Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Portrait of a Novel



Michael Gorra starts with an elderly Henry James in his adopted home of Rye, sitting down at the table, taking his pen to the pages of Portrait of a Lady and working through the text anew.  Apparently, James was an unsatisfied editor, never content with his work, and reshaped his 1881 novel considerably in 1906.  So much so that it appeared new to American readers.  

Of course, many persons probably hadn't read it the first time.  Portrait of a Lady did well in publication, but mostly in Britain, where James spent the greatest part of his life outside the United States.  You can see him a little bit like Prospero in his library.  A man now well into his 60s looking back on his earlier days.  

Gorra takes the 1881 edition as a starting point for his study of what many consider to be Henry James' greatest novel.   It isn't a novel in the classical sense, as he explores his characters with a degree of depth rarely seen before.  To many critics, it is the advent of the modern psychological novel that would become ubiquitous in the 20th century.

For many of us who have read the novel, it is the 1906 edition, as it is the one that has been most often published, but you can read the 1881 edition in the Library of America collection, Novels 1881-1886, which also includes Washington Square and The Bostonians.

Look forward to the discussion.

94 comments:

  1. Somehow I missed this ... which version was serialized in the Atlantic?

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    1. Thanks. That makes sense. Can't even remember where I read that there was a serialization -- I'm assuming it's in the Gorra intro.

      I'll try to get back to it today.

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  3. Michael Gorra:


    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zXzM6_ixJLs


    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQZ_mopUavc

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    1. I am just a bit troubled by Gorra's commentary in that NYC lecture and my thoughts were inspired by a brief discussion on the Campion thread.

      Gorra said James is "too little read" today. That his books in his time and today have "universal access", that they "exult us", and that this gives his books great merit.

      While I agree that Henry's writings do have considerable merit, I do not quite agree that his writings are at the level of a Melville, Twain, Crane, and a few other American writers. Therefore, I feel compelled to "bury" him before I commence to praise him.

      Gorra is a professor at the very elitist Smith college. James wrote about elitist characters. While some were based on real people (Miss Archer based on his cousin Minny Temple, as an example), they are wealthy elitist types that not too many people can relate to, especially in the modern era.

      PORTRAIT begins this way:

      "Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea".

      How nice.

      How charming.

      How elitist.

      Did the average American of that era have the luxury of taking afternoon tea breaks? We of this forum have done enough reading in American history to know that this luxury existed only for the wealthy elites, not for the average American (nor for the average Brit). Thus, this agreeable ceremony has no place in common American practice.

      Henry James, like Gorra, was/is obsessed with the upper class and largely idle elites. Thus, while Gorra claims this and other James books have story lines that are "accessible" to commoners like us on this forum, the reality is that these idle rich and their petty grievances do not serve as microcosms of humanity or the human condition.

      Miss Archer is generously given £70000 pounds by one she hardly knew. As Gorra points out this could be as much as $14 million today [he mentions that today's inflation multipliers render this amount by as much as 200 fold]. Given all that money the beneficiary proceeds to blow it away on a dilettante who spends it like it grew on trees. Now realistically, how often do you see this happening whether in fact or fiction??

      As a collegian in the late 60s/early 70s, I well remember the Eurocentrism of academia that we had back in those days. Evidently, Gorra still subscribes to James's and old style academic Eurocentrism. And yes it is true that some Americans still succumb to the cult of majesty in which they worship the idle elites and still view Europe as the foundation of all civilization and every nicety in human life. But to suggest that these elites serve as microcosms of humanity, exult us the common folk, and bespeak of events that are universally accessible, is a bit far fetched and illusory.

      Perhaps this explains why Campion did not quite achieve all that she could have done with the movie. I can well understand her difficulty as the storyline in the book is just too unrealistic and, contrary Gorra's view, just too inaccessible to common readers today.

      "Portrait of a Lady" is a good book but not one that has withstood the test of time. In public discussions it is not mentioned in the same breath with the writings of a Twain, Melville, or other great American writers. And the reason why should be clear to most - contrary to Gorra's idea, it does not exult the common folks, is not universally accessible, and portrays an idle elitist class that most people cannot relate to.

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    2. Ah, I just noticed an error above - inflation multiplier amount should read £ 14 million (pounds, not dollars).

      £ 14 million is about $22.6 million


      Just imagine inheriting that staggering amount of money from someone you hardly know and blowing it all on a some dilettante. Again, it shows that the storyline simply lacks realism and that this may account for why the book isn't so well received today.

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  4. If Touchett hadn't made Isabel fabulously wealthy, Osmond would have shown no interest in her and we wouldn't have had a story. In that sense it was realistic. But, I don't think James was striving for realism, but rather an artistic integrity. His books are very different from those you note, and it is a bit unfair to compare them. He was more in the same vein as George Elliot and other English and French writers of the 19th century, which is why his books did better in Europe than they did in the US. In many ways, his life paralleled that of Washington Irving, although he didn't enjoy as much success back in America as Irving did.

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    1. "He was more in the same vein as George Elliot and other English and French writers of the 19th century"


      This illustrates my point to some extent about Eurocentrism. Consider this:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eurocentrism#Eurocentrism_in_literature


      While it is true that James's life parallels that of Irving, the latter's writings more often had American themes. His legends of Sleepy Hallow and Rip Van Winkle remain popular to this day (esp around Halloween), his term "Knickerbocker" is used on a daily basis in New York, and his political satires are formats commonly used every day by Onion and other satirists. Unless I am mistaken, I do not see similar usage of James's works on a daily basis in the USA today [please correct me if I'm wrong].


      As for making Isabel "fabulously wealthy" with such a staggering amount of money, it lacks realism. True, we would not have a story without such a remarkable occurrence. But remarkable, and highly unlikely, is all such a storyline could ever be. Small wonder why James is not so widely read today as Gorra admitted in his lecture.


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  5. I think what draws persons like Graham Greene and John Updike to Henry James is his great sense of language. James was a superb craftsmen. I can understand why he wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea, but he is a great writer, even if it is hard to warm up to his characters.

    All his early stories were set in America, and he didn't exactly abandon his homeland in Portrait of a Lady, in which all the principal characters are American. They just happen to be living in Europe. I think he was exploring the idea of ex-patriotism in this novel, especially in the relationship between Isabel and Henrietta and Goodwood. It became a bit tiresome, but I like the way Henrietta came out in the end.

    More interesting was the contrast between Ralph, who had been born and raised in England, and Osmond who grew up in Italy. Both were aesthetes, but came from entirely different angles, and Isabel found herself caught between them.

    I think it best to explore the novel on its own terms.

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    1. http://ia.media-imdb.com/images/M/MV5BMTg0MTg5MTQzNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwMDk1NzM3._V1._SX475_SY618_.jpg


      Henrietta is a fascinating character - very Americanist in outlook (called "true-blue patriotism" by Gorra) but working in Europe. In the story she doesn't praise the European high art and has more good to say about American art. At first she is rather blunt and doesn't like Ralph but appears at his funeral as she softens up towards the end of the story.

      "Stackpole" ~ I wonder if her name symbolizes or reflects a role as standard bearer for Americanists in this tale. HJ was known for using character names which reflect some form of idea or idealism (again, this was more evident in "Ambassadors"). Though not as wealthy as Isabel she is far more self confident and is not enslaved by her personal vulnerability or by her unwise marriage as she is. She is also a bit argumentative and intrusive - characteristics not normally associated with Victorian or Edwardian era womanhood. But a critic of that era called her "quite too life like" - well, what the heck is a character supposed to be???

      It has been said that the real life woman she was modeled after was Kate Field (1839–1896) who lived in Europe during the 1860s/70s and who wrote thousands of articles:


      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kate_Field


      Some of her works were attacks on Mormons and the polygyny they practiced at that time. Fascinating person - perhaps a novel should have been written about her rather than Isabel!



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  6. HJ was such a prolific writer that he developed a serious hand injury and had to employ a typist to take dictation. Unfortunately, however, some of his personal correspondence did not survive the years. Gorra suggests that much of his personal letters may have contained sexual matters that HJ did not want to disclose for fear of losing his reputation.

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  7. I hope Gorra doesn't spend a lot of time hypothesizing on whether Henry James was gay or not. I didn't detect any gay themes in the novel, unless Ralph used his consumption to disguise his latent homoerotic feelings toward Warburton.

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    1. I got the impression that Gorra just assume he is. Doesn't mean he has to write gay themes or about gay men -- it was a different time then -- but I suspect that a lot of Isabel's desire for "freedom" and disinclination to get married is a little bit of James coming through on the page. I also suspect that Gorra is right about the letters. If not overtly sexual, they probably reveal more about him personally than he wished to reveal.

      Hopefully Strether will join us at some point. My guess is she will have an opinion on this.

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    2. assumes ...

      too early in the morning.

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    3. Professor Robert Pippin lecture on James & "Portrait":


      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XMgw7IIUQlo


      In this speech Prof Pippin summarizes & discusses several issues which may be of interest to those who have not read the book. One is the unexpected inheritance which he says amounts to several hundred million dollars by today's standards (he did not cite the inflation or conversion source for this figure). He also mentions that there are recurring themes in JH's books such as displaced Americans in Europe, marriage, inheritance, scheming, and sterility in so many of the characters.


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    4. I am hoping that Gorra doesn't use the book simply as a jumping off point for a biography on James, which is the way it reads at the beginning. Yes, it is important to provide some personal details, but I'm more interested in the themes in the novel, notably that of ex-patriotism, which clearly is the dominate theme.

      All but one principal character is American. Even Madame Merle, seemingly most worldly, is American. It seems to me that what James is dealing with is his own attitudes about displacement, and to a much smaller degree sexuality. Ultimately, the most fateful character in this novel is not Isabel Archer but Pansy Osmond, who has no cognizance at all of her American identity and has been raised virtually in a convent, coming to rely on Isabel to make her way in the world. Advice Isabel feels unable to give her.

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    5. I am on p 240 and hope to finish it by Oct 11 when the due date expires. In my haste to read thru it, I have not been able to take down some notes for discussion.

      But no, it does not appear to be a new bio but a genuine study on the creation of "Portrait". Early on in the book Gorra mentions Turgenev which takes me back to our discussion of the great Russian writers of the late 19th century. A thought occurred to me:

      Recall our discussion of the Slavophiles vs Westernizers ~ the former believed Russian culture to be superior to the West, the latter believed the West to be superior to the old Russian. Each ideology was thought to be better than the other in the effort to create reform and progress.

      Turgenev met with HJ and was a Westernizer who traveled to Continental Europe in search of wider intellectual and cultural horizons. This is exactly what the Westernizers did.as they found old style Russian culture too limited. Recall our discussion of other writers and their characters who did the same.


      Now transpose similar ideas to HJ, John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, and the characters who appear in American fiction from that era. They, too, saw American "culture" as sterile and backward. Because of this, many went to Europe to expand their intellectual and cultural horizons. As you noted, many of James's characters fit this mold as did so many of Dostoyevsky's and the characters from other Russian Westernizers.

      Ironically, according to Gorra, HJ saw Turgenev's characters as "portraits". Hmmm ~ interesting choice of words. Portraits such as Portrait of a Lady, the work of Sargent, and possibly the work of Homer ???

      How interesting that scholars from both Russia and the USA saw the grass just a bit greener on the other side.




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  8. As I said, Trip, I don't think James was striving for realism. Ralph split his sizeable inheritance with Isabel so that she would have the freedom she seemed to desire, but when Madame Merle caught wind of this, she began her plotting. I think James was very deft in this regard, as he didn't lead you believe there was anything particularly sinister about Serena, other than her name.

    According to Gorra, James was probably making a reference to a blackbird here, as such birds are attracted to shiny objects, and like to steal them.

    It really becomes a study of free will, the way the story plays out.

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    1. ~ plotting ~


      I wonder if Countess Gemini isn't plotting as well.

      First, as an American citizen she is not allowed by law to have a European title. Therefore, we must assume she has renounced her US citizenship, forsaken all that is American, and adopted the corrupting old world European culture(s) as her own. We know she is in an unhappy marriage, has (by her admission) been involved in numerous extramarital affairs, tells Isabel a dirty little secret about her brother Osmond, helps Isabel make her escape to England ...

      Now, Mme Merle tells Isabel "your cousin made you rich" and it makes me wonder - did Amy just make her brother Osmond wealthy? After all, her revelation helps Isabel decide to leave for England to attend to her dying cousin's bed side. If she stays there (as some readers believe she did - we don't know for certain) then by the law of that era she forfeits all her wealth to Osmond. Did Amy deliberately tell Isabel of this secret (especially just when she was most vulnerable) knowing it would drive her to leave?

      In the past I have read that critics believed Amy was angry at Osmond at this junction in the story. That she deliberately told this story (and others about all the extra marital affairs of the local women) to Isabel as a means of stopping Osmond from abusing Isabel and Pansy. But I am not convinced of this. After all the disclosures set in motion what may possibly have been the dissolution of the marriage thereby permanently enriching Osmond, empowering him in his effort to get Pansy married into further wealth, and possibly enriching Mme Merle should she continue the affair with Osmond who earlier had said that he was fond of his sister and who is said by the narration as "not such a fool as she seemed".

      Again, we don't know about all this for sure. But we know she is duplicitous (her endless verbiage and pomposity could well be a mask which hides her true nature) so that this scenario just might have some plausibility.

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    2. I think The Countess simply wanted to get back at her brother by giving the upper hand to Isabel. It was pretty clear that by going to England against Osmond's expressed wishes, Isabel reasserted herself. I got the impression that the only reason she went back to Rome was for Pansy's sake, since she had promised her she would return in the convent scene. I think Isabel very much wanted to "save" Pansy, and may have even been willing to keep the marriage going for her sake. Of course, that's hard to tell since James left the story there.

      The Countess' little secret was well placed in the narrative, affirming suspicions Isabel already had, but didn't want to admit. The only real surprise was Pansy being Serena's daughter. But, this explained what Mdme. Merle's role in all this was. It was a very strong scene, and handled well in the movie.

      As for Osmond's wealth, I got the impression it was Mdme. Merle who helped him out. I remember Gemini saying something to this effect. The Countess' Italian husband had position, but apparently not much wealth, He was an inveterate gambler among many other shortcomings.

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    3. True, Mme Merle was responsible for Osmond getting the wealth. My point or suggestion was, did Amy's intervention solidify his hold on the wealth. After all there was a line somewhere about "exile" and Osmond telling or asking her "suppose I exile you?" I got the feeling maybe he was gonna tell her old man about her misadventures - now that would surely have landed her in trouble and left her penniless. Perhaps that's why she helped Isabel leave thereby solidifying Osmond's hold on the wealth. But yes Isabel did promise to Pansy she would return which she fulfills - in this she lives up to her promise, takes personal responsibility for her actions, shows her sense of principle, but leaves herself vulnerable to Osmond's tyranny [in this she is succumbing to old world conventionality rather than to the American new way of thinking where she would have left and started life anew] . But what happens next?

      This story needs a sequel!!!!

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    4. I like the fact that James left the story open ended. It fits in with the theme of free will that he set in the novel. I figured Isabel wouldn't let herself be dominated by Osmond anymore. He lost her grip on her when she chose to defy him and go to England to be with Ralph. She knows everything now, and can better make choices.

      The Countess was so little used that I figured her sole purpose here was to inform Isabel.

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  9. Here's the piece James wrote on Turgenev,

    http://www.eldritchpress.org/ist/hj2.htm

    There really aren't those sharp distinctions you mention, Trip. Most Russian writers liked to contrast Western v. Asian attitudes that exist in the country. The most recognizable novel in this vein was Oblomov.

    Pan-Slavism was more an attempt to unite the Slavic-speaking people, a very strong sentiment in the 19th century, and one Dostoevsky wrote extensively about. It was more along religious lines that this line was drawn -- Orthodox v. Catholic.

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    1. Clearly there were differences in the movements. But Eurocentrism in American academia remains a fact and Continental influence still exists in Russian literature/culture. As for Continentalism (if such a term exists) or Eurocentrism as oppose to Americanist ideals is a conflict that is more pronounced in HJ's "The Ambassadors" (which I just finished reading via audio book) rather than in "Portrait". After reading it and going through Gorra, I get the feeling he should have written his book about "Ambassadors" as it could possibly have made for a better reading.

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  10. Maybe, I haven't read that book, but I got quite a bit out of The Portrait of a Lady, and I like the way Gorra describes James as a scenographer, setting up scenes that allow his characters room to talk. I particularly liked the opening scene, as set the story very well.

    It seems James drew a lot from Turgenev, who also liked to work with characters and scenes, not so much with plot. Fathers and Sons is an excellent novel.

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    1. "Fathers and Sons is an excellent novel."


      May well be the finest I ever read. I have re-played several scenes in my mind over & over again.

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  11. Stackpole and Goodwood? My guess is that James was having a little fun here. I found them both to be an annoyance, but Henrietta became more interesting later in the book. They both appeared symbolic of the good upstanding American life Isabel had apparently turned her back on, more interested in the cosmopolitan world of Europe.

    It was strange to me that James didn't show more of Europe. Gardencourt, London, Florence and Rome were little more than backdrops to his characters. There was a strong theatrical quality to the novel. James gave us very little of the local color. He didn't ferret out any tangential character except for a few brief remarks about Countess Gemini's Italian husband, and Blandling who hovered around Henrietta like a baggage handler. He wanted us to stay focused on the interior worlds of his characters, particularly Isabel. Everyone seemed there to serve her, even Lord Warburton, who had risen to prominence in England. It makes me think that this was a world of Isabel's imagination, and we see the others through her.

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  12. I'm still trying to finish the novel. I'm interested in it but it's just long .... But hopefully will wrap it up this weekend so I can move back to Gorra. Seems silly to read how he wrote and edited the book without having read it.

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  13. One of our favorite subjects on this forum has always been Theodore Roosevelt who despite his great scholarship was, at times, rather anti-intellectual. For example, he referred to Woodrow Wilson (professor at Princeton) as a "text book idiot". Well, no surprise here, his views towards HJ and others like him who were disposed to travel/live abroad were less than benign. He ''attacked the 'Europeanized' American ... with unmistakable reference, as an 'undersized ...man of letters, who flees his country because he ... cannot play a man's part among men." He was reported to have made statements in private that were even more blunt.

    However, the two did get along in public where tact and diplomacy (especially for a politician running for office) is and remains the order of the day.

    There's a certain irony here in that HJ eventually became a British citizen and volunteered for an ambulance corps during WWI when he died in 1916. Thus, he fulfilled a role that would have made TR quite proud. Truth being stranger than fiction, all this kinda reminds me of George Santayana's "The Last Puritan" where the lead character Oliver Arden travels to Europe to find his cultural and personal elevation, volunteers in an ambulance corps, but dies in an accident in which he swerved to avoid harming another person. To both HJ and the fictional Arden the grass may have appeared greener on the other side but the outcome for both was one of ultimate doom.

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  14. Persons are led abroad for different reasons. I've been living in Lithuania for 16 years now. Hard to imagine. For James it was probably more a matter of comfort and taste. For me it is family, but at some level I found myself identifying with his expats, although our income levels are very far apart.

    Getting to the part where James hooks up with Henry Adams. Should be fun. Adams loved nothing more than to tease Roosevelt.

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  15. Another thing that struck me about the novel was the total lack of sentimentality. It was as if James set out to write the anti-Romance novel. He disdained all such conventions, focusing heavily on the characters, forgoing plot and letting the story pretty much tell itself through the characters. When Gorra mentioned Turgenev, I was struck by the fact that the novel had a 19th century Russian feel, but then Russian writers were influenced by French writers, which James was apparently inspired by as well.

    Traditional American characters were reduced to gross stereotypes in Henrietta and Goodwood, and his other American characters were more European than American. It was as if they had been re-absorbed in their mother continent. I wonder if that is the way James felt himself?

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  16. Finally finished the novel -- interesting read. I look forward to getting back to Gorra now that I know what the book's about.

    Didn't James become an English citizen in the end?

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    1. He sure did. He opposed the USA's initial refusal to enter WW I and became a supervisor for the British ambulance corps. Therefore, he rejected the USA's Americanist & non-interventionist culture and succumbed to the old world idealism. This is precisely what happened to Arden in the novel I mentioned above. Recall from our earlier discussion how getting involved in European affairs led to the untimely death of Margaret Fuller. In the past, I've read where other Americans also met their fate when they reported news of war in European conflicts during the 1850s and thereafter. Too bad they did not adhere to our Founding Fathers who demanded that we abstain from foreign entanglements.

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    2. Teddy Roosevelt also opposed the USA's initial refusal to enter WWII. Quite vehemently in fact, making a number of disparaging remarks about Wilson. What does that make him?

      Honestly, Trip, why all this indignation? That wasn't what James was about, and certainly not what the book was about.

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    3. Additionally, I don't see where any of his characters "succumbed to the old world idealism" in The Portrait of a Lady. They were more or less disinterested bystanders. If Isabel had succumbed to this idealism, she would have married Warburton and not Osmond, although Lord Warburton himself preferred to watch things from the sidelines until he felt it his duty to take a more active role.

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    4. Gintaras,

      I think you misunderstood what I wrote above - it was Gorra who wrote that TR despised the Europeanized American. See p 79. Seems to me there is considerable amount of clash of culture. While Isabel initially was attracted to Osmond who was seemingly non-materialistic and free spirited (new world), but who turned out to be Europeanized (old world), she succumbed by returning to him and living under his roof and dominance. The following writing is an essay on her succumbing to such convention:


      http://kops.ub.uni-konstanz.de/bitstream/handle/urn:nbn:de:bsz:352-opus-2971/297_1.pdf?sequence=1


      In fact the entire essay (a master's thesis) has as its theme the fact that HJ's three writings that are analyzed deal with the American vs Europeanized culture conflict. Therefore, this idea or theme was not my idea at all but one others have written about numerous times.

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    5. That struck me as your opinion of Henry James, not that of Roosevelt. I referred to TR because he too was for US involvement in WWI and was pissed as hell Wilson didn't get into the war sooner.

      I think Osmond represented a worldly and free man to Isabel whereas Warburton represented old England. Mostly, she wanted to see something of the world first before making a decision, but Osmond had successfully been able to get into her mind, whereas Warburton had more simply appealed to her, but didn't capture her imagination. At least, that's the way I read it.

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    6. Dunno how I gave that impression but do apologize if I made myself misunderstood.

      Anyways, the Bookmobile was here today and I returned Gorra. I had ordered a couple of other books which amplified the theme shown on that thesis above but told the librarian to return them - therefore, I won't pursue that aspect of James's themes in his books. The few notes I made on that are now in the recycle bin.

      I did, however, get a copy of the book "Dearly Beloved Friends" by Gunter/Jobe. This book is a compilation on HJ's letters with several young male friends and deals with his views on Anglo-Americanism and other themes.

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  17. BTW, av, glad you finished the book. I won't have to worry about spoiler alerts ; )

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  18. Thanks ... I've been skipping the discussion until I finished. The origins of Pansy caught me completely by surprise and really added a great layer to the story.

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  19. I'd have to go back and see exactly what she said in the opening, but I thought she said she wanted to be free from entanglements and didn't plan to marry. Very unconventional given the times.

    In some ways, her uncle's money was meant to allow her to pursue that dream. Ralph said he wanted to sit back and watch what she would do if she didn't have to worry about money or marriage.

    But as it turned out, she took a very conventional path anyway and got stuck the way most women, except maybe Henrietta, got stuck. The money ruined her from Ralph's perspective. It certainly landed her in a relationship where she was no longer happy or free.

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  20. The one consistent theme that seems to run through the book is that of collectors. I'm really looking forward to reading what Gorra has to say about the novel, and how James viewed the world he created.

    I'm traveling again this weekend so will have some airplane time to read the book.

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  21. Oh, and the whole metaview of the book itself being just like a novel.

    He seems to be interested in calling attention to that throughout, just as he views characters as perfect specimens of whatever type.

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  22. I got the sense they were chess pieces, especially in the way Madame Merle was playing everyone. The only one who really seemed to know what was going on was the supposedly daffy Countess. I liked the way James used her in the novel. It was a pretty intricate plot, concealed for the most part until the end.

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  23. You never do find out who the narrator is. I thought he or she might be revealed in the end. We more or less see everyone through Isabel's eyes, so you figure the narrator had to be a close to her. For awhile I thought Goodwood would turn out to be the narrator, as he seemed to be hanging around just to see how the whole thing would end.

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  24. Hadn't thought about that. I had assumed it was just James telling the story but that would have added another layer.

    I wonder if that was a convention at the time. I never really studied this period of American/English lit, although I like the writers from this period.

    I started back into Gorra. So many questions I hope he can answer.

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    1. Very common Russian convention at the time, often not revealed and sometimes unreliable. Maybe he took it from Turgenev.

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  25. I always think of that as being so modern -- particularly the "unreliable" narrator, which seems to turn the novel into a game. But also talking about the novel as a novel. I guess James was ahead of his time.

    Sounds like James had an opportunity to mix with all the great European/Russian stylists, including Turgenev, which I'm sure had its effect.

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    1. Gorra gets into his brushes with Russian expats in Paris and Tuscany. He seemed to move quite freely in this circle, developing a rather intimate relationship with Zhukovsky.

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  26. I love finding these little behind the scenes insights. Hardwick House:

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c0/Hardwick_House_-_geograph.org.uk_-_635467.jpg

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    1. That's about how I pictured Gardencourt.

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    2. What was interesting, too, was the history James had with the house through cousins etc. Not sure it means much to the book, but it adds an extra dimension to my appreciation nonetheless.

      Reading about George Eliot now -- another writer I don't know that much about. Hope to make some real progress in the book over the weekend.

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  27. I have Middlemarch and plan on reading it. Gorra supplies a copious reading list. The biography written by James' typist looks interesting,

    http://archive.org/stream/henryjamesatwork00bosa#page/n3/mode/2up

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  28. Knowing some of what goes into writing fiction, I really enjoy this kind of literary history -- broadening the literary, historical, and even personal horizon of the writer and his work.

    I leave town tomorrow. If I can't access the site, will be back early next week. Hopefully will have finished the book (or near to it) by then.

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    1. I'm really enjoying the book as well.

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  29. Gorra mentions HJ's correspondence with his young male pals as being rather intimate. And he wasn't kidding - they read rather like amorous letters. I recommend you check out Gunther/Jobe's book.

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    1. Quite a long piece about James' apparent love for Zhukovsky, and has his relationships with gay and bisexual men may have influenced his writing of The Author of Beltraffio, but he seemed to treat it as a curse in the short story.

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  30. I get the feeling James could have written a good spy thriller if he was so inclined. The novel was largely about manipulation, in its many dimensions. It was interesting to read in Gorra that Henry tried to steer brother William away from his novels, probably to avoid to much psychoanalysis of them, but there is something "clinical" about the way Henry James dissects his characters.

    There is a forensic quality to this novel, not much unlike one of brother William's case studies. It also has an air of mystery which keeps the story compelling throughout, even if Henry is more interested in this character's thoughts than he is their actions. He even offers a big pay off in the end.

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  31. He apparently was quite the ghost-story writer, though.

    I haven't yet finish Gorra, but am inching towards the end. Have really enjoyed the textural quality of it, drawing on everything from sightseeing to other writers of the period. Makes me want to read more James.

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  32. His relationship with "Fenimore" was fascinating. Definitely want to read more about her as well.

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    1. Seems like Gorra is drawing a lot from Lyndall Gordon's book on James,

      http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/05/16/reviews/990516.16allent.html

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  33. Yes, that's a pretty famous biography. She's apparently very good. But he does bring a sensibility to James and his milieu for lack of better word that I am appreciating. Sorry you gave up on him, Trippler. It's a good book.

    I wish I had been marking the book so I could go back to places, but I'll try to come up with some examples.

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    1. '' Sorry you gave up on him, Trippler. It's a good book.''


      Correction: read it from cover to cover & thought it was a very good book.

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  34. Trip is way ahead of us. I think he finished the book two weeks ago. I'm about halfway through and enjoying it very much. Funny thing is I haven't heard Gorra expound upon American Exceptionalism as of yet. I guess that was something the reviewer picked out.

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  35. There is one aside where he says that Archer feels exceptional, but so far that's been it. And I'm nearing the end.

    It could be that the reviewer just interpreted the novel that way.

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  36. If someone bought the book based on the review they might be disappointed, as I haven't seen Gorra get into too much politics. I'm actually very thankful of that, as I didn't see it in the book. To me the story was more about free will, than American exceptionalism, although Isabel can be viewed as seeing herself above others, especially in the beginning. About the closest we get to a political character is Henrietta, but her views appear to be mostly played for laughs.

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  37. I have one final chapter to read but did get to the point that I'm assuming the reviewer means -- it's an interesting interpretation of the novel.

    Isabel learns "what the Old World has always had to teach us. She learns (from Osborne's sister) that her own life has been determined by things that happened before she was thought of, by a past of which she was ignorant and that she only understands when it's already too late. ... nothing less than the fact that America itself has had no separate or special creation. No fresh start, no city on a hill, no truly new world; no exception to or exemption from history itself."

    That's a pretty powerful interpretation of the novel as well as an interesting insight into James himself.

    This has been a really good book, particularly after reading the novel right before it.

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  38. I got the sense that if anything James was debunking this notion of American exceptionalism, comically presented in the forms of Henrietta and Goodwood. In the end, Henrietta relented in marrying her tag-a-long Brit, although you figure the marriage will be on her terms, and Caspar returns to America empty handed, having seemed to have gotten nothing of what transpired.

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  39. I think that's his point in the quote above. That Americans think they are above it all but it turns out they are not separate or somehow ordained. No city on the hill.

    Ralph and those around him might think Isabel is a fine specimen of American uniqueness, but it turns out even she -- with all the resources available to her -- is unable to escape the machinations of the Old World.

    If the reviewer suggested the opposite, I think s/he missed Gorra's point entirely.

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  40. Of course, the irony is that despite all his "Old World" pretenses, Osmond is an American. I think what makes the book endlessly fascinating is its many,many layers, and I really enjoyed the way Gorra pealed some of those layers away.

    I agree with you that the reviewer missed the entire point of Gorra's book and the novel itself for that matter.

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  41. It would be interesting to read Twain's Innocents Abroad after this.

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  42. There are so many other books I'd like to read now -- including more James. I'd even like to go back and reread the handful I have already read since I seem to "get" him better now.

    Also interested in following the idea that he came to accept his own sexuality later in life and that's reflected in those later books. Trippler, I bet those letters you read were eyeopening!

    I'll finish the book tonight -- I just have that one final chapter. Another great choice!

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  43. Any closing thoughts. I still haven't quite finished the book, having had other things going on this past week, but will do so. I'm curious how Gorra addresses the idea of "collecting," which av noted figured in heavily to the novel. Even young Edward Rosier was willing to sell off his collection of enamels to be with Pansy. However, Osmond guarded Pansy like a treasure, and I think it was Isabel who ultimately told Edward he should keep his collection and give up thinking about Pansy.

    Osmond, of course, was the ultimate collector. Henry James seemed to draw from Pygmalion here, but Osmond wasn't sculpting just one beauty (his daughter) but Isabel too, who he felt he could easily reshape into the image he had for the ideal woman for himself, but having failed in this regard, returned his attention once again to Pansy, who Serena was most interested in all along.

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  44. I don't think Gorra ever really addressed that which seemed to be a theme writ large all over the novel. Everyone had their collections, but what really struck me is that he also talked about how the characters themselves were like specimens.

    Osmond seemed to be someone who wanted to control his world down to the last piece of lace on his and his daughter's clothing. But in the end even though he controlled her fortune, he couldn't control Isabel. This was the ultimate "women's question" of that period. What to do with the women? James chose to give her emotional if not total (in the end) financial independence.

    Pretty amazing resolution when you think about it.

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  45. It's worth finishing the book when you can just to get to the end of his life, which is also pretty revealing.

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  46. Very slowly winding down the book. Each chapter reads like an essay tightly wrapped on itself, which I like. Fascinated by his chapter on the new novel and how the distribution of books worked in the UK and the US. I imagine the lending system in Britain greatly affected writers' royalties, as books saw very limited printings.

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  47. I really liked the book. I was also interested in how the serialization of novels must have affected the writing of them as well.

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  48. I guess before television this was the way to have episodic dramas. Gorra made some interesting observations on this, noting that most authors accepted the serialized format and structured their books accordingly, but not James, who saw Portrait of a Lady as a holistic piece from the start, and seemed to use the format as a way to pace himself. He apparently didn't want his book split into three parts, as was the UK convention, once it completed its run.

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  49. Didn't he ask, though, for another two or three installments? Or was that a different book?

    It occurred to me that writers would be much more inclined to write longer and longer-winded books if you got paid by the installment rather than the book.

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  50. He apparently misjudged the lengths or was trying to squeeze a little more out of the publishers, but Gorra noted that James was not using the typical serialized conventions of his day. There were no clear and distinct "parts" to his novel.

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  51. Interesting chapter on James' return to the US and the deaths of his mother and father. His time with Alice sounds like a fascinating interlude, inspiring him to write The Bostonians on the growing sense of women independence in America, including sexual independence. Seems that his own reluctance to explore homosexuality stilted his narrative, or so Gorra interprets it. Makes the book sound intriguing though.

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  52. Finally finished the book today. Just a couple small disappointments. Oddly enough, Gorra didn't mention the closed door when Isabel rushed back to the mansion. It seems Mrs. Touchett had shut her out, no longer wanting any part of her, which probably made Isabel decision to return to Rome easier for her. My impression was that Ralph's mother felt that Isabel now had to sleep in the bed she made for herself.

    I also got the impression that the main reason for Isabel returning to Rome was to rescue Pansy. She didn't want the girl forced into a marriage by her deceitful parents. Not that Isabel would have much control over the situation, but at least she would be there for Pansy.

    I think this was the intention of James, as Pansy represented a certain closure as well. Osmond had asked Isabel to see Pansy before leaving on her voyage around Europe, and it seems Pansy made quite an impression on her.

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  53. I'll go back to that scene. I got the impression that she went back to the life she had created for herself, albeit with more determination to maintain some sense of self.

    But then I didn't read Patsy the way you did earlier either -- to me she was more like the "perfect specimen" of the ideal woman, since she was under absolute control. She seems to be the foil for Isabel or her mirror opposite, since she breaks free of that.

    But I'll try to take another look.

    Glad you finished the book. I loved reading it.

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  54. Pansy had a pull on Isabel and Osmond seemed to recognize this, as he asked Isabel to see her before she left Rome after he proposed to her. While Pansy may have been the perfect specimen in her father's mind, Isabel seemed to want to help Pansy establish her identity. She even offered to take Pansy out of the convent before she left for England, but Pansy politely remained in her cage. Still, Pansy asked Isabel to return. It seemed Isabel was the only person Pansy felt she could trust with her feelings. This is why I felt one of the reasons, if not the principal reason, for Isabel returning to Rome was Pansy.

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  55. The other omission was Gorra not shedding any light on the narrator of the story. James felt compelled to use a narrator, but never revealed him (or her).

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  56. It's even more complicated than I imagined:

    http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n22/anne-diebel/i-cant-i-cant

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  57. The Historiography of a Novelist ; ) Sounds interesting.

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  58. I hadn't been aware either of the playwriting fiasco that Gorra mentions as a "well known story." I guess the early version of trying to write for Hollywood -- and now t.v.

    I have read most of David Lodge's books, so picked up Author, Author when it came out -- but haven't read it yet.

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  59. It was interesting that it affected his approach to the novel though, opting for a scenographic method. It seems that James was a bit too serious for theater audiences at the time. I like the way Gorra contrasted James to Oscar Wilde.

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  60. Wilde was a great playwright. Seems like there were some identity issues going on there, too.

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  61. I just read Edith Wharton's "House of Mirth" and can see the influence HJ had upon her writing. Some of the issues we discussed above are touched upon in this novel - a good read though a bit difficult to follow at times.

    I was fascinated by Lily Bart and found her to be a proto-flapper in that she engaged in behavior which was thought to be scandalous and unladylike for that era: smoked cigarettes openly, gambled, carried on with men despite being unmarried, and was kinda reckless. After all, while this was a post Victorian era, none the less society had very strong and rigid ideas about propriety which she did not conform with. The characters appeared genuine and I thought it was a truthful portrayal of NYC Bohemian society at that time.


    As I think about it, the book reminds me of "Madame Bovary" and "The Awakening". All good reads.

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