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.

Inventing Isabel

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.

However, freedom in this case seems of the spirit only. At the end of the book, when Isabel has at last learned the harsh truth of how she has been manipulated, and has defied her husband by travelling to England to visit her cousin Ralph on his deathbed, we last see her as she returns to Rome and her unhappy marriage. What will she do? Will she dismiss Madame Merle from her life and confront Osmond and face him down? Will she perhaps let him have her money in return for his releasing her? Will she accept the manly blandishments of the ever persistent Caspar Goodwood and run away with him? It is a measure of Henry James’s skill and wisdom as a novelist that he refuses even to hint at what his heroine’s future holds for her.

Reading this outline of the plot, anyone unfamiliar with the book could be forgiven for assuming that The Portrait must be a conventional if cleverly assembled late-Victorian novel. Michael Gorra demonstrates, however, that James in this novel has set fiction striking off in an entirely new direction. It is not the content that is revolutionary but the method. There is a level at which The Portrait is a response, indeed a riposte, to George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which James admired for its intellectual rigour but which he implicitly set among that category of novels he dismissed as “large loose baggy monsters”. In a letter to a friend, James had written that he wished his work to “have less ‘brain’ than Middlemarch but . . . more form”.

In this aim he succeeded, and his success made him the first of the great modernists, or, indeed, perhaps the only modernist. In the famous chapter 42 of The Portrait Isabel sits for long hours one night by the fireside in the gloomy Roman palazzo where she and Osmond have settled, and in that nocturnal vigil confronts the terrible truths about her husband, her marriage and herself. It is an extraordinary feat of imaginative and empathetic writing, “obviously the best thing in the book”, as James himself said, and, as Michael Gorra insists, a turning point in the art of fiction. These pages, Gorra writes, “change our very sense of what counts as an event in fiction. Sitting still counts; thinking, doing nothing, not moving. Emotions count, and the activity of perception as well.”

Grown-up fiction

Virginia Woolf remarked that Middlemarch was one of the very few novels written for grown-up people. In The Portrait, however, fiction itself grew up. Henry James’s triumph was to discover a way of presenting the processes by which life is actually lived, which is not the way that most novelists before him, even Flaubert, had dared or had the pathfinding skills to follow. As Michael Gorra writes, in that scene in which Isabel sits before the low-burning fire in the Palazzo Roccanera, James “learned to stage consciousness itself”.

Henry James’s brother, the philosopher William James, had coined the term “stream of consciousness”, but it was Henry who followed that stream to its source. The novels that came after The Portrait, especially the three great “late” works, The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors – James’s own favourite – and The Golden Bowl, take place in a kind of cloud chamber in which are tracked the tiniest particles of his characters’ feelings, motives and desires. As Michael Gorra notes repeatedly, James was forever exploring the gap that lies between what we know and what we admit to knowing. The late novels, Gorra writes, do not simply depict a developing consciousness but “also take sex itself as the focal point of that development”, for sex is the great revealer of what and who we are:

Each of them catches its breath at its power and its mystery, catches it and then finds it again in a newly powerful understanding of the knowledge it brings of the world, the other, and above all of the self . . . He had always been fascinated by the struggle to acknowledge the facts of sexual life, by characters who no more possess a language in which to admit what they know than did English fiction itself.

In Portrait of a Novel Michael Gorra has written a ringing affirmation of the power of fiction to explore and represent consciousness. It can be argued that the novel after James took a wrong turn and lost itself in the playground of the avant garde. What James was offering was a way forward from the bland smugness of the Victorian novel into a grown-up world in which fictional characters face squarely the difficulties of actual life, and by their example encourage us to do the same.

That way is wide and is still open to the novel; the journey awaits. Henry James knew the rigours facing the traveller along that path, knew the pitfalls that threaten and the gloom that pervades, yet he went on undaunted. As Dencombe, the novelist hero of James’s great story The Middle Years, puts it: “We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”