It is very unlikely that anyone would be able to articulate as well as Henry James himself did his intentions and method of writing The Portrait of a Lady in his New York Edition Preface, which was included in my Penguin edition. For this reason I recommend the edition over the Library of America version, or any other which lacks the Preface.
He describes the building of his novel-cathedral as an effort of placing brick upon brick. Truly, each brick is well-moulded, carven with impressions of great interest to the reader of 19th-Century fiction. Henry James is very much of that particular century a paramour, if not the Demi-god, who employed all known instruments of the human intellect to construct a virtual portrait of several character archetypes in prose which seems in itself alive, even as it confounds with its arabesques, its circumlocutions, and its encumbrances. That there is any question whether it is relevant or readable is a testament to the author’s inscrutable style – an acquired taste if there ever was one. Insinuating that he utilized a large number of superfluous words is unnecessary. One acquainted with James should know that words were more of a malleable clay, the mere molecules of the organisms he crafted.
The Portrait of a Lady is as overwrought and sumptuous as anything else he wrote – a judgement based solely on the 1500 pages from his oeuvre I’ve thus far read. It is simple of plot and complex of texture. It is a potent and aromatic tincture. Only a refined connoisseur might pick out all its manifold emanations and insinuations. ****Trigger Warning **** There is quite a lot of gratuitous syntax in this book – but mentioning this again is extraneous. Furthermore, he is fond of the emdash. —As am I. I might also warn the reader that the level of obsession with the institution of marriage goes beyond unhealthy into the territory of the uncanny, even – dare-I-say – into the obscene. It was a common practice around this time for pudgy, well-leisured, stocky, balding, over-educated men to write of nothing else. James was perhaps leader and prime advocate for this cause. In fact the subtleties of his fictional universe might all trace their gravitational attraction to this central source. Put simply, this is a book about marriage. Women, according to the characters in this novel, had a duty to marry, and above all, to marry well. She, as a species, was capable of little else, one might gather from James’s theories. Isabel, our central character, throws a wrench into this mechanistic worldview – at least for a good half of the novel. She remains a captivating character nonetheless, as do even the least woke of James’s brainchildren.
Of course, the characters have no day jobs to trouble them. Not a single one of them has worked a day in his or her life. Their time is amply consumed sniveling and braying, offering a grotesque variety of overarching societal observations. The commentary is in large part as spinsterish as was James. The discussions are speculations and measurements upon the manifestations of propriety, also stipulating upon the various measures of men and women within the household – which in itself is a vehicle of procreation – and yet this facet of human existence, i.e. sex, was apparently a vast, unknowable mystery to our poor author. All of this immanent melodrama is inflicted unfairly upon the unsuspecting natives of the trendy European locales frequented by our players. They cannot spend their money fast enough. It flows like manna. Nor can they hope to inherit enough for their needs. James is so phobic of bachelorhood, so consumed with the importance of marriage, one wonders if he was at all a fisherman of eligible women, if he was not the most eligible of them all.
Furthermore, the story is not of much concern here, but the people are. James is capable of tenderness, as well as a lot of snideness. His powers of dialogue are only equalled by his extraordinary description. This novel offers ample prestidigitation in that regard. You will not tire of viewing the landscape he has painted, if you can stand the people in the foreground. Above all, this is a masterpiece of elocution, enlarging upon the above-mentioned questions and tensions, arising from quite natural human associations. The verisimilitude is a superstructure upon the underlying themes. The flabby sentences take on weight as they accumulate, barreling forward in that Jamesian snowball, until they finally hit home, touching upon the elusive natures of our fellow sufferers, gracing that beautiful pinnacle of textual refinement, sought after by such purveyors of the experimental mode as David Foster Wallace. No one else approaches James in my opinion when it comes to thick and rich adornment. The superhuman powers of articulation were possibly James’s forte, if not his charm.
Look for the clear signs of faith in the study of physiognomy. Bask in the splendor of the author’s rhetorical aplomb as his inexhaustible sea of atmospheric minutiae congregates into a finely stippled rendering of moral ambiguities. Relish the witty banter, envy the swaggering Lord Warburton as he fulfills what you suspect will be a major role in the heroine’s life. This is an idyllic document of great power, if one can weather the grueling mental maneuvers required to keep pace. At bottom, it asks whether marriage is a prison or the relief from a meaningless existence. It would be a pity if James never defined the answer in his own case.