Quick, who’s your all-time favorite writer? When was the last time you read one of his or her books? Last weekend a friend who’d started The Portrait of a Lady on my enthusiastic recommendation said she was enjoying the book, and it struck me that I haven’t read it myself in 20 years–roughly half my lifetime, and most of my adulthood. Soon I realized that I haven’t read any James novel in three or four years, at least. What am I even talking about when I call him my favorite writer? That was a different person who read most of those books.
This evening I picked up Portrait again and read a few pages. The last time I read anything James wrote before 1886 must have been fifteen years ago. If the later fiction is what you’re used to, the difference is startling. The 1880 Portrait (my edition is from the revised 1907 New York Edition) has the beginning of an essay:
Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. There are circumstances in which, whether you partake of the tea or not–some people of course never do,–the situation is in itself delightful. Those that I have in mind in beginning to unfold this simple history offered an admirable setting to an innocent pastime.
As if creatures of delicate sensibilities, we’re lowered into the story gently and the reassuring presence of the narrator never feels very far away. Later, James will omit the overt layer of narration and plunge us into the midst of things. As in The Wings of the Dove.
She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass over the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him.
In short, the first pages make it clear that the James of The Portrait of a Lady is not any longer the James I know. Not after spending years in graduate school poring over The Princess Casamassima, The Wings of the Dove, What Maisie Knew, and “In the Cage.”
So who was it who got hooked on that other James? Let’s have a look at what she underlined.
It appeared to Isabel that the unpleasant had been even too absent from her knowledge, for she had gathered from her acquaintance with literature that it was often a source of interest and even of instruction.
The poor girl liked to be thought clever, but she hated to be thought bookish; she used to read in secret and, though her memory was excellent, to abstain from showy reference. She had a great desire for knowledge, but she really preferred almost any source of information to the printed page; she had an immense curiosity about life and was constantly staring and wondering.
She was a person of great good faith, and if there was a great deal of folly in her wisdom those who judge her severely may have the satisfaction of finding that, later, she became consistently wise only at the cost of an amount of folly which will constitute almost a direct appeal to charity.
The apparent answer: a very young female person–one of a million–who identified in a hopeful way with Isabel Archer, “her meagre knowledge, her inflated ideals,” and all. (At least through the first half of the novel; the underlining ceases soon after Osmond starts really closing in.) No more surprising is the lessened sympathy I feel for Isabel now, not to mention for the slightly absurd 20-year-old who thought she might be like her.