Book Review: Portrait of a Novel, by Michael Gorra, Is a Fascinating Look at Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady

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I’ve long been obsessed by Henry James. I’ve read all of his fiction, and much of his non-fiction as well, in the Library of America editions (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). I’ve read a half-dozen biographies of James, and the James family, and many of books about James’ work.

So Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel interested me right off the bat, even though I waited for the book to come out in paperback. Gorra set out to tell the story of The Portrait of a Lady, one of James’ finest novels, weaving a narrative talking about the novel, about Henry James’ life, especially when writing The Portrait, and about the times in which it was written and set.

The result is fascinating. While Gorra’s critical discussion of the novel would be enough for a book, the way he manages to tell the story of much of Henry James’ life through its relationship with The Portrait of a Lady is impressive. This isn’t a full biography of James; the book opens with some background information about James’ early years, then moves on to show James at work on The Portrait. Throughout, you get a picture of what Henry James was doing in the novel, and how it related to his experiences.

Gorra takes a Sainte-Beuvian approach, and rightly so. Not all of James’ works reflect experiences he had in his life, but many did. For example, Isabel Archer is partly based on Henry’s cousin, Minny Temple, who died aged 24 of consumption, in 1870. Isabel Archer is not diseased, but she does have the Emersonian independence that Temple had.

Gorra bases much of his discussion of James and women on the interesting biography of James, A Private Life of Henry James, by Lyndall Gordon (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), looking at James’ relationship with Temple, but also his later relations with Constance Fenimore Woolson, who James met around the time he was writing The Portrait.

Gorra goes beyond strict biography, giving insight into the way James published his work – with The Portrait of a Lady, and earlier novels, they were published as serials, which impacted the way they were constructed. He also looks closely at James’ later years, when he was revising his favorite works for the New York Edition, and discusses the changes he made to The Portrait, many of which gave much better insight into the characters and their motivations.

Gorra adroitly sums up the message of The Portrait of a Lady:

“She [Isabel Archer] learns that Her own life has been determined by things that happen before she was thought of, a past of which she was ignorant and that she only understands when it’s already too late.”

This book is not a full biography of the fascinating life of Henry James; if you want that, the best bet is still to go back to Leon Edel’s pioneering work (available used in a one-volume reduction of the original five volumes (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). Or check out this fascinating biography of the James family – one of the rare families to have two geniuses as siblings, William and Henry: House of Wits, by Paul Fisher (Amazon.com, Amazon UK).

And go back and read The Portrait of a Lady in the original version (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) or the later version, revised for the New York Edition (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). Or watch the movie with Nicole Kidman, who portrays Isabel Archer quite well (Amazon.com, Amazon UK).

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Lamb House, in Rye, where Henry James lived from 1898-1816.

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