James's Portrait of a Lady

November 4: Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady was published on this day in 1881. Many commentators regard the novel as the best of his early works, Isabel Archer one of his most engaging heroines. In his preface to the 1908 New York edition, James discusses one passage from the novel at length, because it is "obviously the best thing in the book" and "a supreme illustration of the general plan" by which he hoped to achieve his distinctive style of "psychological realism." The passage in question is Chapter 42, in which Isabel stays up long after her husband, now revealed to her as unsuitable and reprehensible, has gone to bed. In meditative free-fall, she scans the events and emotions of recent months and years, hoping to understand how she could have arrived at such a bad match:

It was as if he had had the evil eye; as if his presence were a blight and his favour a misfortune. Was the fault in himself, or only in the deep mistrust she had conceived for him? This mistrust was the clearest result of their short married life; a gulf had opened between them over which they looked at each other with eyes that were on either side a declaration of the deception suffered. It was a strange opposition, of the like of which she had never dreamed—an opposition in which the vital principle of the one was a thing of contempt to the other. It was not her fault—she had practised no deception; she had only admired and believed. She had taken all the first steps in the purest confidence, and then she had suddenly found the infinite vista of a multiplied life to be a dark, narrow alley, with a dead wall at the end. Instead of leading to the high places of happiness, from which the world would seem to lie below one, so that one could look down with a sense of exaltation and advantage, and judge and choose and pity, it led rather downward and earthward, into realms of restriction and depression, where the sound of other lives, easier and freer, was heard as from above, and served to deepen the feeling of failure.

Sensitive to those critics who complained that there was not enough "story" in his novels, James defends his attempt to "show what an 'exciting' inward life may do for the person leading it even while it remains perfectly normal. …[The passage] is a representation simply of her motionlessly SEEING, and an attempt withal to make the mere still lucidity of her act as 'interesting' as the surprise of a caravan or the identification of a pirate."


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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