Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Revisiting Portrait of a Lady

Evelyn Waugh, Sunday, November 17, 1946:

"Patrick left on Saturday afternoon. What an enormous, uncovenanted blessing to have kept Henry James for middle age and to turn, as the door shuts behind the departing guest, to a first reading of 'Portrait of a Lady.'"

(h/t The New Yorker, Sept 3, 2012)

I think I read Portrait in college, not for a class, but while babysitting during the summer for a set of twins who would likewise spend the afternoon reading Goosebumps books. I know I wrote down portions of it in my journal, and used them the following year in my senior thesis, but my memory all these years later is that I didn't especially enjoy reading it. I didn't think it was funny or bright. I mostly was scandalized and obsessed with the evil of Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond--that they could trap someone seemingly so innocent as Isabel Archer in their web of deceit and then keep her captive there for the rest of her life.

I'm not that far into it on a second reading, in my near middle age, mainly because I'm finding a slow read to be so enjoyable--I want to make it last as long as possible, and also post-pone the tragedy that I know is coming. Sort of wish, like Waugh, I'd never read it in my younger days.

For now, I'm just delighting in the young Miss Archer, in sort of the same way that her cousin Ralph does. I like watching her, and I wince as people show up and exercise their effects on her. She's so impressionable, so absorbent, and mutable about almost everything but the knowledge of her own worth. I sort of remember feeling that way a long time ago.

I'm also sort of loving and hating her American friend Henrietta Stackpole, the young reporter who wants to write about everyone she meets for her job at the Interviewer. And when Isabel comes across a tablet on which Miss Stackpole is writing "Glimpses of Gardencourt"--which is a draft of her reflections on Isabel's family, Isabel asks her to stop immediately.

"I don't think you ought to do that. I don't think you ought to describe the place."

..."Why, it's just what the people want, and it's a lovely place."

"It's too lovely to be put in the newspapers, and it's not what my uncle wants."

"Don't you believe that!" cried Henrietta. "They are always delighted, afterwards."

"My uncle won't be delighted--nor my cousin either. They will consider it a breach of hospitality."

(Miss Stackpole puts her pen away) "Of course if you don't approve, I won't do it; but I sacrifice a beautiful subject."

"There are plenty of other subjects..." (scenery, etc.)

"Scenery is not my department; I always need a human interest. You know I am deeply human, Isabel; I always was...I was going to bring in your cousin--the alienated American. There is a great demand just now for the alienated American, and your cousin is a lovely specimen. I should have handled him severely."

"He would have died of it!" Isabel exclaimed. "Not of the severity, but of the publicity."

"Well, I should have liked to kill him a little...."

"...My poor have no sense of privacy."

"You do me great injustice," said Miss Stackpole, with dignity. "I have never written a word about myself!"

"I am very sure of that; but it seems to me one should be modest for others also!"

"Ah, that is very good!" cried Henrietta seizing her pen again. "Just let me make a note of it, and I will put it in a letter."

See... it's hilarious.


Melanie B said...

I read Portrait in college. Or at least was supposed to have done for my American Lit class. I don't know if I ever finished it-- if not it was the only book in the class I didn't finish. I certainly had no love for it. I found it boring, hateful even. I resented the hell out of being made to read it and this was long after I'd grown out of resenting books assigned for classes. But I just hated James passionately. I didn't think anything could induce me to give him another chance; but you and Waugh make a pretty persuasive case. Perhaps I was just too young t appreciate the novel. Maybe I'd actually like it now.

Melanie B said...

The excerpt you post is hilarious. I certainly don't remember James being funny. Was it just that I took myself too seriously or that no one bothered to point out that it was funny and that it was ok to laugh at it -- or is that just another way of saying the same thing?

BettyDuffy said...

I definitely took it too seriously when I read it, and totally missed the fact that it's funny. I also was looking for more of a plot than a "portrait" and that left me dissatisfied.

It does make you wonder what your state of mind has to be to completely overlook a world of funnies because you're expecting serious.

Emily J. said...

Another peril of reading when young: I remember reading Portrait of a Lady, the LIbrary of America edition, but I can't remember when or many other details, although I know I liked it and thought I really needed a year abroad to be "finished." I also remember thinking James was really romantic, and then later in life reading reviews of James that made his books seem much duller than I thought they were. But maybe I was predisposed to like him because I started out by reading Turn of the Screw and What Maisie Knew, which made me think he was kind of shocking.

Meanwhile, I'm just now reading Great Expectations, finally, even though I forced my older boys to read it last summer. They were bored to tears and hated it. Now I'm a little sorry I forced them to it - only a little - because I'm enjoying it so much now as a middleager. What's not to like? Romance, mystery, delightful turns of phrase. . . but sloooooww reading. Sometimes those turns of phrase take one too many turns. But I'm finding it rather refreshing to be challenged by reading something that can't be breezed through in a few hours. Same with James, too - which is why, even though this post makes me think maybe I should reread James, I probably won't any time soon.

Manny said...

I love PoaL. I read it both in college and in mid life and I enjoyed it both times, though a bit more in mid life.

If Melanie stops back here, she should try James' shorter works if she hasn't. I think she might like The Beast in the Jungle or The Altar of the Dead.