I’m realizing I view Henry James with a degree of suspicion: I have a nagging sense that he looks down on all his characters, despises them a little. He seems to work so hard to make them nuanced and complex and human, but always there’s this faint whiff of condescension—as if, once he’s made them brought them to life, he finds them somewhat repulsive because of the very flaws he has worked so hard to convey.
I don’t know, maybe I’m misreading him. This is all coming out of nowhere, really. Last night I picked up Portrait of a Lady because I thought I was in the mood for some James. The mood had passed by this morning, but last night it was compelling. I started (re)reading Portrait sometime last year; before that I hadn’t read it since college. Last year I got as far as Madame Merle’s entrance and then I thought, ugh, depressing, I don’t want to relive the rest of this. The book made its way back to the shelf.
Last night I tried to find where I’d left off, but the book opened to Chapter 12, when Lord Warburton proposes to Isabel. Reading that scene cold, without the buildup of the previous 90 pages, I was blown away by the—well, by the nuance and complexity and raw human-ness of these characters. James is so patient; if he were a painter he’d be a pointillist, dot dot dot with the brush. Except he wouldn’t be a painter at all: too imprecise: he’d be a sculptor, a Pygmalion chipping out a living, breathing person tap by tap by tap. Only—instead of falling in love with his creation, I think James is a little repulsed by her sweat and spittle.
But that sense of his repulsion comes later, after I put the book down, never while I’m reading. Which makes me wonder if I’m completely making it up. I’ve read next to no lit-crit on James; I have no idea whether this is something the scholars all take as a given, or a brand of foolishness they’d laugh down. I just know he makes me uneasy; somehow I don’t trust him.
But gracious, he can go deep into the mind of a character. This passage is breathtaking:
Isabel herself was upset, but she had not been affected as she would have imagined. What she felt was not a great responsibility, a great difficulty of choice; it appeared to her there had been no choice in the question. She couldn’t marry Lord Warburton; the idea failed to support any enlightened prejudice in favour of the free exploration of life that she had hitherto entertained or was now capable of entertaining. She must write this to him, she must convince him, and that duty was comparatively simple. But what disturbed her, in the sense that it struck her with wonderment, was this very fact that it cost her so little to refuse a magnificent “chance.” With whatever qualifications one would, Lord Warburton had offered her a great opportunity; the situation might have discomforts, might contain oppressive, might contain narrowing elements, might prove really but a stupefying anodyne; but she did her sex no injustice in believing that nineteen women out of twenty would have accommodated themselves to it without a pang. Why then upon her also should it not irresistibly impose itself? Who was she, what was she, that she should hold herself superior? What view of life, what design upon fate, what conception of happiness, had she that pretended to be larger than these large, these fabulous occasions? If she wouldn’t do such a thing as that then she must do great things, she must do something greater. Poor Isabel found ground to remind herself from time to time that she must not be too proud, and nothing could be more sincere than her prayer to be delivered from such a danger: the isolation and loneliness of pride had for her mind the horror of a desert place. If it had been pride that interfered with her accepting Lord Warburton such a betise was singularly misplaced; and she was so conscious of liking him that she ventured to assure herself it was the very softness, and the fine intelligence, of sympathy. She liked him too much to marry him, that was the truth; something assured her there was a fallacy somewhere in the glowing logic of the proposition—as he saw it—even though she mightn’t put her very finest finger-point on it; and to inflict upon a man who offered so much a wife with a tendency to criticise would be a peculiarly discreditable act.
How perfectly he nails Isabel’s discomfort with her own undeniable sense that she is somehow special, meant for extraordinary things. And how viciously honest she is with herself—which makes it all the more painful, later, to see her ignore that earnest inner voice, stubbornly making tragic choices. At least, that’s how I remember it, but it’s been almost twenty years since I read the tragic parts. Oh, Isabel.
It wasn’t until today, when I went to copy out the passage, that I was able to put my finger on the uneasiness I felt as I read this chapter last night—my distrust of James. I am probably being terribly unfair to him. And yet…”she did her sex no injustice in believing that nineteen women out of twenty would have accommodated themselves to it without a pang.” Yow. That’s a nasty little jab, there, Mr. James. When Austen does that sort of thing, you sense her vast affection for humanity—I’m thinking of Anne’s line in Persuasion: “All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it)….” There’s wryness there, but no disdain. Austen is deeply fond of her characters, and, one senses, the real people who inspire them. James seems quietly scornful of the whole lot of them. It’s like he’s an Iron Chef creating culinary masterpieces with a main ingredient he finds distasteful.
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