hair (not yet the possessor of the massive cleared cranium that glows in the later photographs), who sat in the Hôtel de l’Arno in Florence, and worked on the early chapters in the autumn of 1880, and who later travelled to Venice, where he wrote a good deal of the novel, extremely fast, in the spring and summer of 1881. He wrote it in serial instalments, for Macmillan’s in Britain and the Atlantic in the States. ‘He does not appear to have struggled with a single deadline,’ Gorra says. James writes in the preface to the New York edition that he would get up from the desk in his Venice hotel, and look out of the window, as if to see whether ‘the ship of some right suggestion, of some better phrase’ might not sail into sight.

Given the preciousness of the cult that exists around James, and especially around magniloquent late James, it’s worth emphasising this younger creator, and the extraordinary variety and agility of the writing in The Portrait of a Lady, its wit, the darting precision of its details. There is Mrs Touchett, who ‘had a face with a good deal of rather violent point’. There is the flowing beauty of the descriptions of Rome, and of English houses. At Gardencourt, there are ‘wide brown rooms’ and old oil paintings that loom from them as ‘vague squares of rich colour’ (‘vague’ is anything but vague here). There is the house in London, shut up for the season, in which Ralph stays. One evening, he opens a window, and hears the ‘slow creak of the boots of a lone constable’. There is the moment when Isabel, waiting in the library at Gardencourt for Mr Touchett to die upstairs, glances out of the window and sees the doctor ‘appear in the portico, stand a moment slowly drawing on his gloves and looking at the knees of his horse’, and seems to infer from this that it is all over. There is poor Ralph, on his deathbed, with a face ‘as still as the lid of a box’.

And what a humorous novel it is! Here, for instance, is a passing sketch, of Mr and Mrs Luce, right-wing second-raters who have left democratic America for the autocratic delights of Paris. Mrs Luce is always ‘at home’ on Sunday afternoons, and has managed to reproduce in ‘her well-cushioned corner of the brilliant city, the domestic tone of her native Baltimore’. Her husband is a ‘tall, lean, grizzled, well-brushed gentleman’, who likes to praise Paris for its ‘distractions’, though ‘you would never have guessed from what cares he escaped to them … He passed an hour (in fine weather) in a chair in the Champs-Elysées, and he dined uncommonly well at his own table, seated above a waxed floor which it was Mrs Luce’s happiness to believe had a finer polish than any other in the French capital.’ This is the world to which Ned Rosier belongs, the effete American connoisseur who falls in love with Gilbert Osmond’s daughter, Pansy. Mr Rosier, James writes, ‘had some charming rooms in Paris, decorated with old Spanish altar-lace, the envy of his female friends, who declared that his chimney-piece was better draped than the high shoulders of many a duchess’.

This is catty, even bitchy; one of those moments when James seems much more indebted to Jane Austen than he was willing to admit. Lord Warburton’s sisters belong in Pride and Prejudice, especially the one who proudly tells Isabel: ‘I think one ought to be liberal … We’ve always been so, even from the earliest times.’ Henrietta Stackpole, the pioneering American journalist, is a brilliantly Austenesque creation. James feared that she was a crude invention, with her monochromatic American boosterism and her arrested incomprehension of all things European. But the more often one reads the novel, the more subtle her depiction seems. Subtle because she is merely a more vulgar edition of Isabel, painfully proximate to her limitations, and in the weak rhetoric of her freedom. Henrietta spends the entire novel warning Isabel off marrying Europeans (she wants to see Isabel and Caspar Goodwood united, as a patriotic American politician might want Ford and General Motors to get together), but ends the book marrying a rather camp Englishman called Mr Bantling, an Old Etonian with a superficially decent education who has appointed himself Henrietta’s cicerone. So much for bold American freedom. Henrietta finds it delightful, for instance, that the footling Bantling speaks of Julius Caesar as a ‘cheeky old boy’. James seeds Henrietta’s speech with tiny, revealing lapses – her habit of referring to the Ancien Régime as ‘the ancient régime’ nicely marks the gap between her and Bantling’s classical education. We know James gave Henrietta’s patois some thought, because he changed the wording of a declaration she makes to Isabel, who asks her friend if she is going to give up her country. ‘I’m going to marry Mr Bantling and I am going to reside in London,’ she says in the 1881 version; amended, in 1906, to the more awkwardly foreign, ‘and locate right here in London’. The latter sounds not only estranged from British English, but more defiant.

Her defiance has good cause. Henrietta may be the saddest, and is certainly the most ambiguous figure in the book. She expresses an intense love for Isabel, which cannot be enacted. James writes at one moment: ‘Henrietta kissed her, as Henrietta usually kissed, as if she were afraid she should be caught doing it.’ Unable to express what she feels, she swerves into a marriage that is openly mocked, as an arrangement of convenience between two people who seem only publicly heterosexual: ‘Each of these groping celibates supplied at any rate a want of which the other was impatiently conscious.’ There is something uncontrolled in the novel, and it is erotic. When Isabel is first faced with the prospect of marrying Osmond, ‘the tears came into her eyes: this time they obeyed the sharpness of the pang that suggested to her somehow the slipping of a fine bolt – backwards, forward, she couldn’t have said which.’ And when she turns away from Caspar Goodwood at the last moment, and seems to be about to return to Osmond, James comments that she recoils from Caspar because

she had never been loved before. She had believed it, but this was different: this was the hot wind of the desert, at the approach of which the others dropped dead, like mere sweet airs of the garden. It wrapped her about: it lifted her off her feet, while the very taste of it, as of something potent, acrid and strange, forced open her set teeth.

And this she cannot bear.

Gorra, noting the sexual charge that frequently inhabits the prose, says that ‘it’s not that she’s afraid of sex per se, as some readers have always thought, but that she refuses to grant it the power she knows it could have. She will not allow her fate to be determined by desire.’ I wonder how persuasive this distinction is. A refusal to grant sex’s power sounds like an apprehension, if not quite a fear, of its power. Anyway, how does Gorra know whether Isabel is afraid of sex or not? He is violating his own critical tact. What one can say is that passages like this suggest an anxiety on the part of the text, which suggests an anxiety on the part of its author. What makes The Portrait of a Lady such a strange book is its strongly felt attraction towards sex and its strongly felt recoil from it. Osmond’s seductive diabolism is surely, in large part, erotic. The very structure of the novel is sickly and voyeuristic; a group of gazers, each with an erotic interest in her, circulates around Isabel. If you were to read the plot through the pornographic optic that it seems almost to dare, you would notice that some of them, like Caspar Goodwood and Lord Warburton, imagine themselves with her. Others, like Madame Merle and Henrietta, would like to watch her with someone else (Madame Merle wants to watch Osmond and Isabel, Henrietta wants to watch Caspar and Isabel).

The book is most subtle when most terrifying. I have always thought Gilbert Osmond the most frightening character in fiction. Osmond and Madame Merle, who were once lovers (Pansy is their daughter), and who arrange to ruin Isabel’s life, are frightening not because they are erotic conspirators out of Les Liaisons dangereuses or Clarissa. We are afraid of them because they know themselves so well, and are such adepts in self-hatred. The awfulness of what Madame Merle does – essentially, she procures Isabel for Osmond’s cold satisfaction – is bound up with the accuracy of her moral reading. ‘Isabel Archer’s better than I,’ she tells Osmond. Much later, when the depth of Isabel’s unhappiness is transparent, she accuses Osmond of being very bad: ‘You’ve enjoyed your triumph too much,’ she says to him. ‘You’ve made your wife afraid of you.’ Osmond is chilling because he is not obviously villainous. He has charm, feline intelligence and a carefully filtered aggression. He has a ‘cool smile’, and his figures of speech have an awful coolness too. He is ‘sweetly provincial’, he tells Isabel while courting her, ‘and I am perfectly aware that I myself am as rusty as a key that has no lock to fit it.’ To perfume the money issue, he produces fragrant sophistries: ‘I won’t pretend I’m sorry you’re rich,’ he says to Isabel. ‘I’m delighted. I delight in everything that’s yours – whether it be money or virtue. Money’s a horrid thing to follow, but a charming thing to meet.’

James passes over Isabel’s moment of choice, or corruption. There are two remarkable ellipses in this book: we don’t see Isabel choose to marry Osmond, and we don’t see the first three years of the dwindling marriage. Isabel goes away for a year, and when she returns, she returns as Gilbert Osmond’s fiancée. James ‘can show us Isabel in the act of refusal’, Gorra writes, ‘but what he cannot or will not do is to show her in the moment of choice; the moment in which she accepts a role in a plot she had once rejected’. If the Portrait were a conventional novel, this might be felt as a lack, but it is of a piece with the eccentricity of the novel’s early pages, and works in the same way: Isabel’s unknowability frees up her reality. Not knowing quite why she does what she does has the effect of sewing us into the text, so that we take our place alongside the other characters, in puzzlement and horror. Gorra nicely observes: ‘The news fills us with the same sense of surprise and dismay as it does the book’s other characters. It makes us feel that Isabel had better explain herself.’

Osmond is a sterile aesthete, a man of remarkable taste, who has lived in Florence in his beautiful villa for so long that, like Madame Merle, he has erased his lowlier American origins. Like Madame Merle, he works away at Isabel steadily, insidiously, gently prying her away from her democratic American assumptions, so that she can be confined in a coffin of convention. Isabel once valued American originality; but Madame Merle and Osmond, who seem so European, make her exchange her love of originality for a great respect for origins and traditions – except that they have no origins, have erased them, and have invented their traditions (as T.S. Eliot, wearing his most American clothes, said the poet must do). They are non-Americans and fake Europeans. The importance of the famous chapter, Chapter 42, in which Isabel sits all night, alone, until the candles burn down to their sockets, and slowly, steadily, confusedly comes to the realisation that her husband hates her, that although he appears to have disdain for the world it is in fact the world that he lives for, that he seems to ‘peep down from a small high window and mock at her’, that he has a faculty ‘for spoiling everything for her that he looked at’: the importance of this chapter of pure interiority is not just that it fulfils a century’s progress in the fictional interrogation and revelation of consciousness, and anticipates, in its formidable systematic microscopy, the next century of such progress – it is that Isabel, conspired against by two people who have forgotten their pasts, recovers hers. James tells us that Osmond ‘never forgot himself’, by which he means almost the opposite. He means that Osmond never loses himself, never lets himself go, never forgets himself in this colloquial sense, is always watchful, wary, cautious; consciousness for Osmond is control. And because he never forgets himself (in the colloquial sense), he never remembers himself. Isabel demonstrates, however, in that miraculous chapter of self-reckoning, that consciousness is in large part the exercise of memory, and that in order to remember yourself you must forget yourself – you must let yourself wander, as Isabel wanders, down labyrinths of the mind. Osmond coins metaphors and brilliant figures of speech; in Chapter 42, Isabel follows her own metaphors, is searching among the ruins of metaphor. Money’s a horrid thing to follow, but a charming thing to meet; in Chapter 42, Isabel follows the money, and meets it: ‘But for her money, as she saw today, she would never have done it.’ Which means its inversion: but for her money, he would never have done it.

The Portrait of a Lady must be the most metaphor-ridden novel in English, surpassing even crazy Moby-Dick. As there is a joyful insanity to the amount of metaphor in Melville’s novel, so there is something unstable about the metaphorical surplus in James’s. In their dialogue, all the characters flow in and out of their own metaphors, and they all sound a bit like Henry James. The older James was more inveterately metaphorical, and when he revised this novel for the New York Edition, he added an enormous amount of figurative language. But Jamesian metaphor is deliberately ‘loose’, as he’d put it in 1876, when Grace Norton had mildly scolded him for mixing a metaphor: ‘It is essentially a loose metaphor – it isn’t a simile – it doesn’t pretend to sail close to the wind.’ Using a second metaphor to explain a first one was helplessly shrewd: it announced a joyously regressive entrapment, akin to curing a hangover with another drink. Metaphor is indeed for James both problem and solution, a ceaseless loop; another drink begets a worse hangover, which begets another drink:

Daniel Touchett, to his perception, was a man of genius, and though he himself had no aptitude for the banking mystery he made a point of learning enough of it to measure the great figure his father had played. It was not this, however, he mainly relished; it was the fine ivory surface, polished as by the English air, that the old man had opposed to possibilities of penetration. Daniel Touchett had been neither at Harvard nor at Oxford, and it was his own fault if he had placed in his son’s hands the key to modern criticism. Ralph, whose head was full of ideas which his father had never guessed, had a high esteem for the latter’s originality. Americans, rightly or wrongly, are commended for the ease with which they adapt themselves to foreign conditions; but Mr Touchett had made of the very limits of his pliancy half the ground of his general success. He had retained in their freshness most of his marks of primary pressure; his tone, as his son always noted with pleasure, was that of the more luxuriant part of New England. At the end of his life he had become, on his own ground, as mellow as he was rich; he combined consummate shrewdness with the disposition superficially to fraternise, and his ‘social position’, on which he had never wasted a care, had the firm perfection of an unthumbed fruit.

James is describing how Mr Touchett has made his own way in England, without gauche transformation. He deploys a figurative chain: old Mr Touchett is like fine ivory, which he has made smoothly impenetrable to foreign airs; like ivory, he has set limits to his pliancy; he has become, in his American way, mellow and rich, and has the ‘firm perfection of an unthumbed fruit’; the impressions usually made by English life on refined expatriates have not touched him. Every metaphor in this passage was added in James’s late revision, and it would be hard to find a better example of how James doesn’t merely write metaphorically, but thinks in and through metaphor. Notice how he drops the figure of ivory and winds towards the figure of unthumbed fruit: well before he reaches the fruit metaphor, he anticipates it, when he says that Mr Touchett had ‘retained in their freshness most of their marks of primary pressure’. This sounds like a fruit, and looks ahead to the ‘firm perfection of an unthumbed fruit’ without explicitly announcing the shift. James is moving in that direction: he is thinking of Mr Touchett as reminiscent of luxuriant New England ‘ground’ (a garden, an orchard). But he is not quite there yet. It is as if we watch a metaphor grow and ripen: it is plucked, unnamed; and becomes, in ripe old age, an unthumbed fruit. And this occurs because James is negotiating a fairly complex transaction between the two instances of ‘ground’ in this paragraph – both the ground of one’s being and the soil one lives on.

It sounds academic and precious when spelled out like this, but the pleasure is in witnessing metaphor moving, driving on the thought; watching it, in effect, gain the authority of its claims, so that metaphor leaves the hypothetical or pictorial and becomes fact. But there is also a danger here, one that James is very much alive to in the novel, of falling into a vertiginous, parallel world, in which mere figures of speech have become the coins of a new reality, without confessing their own metaphoricity. The danger, you could say, is when metaphor stops being loose, and gets too tight. This is what happened when Ralph refused to look at the materiality of money, and spoke instead of putting wind in Isabel’s sails. Metaphor euphemised money’s reality, metaphor enabled the primary violation, and became a new reality. And in turn, money killed the freedom of metaphor. As soon as Isabel inherits her £70,000, the figurative language used around her and by her becomes money-infested: Isabel is ‘fortunate’, Madame Merle says; Ralph’s ‘interest’ in Isabel sounds suddenly commercial, Ralph says he is awfully ‘sold’ on Isabel, and so on. You could argue that money has made such words more metaphorical not less, but in fact money now occupies these words, monotonously draws attention to itself, and closes down the play of meaning across the figurative spectrum. Isabel’s liberty got stuffed with piles of money, and became a thing, a possession, as she herself will become a thing, a possession, a ‘convenience’ to Madame Merle and Osmond. When Madame Merle seeks to reassure Osmond that Isabel is indeed wealthy, she says: ‘There’s no doubt whatever about her fortune. I’ve seen it, as I may say.’ Airy good fortune has spoiled to a brute fortune, and can be ‘seen’, like banknotes in a briefcase. Metaphor, you could say, was sold; but metaphor partook in its own spoliation. Hence the importance of the absolutely simple, absolutely non-metaphorical words that Isabel speaks to Ralph at his deathbed: ‘He married me for the money.’ It is the moment when the wind goes out of her sails, when she sends the breezy wrong-headed metaphor back to the man who launched it. Nothing mattered now, James writes, but ‘the only knowledge that was not pure anguish – the knowledge that they were looking at the truth together’. Not looking at pictures, at figures of speech, at word-portraits, but at the truth.

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Vol. 34 No. 24 · 20 December 2012

In writing about The Portrait of a Lady, James Wood speaks in the same sentence of ‘the dashing, reliable Lord Warburton’ and ‘the dashing, demonic Gilbert Osmond’ (LRB, 11 October). Male critics just don’t seem to get what attracts female characters to male ones. First of all, Warburton is not dashing. It is hard to be dashing and reliable at the same time. He is a decent, fine man. But he is basically uninspiring, as Isabel Archer realises. Gilbert Osmond is far too epicene to be called dashing. An obvious example of a dashing character is Vronsky in Anna Karenina, published at around the same time as James’s novel. Scoundrels, such as Anatole Kuragin and Dolokhov in War and Peace, can also be classed as dashing (Natasha Rostov falls for Kuragin hard), and characters that begin as callow youths can grow into dashing romantic heroes, as Nikolai Rostov does when he rescues Princess Maria from her rebellious serfs. Steerforth in David Copperfield is dashing enough to ruin Little Emily. Many women (at least those who had poorly functioning phoniness detectors) found the real-life Bryon dashing. The fliers in the First World War and in the Battle of Britain were dashing. Jane Austen’s works are full of dashing characters. John Buchan’s Richard Hannay is dashing. Warburton and Osmond don’t make the cut. None of the men in The Portrait of a Lady is dashing. That is part of Isabel’s tragedy. They are all either kind-hearted mediocrities, effeminate sadists or, in the case of Caspar Goodwood, dangerously attractive but too modern and business-oriented to be classed as dashing. Maybe James Wood should run his essays by a committee of teenage girls before he publishes them.

Hope Leman
Corvallis, Oregon

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