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Excerpted from Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece by Michael Gorra. Copyright © 2012 by Michael Gorra. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation.


Many years later he would remember the way the book had begun. He was old then, and in England, at home in the place he had made for himself, a eighteenth-century brick building called Lamb House in the small Sussex town of Rye. It was a marsh country once known for its shipwrecks and smugglers, thirty miles down the Channel from Dover, and with the town itself resting on top of a hill. Centuries before, it had been directly on the water, but now the coastline had changed, the harbor had silted up, and the flecked blue of the sea lay at a distance of two miles. The ancient port remained charming but had lost its purpose, and the town itself had become an attractive spot for a genteel retirement. It was an odd place for an American novelist, and an odder one for a man whose habits were entirely urban: a figure of clubs and cabs, of dinner parties and first nights. But then he had rarely done the expected thing. He was a famous man, with elaborate manners, and kind; and yet someone whose eyes could drill your spine with their knowledge. Famous—but now little-read, as his royalty figures all too often reminded him. Sometimes he joked about how little his books brought in. His friend Edith Wharton might sell enough to buy a new automobile, but his own checks, he claimed, would only cover the cost of a wheelbarrow.

He had lived in Europe for thirty years—he had taken possession of it, inhaled it, appropriated it. It had been the great adventure of his life. Or rather his expatriation had made other adventures possible, the adventure contained in the litter of printed sheets on his desk. His literary agent had taken two copies of one of his early novels and cut their bindings, slicing the pages free, and had then pasted each one onto a larger sheet. That gave him a single unbound copy with a few inches of white space on all sides, plenty of room to scrawl. He dipped his pen and blackened half a line of type, wrote four words in the margin and drew a circle around them, with a faint thread of ink tethering them to their place in his paragraph. He blotted two more lines, italicized a word of dialogue, turned “I am” into “I’m.” Another line gone, but this time a new one replaced it, and his characters no longer “rejoined” in answer to each other’s speech; instead they “returned.” Now and then, he revised his first revision. The pen sliced, it cut and it qualified, and sometimes it discovered so many ineptitudes that his quarto sheet became an illegible tangle of lines and arrows. The compositors, he knew, had already complained about such pages, and he put them aside to be typed.

Most nineteenth-century novelists touched up their work in the months between its first publication in a magazine and its appearance as a bound volume. A serial installment might have been rushed to make a deadline or trimmed to match the space, and its opening chapters were usually in print long before the book was finished. But Henry James took the business of revision much further than that. He lived in a world of second thoughts, and in the early years of his career he treated his proofs as but a clean copy, something little better than a draft to scribble over. The pieces a magazine had already printed often got the same treatment. A story from the Atlantic or Harper’s might be revised for an American collection, and overhauled again for an English one. He believed that almost every sentence could stand a little work, and could hardly bear to reread his earlier things except with a pen in his hand, making changes as he went. One of his best stories, “The Middle Years” (1893), gives that habit to its main character, a novelist called Dencombe, who in the story’s first pages reworks an advance copy of his latest book. Only this time the new work seems good, and he marks it up with a sense of promise. It makes him realize what he might yet do, and he longs for the chance to grow into a magnificent “last manner.” But Dencombe is also a sick man and he dies before can he grab it.

His creator had better luck. James had made the character die at fifty, but he himself was now sixty-three, and in the spring and summer of 1906 he lived in a season of second chances. The sheets on his desk were from a book he had published in 1881, a quarter of a century ago: The Portrait of a Lady, the novel in which, after a period of careful apprenticeship, he had first allowed his imagination full stretch. He didn’t think it was his best book—he preferred The Ambassadors (1903), a bittersweet comedy about a group of Americans in Paris—but still it was the one from which he “would pretend to date.” The novel told the story of a girl named Isabel Archer; a girl who claims she’s fond of her freedom but who stands just the same, after the death of her spendthrift father, on the verge of marriage to a New England mill owner. Then she suffers a fairy-tale rescue at the hands of an aunt. Taken to Europe and furnished with an unexpected inheritance, Isabel finds what looks at first like an ever-expanding field in which to exercise her own sense of independence. At first. For she will soon make the mistake of her young life, and her mixture of “curiosity and fastidiousness,” brittle intelligence and inflated confidence, would make her an easy mark for the reader’s criticism if she were not, as James wrote, meant to awaken our sense of tenderness instead.

The Portrait of a Lady was Henry James’s first true success, and though as a young man he had made fun of the idea of the Great American Novel, greatness had always been on his mind. He had taken pains with the book, and it had changed his reputation. It had made him important enough to be attacked on all sides, and now it was to have a new life. In 1904, James had gone back to the United States, making his first visit in twenty-one years. He saw the places where he’d grown up, in New York and Newport and Boston. He gave lectures and gossiped with old friends and was both fascinated and appalled by the way the country had changed, by skyscrapers and a new American language that he barely recognized as his own, so different was its slang and pronunciation. He went to Florida and California and to the battlefields of the Civil War, in which he had not fought, and brought home a mind of gathered impressions that he began to turn into a travel book called The American Scene. But he also matured another plan along the way, arranging with the help of his agent, J. B. Pinker, for the publication by Scribner of a definitive edition of his work; an edition “selective as well as collective; I want to quietly disown a few things.” The early books that had made his name—stories like Daisy Miller, novels like The American or The Portrait of a Lady itself—would have their surfaces rubbed over, their style nudged or even kicked into line with that of his later work. And to each novel or collection of tales James planned to add a “frank critical” preface; prefaces that now stand, and that to the Portrait in particular, among the most idiosyncratic, and greatest, of his achievements.

Today, The Portrait of a Lady appears to look backward and forward at once, offering a Janus-faced lens on the history of the novel itself. It is the link between George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, the bridge across which Victorian fiction stepped over into modernism. James used his heroine to crystallize one of his period’s central concerns, that of what George Eliot herself had described as the “delicate vessels” of female experience. Isabel’s story touched the limits of what could and couldn’t be said about sex in the Anglo-American fiction of the period, and James also flouted the conventions of his era by risking an ending that was both unhappy and open; the novel’s final pages leave her fate more unsettled than ever. Moreover, the book challenged its readers’ assumptions about the nature of fictional events. In James’s hands the drama of the interior life took on the thrill that other writers might find in “the surprise of a caravan or the identification of a pirate,” and the result was the most searching account of the moment-by-moment flow of consciousness that any novelist had yet attempted.

But the book looks two ways in another sense as well, not temporally but spatially. In 1888, James told his brother, the Harvard philosopher William James, that he wanted to make it impossible for his readers to know whether he was “an American writing about England or an Englishman writing about America.” Sometimes he managed the trick and sometimes he didn’t, but one mark of his overall success lies in the different contexts within which his work is now read. That’s especially true of The Portrait of a Lady. It appears as often in discussions of the Victorian novel as it does in those of American literature, and rightfully so. For its richly suggestive picture of what it is to be an American depends, paradoxically, on the way it uses both its European setting and the thematics of European fiction—the marriage plot, the novel of adultery—to mount a critique of American exceptionalism.

In this book I will tell that novel’s story. Most people don’t read criticism, not beyond the length of a review. They read narrative—that’s why biography is so popular. But Portrait of a Novel is not a biography as such, and it offers the tale not of a life but of a work. It shows how Henry James created Isabel Archer’s portrait, and to what end: tells not only what happens in the book itself but also the story of how James came to write it and what happened to him while he was doing so; of the book’s relation to the major fiction of the decades around it, and of how it was published and received and then, many years later, revised.

One part of my tale offers a picture of James’s career between 1878 and 1884, the years for which his own Portrait provides a fulcrum. At the start of that period he wrote Daisy Miller, an account of a high-spirited and impossibly well-dressed American girl. Men cluster wherever she goes, but Daisy doesn’t understand that in Italy she can’t flirt with the same freedom as at home in Schenectady, and she will pay for that misunderstanding with her life. Some readers found the story a celebration of American innocence, others an attack on the purity of American women; and it remained James’s best-known work long after he had written greater things. At the end of this time he published “The Art of Fiction,” a sharply worded essay that began as a knife-cut in the literary debates of his period, but which endures as a major theoretical statement. In between, James not only wrote his first full-length masterpiece but also returned twice to America from his home in London, buried both his parents, and settled his choice of a European residence once and for all. He confirmed the choices he had already made: of the Old World, of his art, and of what he always presented as his consequent decision not to marry.

That decision was one he found himself insisting upon in the early 1880s, even as he made Isabel turn down one proposal after another. Yet there are other ways to think of it, and one element in my story is an account of James’s own sexuality. Nobody now doubts the directions of his sexual leanings. His deepest erotic longings were for men, and at a certain point in his life he came to understand that. The precise date of that point has, however, proved impossible to fix, and nobody actually knows if he ever acted upon a physical desire. He burned most of the letters he received, hoped others would burn his, and his stories often depend on the things his characters cannot quite manage to say to each another. His work presents us with a paradox: this apparently celibate writer nevertheless kicked harder than any of his Anglophone contemporaries at the period’s conventional distinction between “that which people know” about the sexual life, and that which on the page “they agree to admit that they know.”

I will describe the writing of the novel itself, defining James’s plans and progress and reconstructing the rhythms of his working life. In doing so I give special attention to the places of the writing—to his work in London, Florence, and Venice, and his settings in the Thames Valley, Florence, and Rome. So I have walked through the Tuscan capital with a nineteenth-century guidebook in my hand, mapping out the various places in which James stayed, and visiting the villa in which he located some of his characters; working throughout to define the difference between those actual places and the uses he made of them. Another part of the tale provides an account of the novel’s publication—its serialization on both sides of the Atlantic, its reception and sales—and locates the book within the institutions of the Victorian novel as a whole. Throughout, I alternate sections on the novel with others that place James and his work in their moment, a dialectical structure that allows the fiction itself to suggest just when to pick up on certain issues in the writer’s own life; when James takes his characters to Italy, I will take him there too. But above all I will tell the story that the novel tells, watching Isabel Archer make the choices she has insisted upon making, and using my commentary on its plot to carry the burden of argument, as the best movie criticism often does. One of the things Isabel learns is that her field of action is not free, has never been free. The decisions of others have always impinged upon her own, and her belated recognition of those constraints—of the limits placed on her Emersonian self-reliance—has been described as an American version of Paradise Lost.

The novel began its serial run in October 1880, appearing in both the Atlantic Monthly and in Britain’s Macmillan’s Magazine, and had its first book publication in the fall of the following year. James always dreamed of a good market, and was almost always disappointed. Only a few of his shorter works were bestsellers, but not even Daisy Miller or The Turn of the Screw (1898) could rival the appeal of Dickens or Mark Twain. By his own measure, though, The Portrait of a Lady was a commercial success, selling over 5,500 copies in five American printings during its first year, and it remains today the most popular of his novels.

Most current printings use the text of what James called the New York Edition—the novel as he revised it in the summer of 1906, and in which the language has a physicality that he could not summon in 1880–81. In revision even so innocuous an object as a narrow Manhattan house becomes “a wedge of brown stone violently driven into Fifty-third Street,” and that pungent metaphoric power is especially important in James’s treatment of Isabel’s emotional life; so much so, indeed, that some readers see the revised Portrait as a very different book than the one James first published. For my classes I order the New York Edition. Here, however, my emphasis on the book’s development has led me back to the text of 1881, now most readily available in the Library of America edition of James’s Novels: 1881–1886. I do, however, make constant reference to his revisions. They too are a part of this book’s story, and looking at them will give me the chance, in however telescoped a manner, to follow out the later years of his life and career.

It was a long career, some fifty years from start to finish, and just as the book we most often read is not precisely the one James initially wrote, so the author we usually visualize isn’t quite the same man as the one who in the spring of 1880 began to write that novel in a Florence hotel room. The writer of 1906 has become known as “The Master,” a name used even in his own lifetime by a few of his younger disciples. He was clean-shaven and bald, with a massive, egg-shaped head and a body to match. He wore pince-nez and his eyes were heavy-lidded, creased at the corners, and bagged. That James is the hero of a thousand anecdotes and the subject of almost as many photographs; and he sat as well for a great portrait by his friend John Singer Sargent. He carries such imaginative weight that it can be difficult to recover a clear image of his earlier self. That increasingly confident young writer wore a full beard, and his habits were not yet sedentary. He could manage a horse, and in his early manhood enjoyed days of strenuous hiking in the Alps. He knew how to fence, worked out with dumbbells, liked peaches and Bass Ale, and though by 1880 most of his walks were on city streets, he spent the New Year at a Yorkshire ball where, as he wrote to his sister Alice, he found “the British maiden . . . a good solid weight to whirl in the mazes.” His prose was tart and vigorous, and he found it hard to restrain the excitement with which he wrote to his parents about an evening with a prime minister or an earl.

In the fall of 1879, James published a short critical biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne. He thought his predecessor had been limited by his time and place, and yet he also valued him above all other American writers, and described The Scarlet Letter in particular as touched by the peculiar charm “which we find in an artist’s work the first time he has touched his highest mark—a sort of straightness and naturalness of execution.” That is the mark Henry James reached with The Portrait of a Lady.

n the spring of 1906 he spent his mornings at work on the southern chapters of The American Scene, evoking the “swarming . . . pretty girls” of Savannah and the “vacancy” of Charleston, a city that seemed to him still exhausted by the battles of the Civil War. Almost every corner of Lamb House gave him a spot in which to write, but in warm weather James’s favorite was a place called the Garden Room. It was detached from the house itself, a studio that he entered from his acre of walled garden; indeed one end of it formed a part of that wall, and was lit by a bow window that overhung the street. Unfortunately it no longer stands. A German bomb took it out in 1940, and in visiting Lamb House today—it is now owned by the National Trust—I could only find its brick outline on the grass. Photographs show the room as uncluttered, almost cleared for action, with a couch pushed up under the window, and bookcases against the walls. It was big enough, and open enough, for James to pace, his left thumb tucked in his waistcoast armhole, his hesitant and at times stammering voice gaining in assurance as it rolled from sentence to sentence.

As he talked, his words would be answered by the sputter and clack of a Remington typewriter. For he shared the room with a young woman from a London secretarial agency, whom he had hired, at 25s. per week, to take down his dictation. The particular young woman of 1906 did not stay long, and her name hasn’t come down to us; perhaps she didn’t like the work, or found the town too dull. James had been dictating for almost a decade, starting the practice somewhere in the middle of What Maisie Knew (1897). Thirty years of his own almost illegible penmanship had cramped his hand, and he now saved it as much as he could. Dictation made concision impossible, and the speaking voice led him into syntactic complications of which he had once been innocent. But he liked having a clean page on which to revise, and by now the typewriter’s noise provided an aid to concentration. So did the occasional cigarette.

That was the morning, that gathering up of the American South—three disciplined hours that began around ten. Then lunch and a walk up and down Rye’s grassy cobbled streets, a few hours to cover a few miles, his way broken by the small talk of a small town, a chat with neighbors, a greeting to the fishmonger, sometimes a stop for tea at the local golf club; he didn’t play but had joined anyway. Everywhere one turns in Rye the beaky peal of gulls hangs in the air, and when James had first visited ten years before, the sound must have made him feel at home, a reminder of the Newport where he had spent his teens. He had rented Lamb House in 1897 and bought it two years later, moving back and forth between the coast and his South Kensington flat; eventually he let the flat go and made do with a room at his club. The house sat—sits—on a curve at the crest of what James called the town’s “mildly pyramidal hill,” with its front door facing down West Street to the churchyard of St. Mary the Virgin, a minute’s walk away; a turn to the left let him amble down to the shops of the High Street. It is a large place, three stories of worn brick with a wide entry hall, the kitchen in a wing off the back, and a set of servants’ bedrooms on the top floor; James might sometimes plead poverty but he kept five of them, his secretary not included. He could never have afforded such a place in central London, and he noted with pride that in an earlier age George II had once spent the night.

He himself had few houseguests in the spring and summer of 1906, though in June he gave a bed to the Wisconsin-born Hamlin Garland, whose Main-Travelled Roads (1891) is even now read for its unsparing account of midwestern farm life. Garland remembered that they talked late about Hardy and Kipling; James was fond of the latter but suspected his “extraordinary precocity was perhaps at its real end.” Yet Garland also noted that James seemed “wistfully an American feeling his expatriation,” and his most substantial contacts with the outside world were indeed by letter, many of them still written by hand. He sent a note of congratulations to his friend A. C. Benson, a Cambridge don who had just published a book on the Victorian essayist Walter Pater, and wrote often to the sculptor Hendrik Andersen, on whom he lavished an unrequited longing. Other letters went to his brother William, who was lecturing at Stanford that spring when the San Francisco earthquake hit. The philosopher had been lying in bed when, as he wrote to Sussex, the “room began to sway . . . it went crescendo and reached fortissimo in about 20 seconds . . . bureau over, everything on the floor, crashing, crashing.” The novelist sent a feverish letter of thanksgiving for his brother’s safety, but William himself had enjoyed it all, and was surprised by his sibling’s concern.

James’s most frequent correspondent, however, was his agent Pinker, a former magazine editor whose agency was one of London’s first; his other clients included both Joseph Conrad and H. G. Wells. James peppered him with short notes of thanks for royalty checks, and longer ones about the new edition. He did not, for example, like the idea of illustrations; he had never liked having his characters turned into pictures for the magazines. But he had just enjoyed two sessions with a young American photographer, Alvin Langdon Coburn, and now began to warm to the idea of using a single image at the head of each volume. On June 10, he wrote of the progress he was making with the Portrait’s revisions—he was three-fifths of the way through, and wondered about sending what he’d finished to Scribner, so they could begin to set it in type. Still, it had all taken longer than he had expected; his revisions were so extensive that much of it needed to be typed. Yet it was worth it. He had “hugely improved the book—& I mean this not only for myself, but for the public.” James sent in a second and final batch of copy at the end of July, and the work’s great preface followed in the dry sunshine of mid-August.

He wrote most of his letters at night and upstairs, in what was named the Green Room: a paneled study, its walls tight-packed with photographs, to which the Remington was moved each winter. Yet the time from five until eight can be a little eternity, and in those hours Henry James sat down to his revisions. 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, in the slow care and pleasure of this new chance. A picture taken that year by a nephew shows him at a table there, wearing a bow tie and his invariable winged collar, and with a steel pen in his hand. There’s a tiled hearth behind him, and he has a bit of a pout, as though impatient at having to hold his pose. Take the photographer away, however, and then imagine the half-smile that comes over his face as he rolls the pen in his fingers. There is an hour before dinner, and the pen scratches and circles, each sheet marked by a delta of wavy lines, each stream attached to a small lake of new words. He is near the end, and he blackens out a phrase, allows his heroine a sentence of struggling comprehension, until at last he is pleased, and knows that the book has repaid his time and his trouble. He has mended some infelicities; he has stretched the fibers of his prose and rewoven the parts that seemed thin. But it had been well made from the start—not like The American, with its hidden murder and grand renunciations, a book whose lurid plot he wishes he could change.

The Portrait of a Lady gave him no such difficulties. Yet once he had packed up its pages and begun to talk his way through its preface, James did find a sense of mystery in recovering the days of its origin. He would sit in thought while his amanuensis waited at her keys. Then he was on his feet and the past was in his hands. First came Florence in the spring, where he had worked in a room over the Arno, with the Ponte Vecchio virtually at his feet. The following year he went to Venice, and he remembered going to his waterfront window each time he was stalled for a phrase, as though the right word might lie in the waves outside. Even in Rye, James was drawn to the window, and sometimes paused in mid-sentence to speak to a friend on the sidewalk. In Venice he had brought the book near its close, and whole pages made him see its quays once more, and hear its voices calling across the water. He summoned ghosts as he walked, the ghosts of Ivan Turgenev and George Eliot, the great predecessors who appeared in his mind as sponsors. From the Russian he took a sense of the precedence of character over plot, a belief that story wasn’t an end in itself but instead a way to show his people. George Eliot gave him something else, an understanding of the particular characters to whom those plots might happen, and such figures as Middlemarch’s Dorothea Brooke had served as a model for his own.

He paces, pauses, and a sentence floats on the air, a memory of the “single small cornerstone” with which he had begun, “the conception of a certain young woman affronting her destiny.” His heroine had stood there alone in his mind, unsupported at first by friends or family or any shred of a narrative. And then one morning he woke up in possession of his other characters, a suite of attendants with whom to surround her, and Henry James set himself to the job of “organising an ado about Isabel Archer.”