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‘Portrait of a Novel’ by Michael Gorra

Michael Gorra looks at Henry James’s life as well as one particular novel.Brigitte Buettner

This study of Henry James's "The Portrait of a Lady'' is both personal and profound. Michael Gorra's intense focus on a single work reflects his deep curiosity about this novel and displays his loving scrutiny of it. Gorra's study, while keeping "The Portrait of a Lady,'' its heroine Isabel Archer, and the years of its creation (1880-81) at its center, roams gracefully through James's life and art.

Without an apparent agenda, Gorra, who teaches English at Smith College, recounts the personal, social, and historical circumstances surrounding the creation of James's masterpiece. He discusses James's repressed sexuality including his secret relationship with Constance Fenimore Woolson, his travels to Paris, Florence, and Venice as well as his homes in London and Rye, England, the history of serial publication (James's novels, like almost all 19th-century novels, were published in monthly parts), the self-censorship exerted by 19th-century lending libraries, where the novel fits in James's oeuvre as well as in the history of the modern novel, what societal prohibitions it respected or ignored, and finally, how James's late revisions altered the novel.


The structure of Gorra's study mirrors the structure of the great work it describes. It moves steadily forward but has several major ellipses — places where it leaves the reader hanging, refuses to connect dots, or divulge secrets.

Gorra persuasively demonstrates that "The Portrait of a Lady'' is a crucial change not only in James's career but in the history of the novel. It marks the moment when the subject of the novel became the great internal drama of an expanding consciousness.

The consciousness James sets before his readers is that of Isabel Archer, an independent young American, newly arrived in England upon her aunt's invitation after the death of her father. He situates Isabel at the opening of such a drama with a narrow idea of her own isolation, autonomy, and freedom. Isabel wants to shape her own life and naively believes she can. What she learns is that she is neither isolated nor self-sufficient, that she exists within a "whole envelope of circumstances," and that those circumstances are powerful determinants in the life she believes she directs and controls.


Gorra locates the greatness of the novel specifically in the scene where Isabel, who has been married for a few years, first considers the possibility that her free choice may have been manipulated by others. It is a scene that has no action. Isabel sits all night by the fire as her vague unease moves through suspicion to revelation. "What she sees as she sits there will produce a moment of reverie that lasts the full length of a night, a chapter that stands as one of James's greatest achievements and a turning point in the history of the novel."

James does not reveal exactly what Isabel understands during that long vigil, but she comes to see over some years that she has been used. She has been married for the money left to her by the older Mr. Touchett; her money is a means to advance the future of her husband Osmond's daughter, Pansy; Pansy is actually the daughter of Osmond and her friend Madame Merle; and Madame Merle has an intimate history with Osmond that long precedes and far exceeds her own. These discoveries come to her and to a reader at the same agonizingly slow pace. And finally Isabel learns what a reader has known all along — that the money, which was meant to free her from constraints but made her an attractive prey to Osmond, was a gift not from the older Mr. Touchett but from the younger, Ralph Touchett. A reader also understands that Ralph's impulse was not entirely generous. He too used Isabel as a tool for his own curiosity and amusement.


Gorra's ellipses take the form of several long and fascinating digressions, the most interesting of which directly furthers Gorra's argument. In it, Gorra describes and explains the revisions of The New York Edition. It is in those revisions that the novel advanced from being about a young woman's progress through the social world to finally and fully become a modernist work, an interior drama of awareness.

Barbara Fisher, a New York freelance writer who is completing a biography of Alice "Trix'' MacDonald Kipling, can be reached at bfishershorttakes@gmail