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The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James


Reading this was a wild-hair/hare decision. The idea came to me when reading Alexander Chee’s essay, “The Writing Life,” as found in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, where Annie Dillard tells her students, “Compare yourselves to Colette, or Henry James, or Edith Wharton. Compare yourselves to the classics. Shoot there.” I’d never read any of those three; if I was going to compare myself to Henry James, it seemed necessary to read him, enfin. Problem is that it's 600 pages and excruciatingly dense; I only made it through the first 200 pages in two weeks’ reading, so I’m going to provide my annotations based on those first 200 pages, then continue reading it on my own time.


James’s text follows a young American heroine Isabel as she travels to England, then Europe, and refuses marriage proposal after marriage proposal to retain her freedom and independence. At page 200, Isabel has only just met Madame Merle, who will purportedly align Isabel to marry a narcissistic American expat, Osmond—so that he and Merle may have some designs on Isabel’s newfound inheritance. The story was written by James in increments for monthly publication in Macmillan’s Magazine, which I find delightful, since Macmillan also published Christina Rossetti’s poem, “Goblin Market,” the subject of my master’s thesis. The audience was the general public.


At this point in my reading, the story’s plot is only just beginning to unravel. Until now, we’ve had deep, layered backstory and character development, but very few plot points strung out at a wide distance from one another. Through his backstory, character development, and notably setting, James seems most interested in illuminating the vast differences between American and English culture. He proposes that American culture is all about productivity, exploration, and activity (which—my gosh, how true is that still!) and English culture is all about passivity, appreciation of simple things, tradition, and the quiet life. He really likens this to laziness. Affluent British royalty do nothing, it seems. This is a fascinating perspective, and I wonder at its truth. I don’t doubt it though, or James would not have been so widely accepted.


Ben Percy would probably object to a modern author writing so much depth of backstory, setting, and character before introducing major plot points. The story does drag on, with little action on the front end. I suppose the inciting incident is Isabel’s arrival at the Touchett home, but it boggles my mind that no truly engaging plot dynamics have happened yet, and I’m 1/3 of the way through the book. Certainly, there is some drama in Isabel’s refusal of two proposals—but it’s hardly the intense stuff Percy would consider “dynamic plot.” I do find it engaging, probably because I enjoy reading details about characters, but think I’d need to strike some balance between Percy’s suggestions and James’s product. All this to say, there is something to be learned from reading Henry James: to write like him in the modern literary landscape may be a choice not to write popular fiction. And maybe that's ok.

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