“Finding the soul of the book” should be the goal of any reviewer. It is easy enough to do in Michael Gorra’s new tale of the life of a book, the dramatic story of Henry James’ greatest novel, “Portrait of a Lady” (1881).
Gorra reminds readers of its basic story, “… 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.”
Isabel is rescued from this fate by an aunt, Gorra tells us, who takes her to Europe furnished with an unexpected inheritance. There, Isabel finds what appears to be an ever-expanding field in which to exercise her new independence. We learn that this comes at an unexpected price that awakens the reader’s tenderness.
Gorra’s “Portrait of a Novel” tells not only what happened in the book but “also the story of how James came to write it and what happened to him while doing so; of the book’s relation to the major fiction of the decades around it, and how it was published and received and then, many years later, revised.”
“Portrait” was James’ first success. I remember reading James’ “The Ambassadors” (1903) at one sitting in 1955 as a college student and thinking it “grand,” as people used to say.
I mentioned finding the soul of the “Portrait of A Novel.” I think James’ soul shines through in this sentence by Gorra: “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.”
James was not alone as a continual reviser of material. Sometimes, he continued the practice for years. Other writers famous for this habit include James Joyce, Frank O’Connor, Eudora Welty and the poet Elizabeth Bishop.
Writerly revision in the era before computers was painstaking, long and subject to errors by typists and printers. Now, making changes to a document with a computer sometimes takes a matter of seconds or minutes. However, I am not certain that this quicker, more mechanical revision is as good as one more thoughtfully and maturely contrived the old-fashioned way. I suppose it depends on the one “contriving” the changes.
In any case, Gorra gets going by slowing down, recounting James’ retirement in the backwater Sussex town of Rye, where the great man owned and lived in a brick building called Lamb House. He had five servants and a secretary, something he could not have done in London, where costs were much dearer.
Gorra describes James in 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.”
A word is always said about Henry James’ sexuality in books about “The Master,” as James was called. Gorra is plainspoken here. He says that there is no doubt about the directions of James’ leanings. “His deepest erotic longings were for men, and at a certain point in his life he came to understand that.” Whether Henry James ever acted upon a physical desire, Gorra relates, we do not know.
James lived a life, according to Gorra, like one of his characters, Dencombe the novelist, in his short story, “The Middle Years” (1893). Dencombe could never stop revising, giving each sentence a bit more work, hoping for what he called a chance to grow into a “magnificent last manner.”
Dencombe’s life, like James,’ was “a season of second chances.” James made Dencombe die at 50. James was now 63 and kicking.
He wrote to his longtime agent, J.B. Pinker, indicating that he wanted Scribner to do a definitive edition of his work. By this he meant, “I want to quietly disown a few things.”
This edition would include new versions of “Daisy Miller,” “The American” and “The Portrait of a Lady” itself, “their style nudged or even kicked into line” with that of his later work. James also planned to add to each a “frank critical” preface. These prefaces, as Gorra notes, would be “among the most idiosyncratic, and greatest, of his achievements.”
James would do his revisions from 5 until 8 each evening, perhaps in the Garden Room, “in the slow pleasure of this new chance.” Gorra writes, “… the pen scratches and circles, each sheet marked by a delta of wavy lines, each stream attached to a small lake of new words …. And now he is pleased … He has mended some infelicities …”
“The Portrait of a Lady” had few infelicities. However, Gorra notes that James did find a sense of mystery in recovering the days of its origin. James had written portions of the great novel in Florence, in the spring, and the following year in Venice, where “whole pages made him see its quays once more, and hear its voices calling across the water.” James said about Isabel Archer in a preface he wrote for her, “There really is too much to say.”
Couple these reflections, we are told, with the ghosts of Ivan Turgenev and George Eliot, his sponsors in the enterprise, and you get the picture of whose company he kept.
Think further of Dorothea Brooke as a model for Isabel, and you begin to develop a picture of how Henry James solved the mystery of the origin of “The Portrait of a Lady.”
The literary field is crowded with talented scholars who have written about Henry James. More recently, Michael Anesko, Colm Tóibín, Sheldon Novick, come to mind and earlier, Leon Edel among others.
Put near the head of the list Michael Gorra’s “The Portrait of a Novel.” It is a book of lasting worth about the creative process and how Henry James exercised it.
Portrait of a Novel
By Michael Gorra
384 pages, $29.95
Michael D. Langan is a frequent News reviewer of Henry James biographies and analyses.