Henry James was one of the Writers You Really Should Read that I, for one reason or another, had not read until now. I had picked up a copy of his “The Portrait of a Lady” at a used book store awhile back. I wasn’t sure whether I would like James’ writing, having heard it was Literary for the sake of being Literary. Others gushed about his writing and it’s High Artfulness.
So I finally dived in…
And I found that I liked his writing quite a bit.
In “The Portrait of a Lady,” originally published 1881, someone could make the flippant critique that James is merely writing about the Idle Rich. The people seem to have gobs of two things: money and free time. (Yes, as a middle class, stay-at-home dad and budding writer it did make me a bit envious.) But that ignores his very careful style. It is overtly Literary, but his third-person omniscience allows him (and the reader) to have both distance from the characters but also to often get deep inside the minds of those characters. Some say “not much happens” in a Henry James story. Action-wise sorta no. A lot takes place inside the minds of the characters so that when an action as small as a half-smile takes place, it is imbued with loads of meaning. The most important chapter, 42, concerns Isabel Archer sitting in a chair, thinking about her marriage.
Isabel Archer is a sympathetic heroine, sheltered, who is given a fortune upon the death of her uncle. She turns down a couple of marriage proposals from wealthy men, citing her desire to be free. She is then, unbeknown to her, maneuvered into a marriage with Gilbert Osmond who has a daughter Pansy. This has a number of consequences, which I won’t detail here. You’ll have to read the book yourself.
At any rate, because I liked “The Portrait of a Lady” I ordered a copy of James short stories that includes The Turn of the Screw and Daisy Miller, and a copy of “The Aspern Papers.” The latter was referenced in “The City of Falling Angels” by John Berendt, a book that is an excellent, fascinating look at the power brokers in Venice, Italy.