The novel that reinvented fiction
John Banvillereviews Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece By Michael Gorra, Liveright, 385pp, £20
Michael Gorra has invented a new literary form, one for which there is no name as yet. His book is a critical study of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, based on a lovingly close reading of this pivotal masterwork, as well as a subtly nuanced mini-biography of the author. At another level, though, it is a kind of re-creation of the novel, a reimagining of it – a re-presentation of it – that uncovers the secret springs of the work even as it celebrates the intricate and exquisite artistry of its multifaceted surface. For readers already familiar with The Portrait, this study will throw a wholly new light upon what had seemed well-known territory, while those who have not read James’s book will be bound to fall upon it with unbounded anticipation. With Gorra as guide, they will not be disappointed.
Henry James’s father, Henry snr, the son of Irish immigrants, inherited a fortune in property and land, and was for a time one of the richest men in the United States. He was an eccentric, however, a mystic and a Swedenborgian, and over his lifetime managed to fritter away most of his money. When Henry jnr and his siblings were young they were taken to Europe, where they lived a peripatetic life, trailing from country to country and from school to school. In the process they accumulated languages – Henry James’s French was so good that critics have detected Gallic turns to his English style – and developed highly sophisticated temperaments. Indeed, Henry James seems to have regarded himself as more a European than an American; certainly his sensibility was what would now be termed Eurocentric.
He was already an established author when in the latter half of the 1870s he began to plan what would become The Portrait of a Lady. He did not set to it seriously, however, until the spring of 1880, when in a hotel room in Florence, at “an open window overlooking the yellow Arno”, he embarked on the invention of one of the great figures of English literature, Isabel Archer, a young American woman who has arrived in Europe intent upon, as James wrote in a preface to the novel, “affronting her destiny”. She has left behind her one suitor, the rich and forceful Caspar Goodwood, and has hardly set foot on English soil before she acquires another, the charming and fabulously wealthy Lord Warburton. To the surprise of all and the dismay of some, she rejects Warburton’s suit, for she is of an independent mind and is determined to find out what life without the encumbrance of a husband has to offer her.
In England she stays at first at the country house of her uncle, a successful banker, whose son Ralph is slowly dying of tuberculosis. Ralph is enchanted by Isabel, and persuades his father to split the inheritance due to him and give half of it to Isabel. The old man soon dies and Isabel finds herself in possession of a fortune, and free to live in any way she chooses. The choice she makes, however, turns out to be a disaster. Gilbert Osmond is an expatriate American, a widower living in Florence with his young daughter; he is a dilettante, with high manners and exquisite taste, but very little money. So polished is he that Isabel fails to spot him for what he is: that staple of the Victorian novel, a fortune hunter. Osmond’s friend, the enigmatic Madame Merle, has met Isabel in England, is aware of her inheritance and, without Isabel’s knowing, manoeuvres her into Osmond’s spiderish clutches. The rest of James’s intricate plot traces the slow and painful getting of wisdom that Isabel must undergo in order to be free.