In the preface to the second edition of The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James preempts the criticism around which I would otherwise base this review: ” ‘To arrive at these things is to arrive at my “story,” ‘ [Ivan Turgenieff] said, ‘and that’s the way I look for it. The result is that I’m often accused of not having “story” enough.’ ”
I agree with those unnamed critics.
James may have subconsciously addressed this issue as he wrote or revised the novel; in the fifth chapter of volume I, a guy wanting to impress Isabel—the “Lady” of the title—and his mother worry about their respective impressions on her. Ralph says, “That sounds rather dry—even allowing her the choice of the two countries.” A few paragraphs later, his mother says, “Do you mean by that that I’m a bore. I don’t think she finds me one. Some girls might, I know; but Isabel’s too clever for that. I think I greatly amuse her.” If you’re concerned about being dry or boring, there’s a reasonably high chance that you are, and Ralph’s mother, in defending herself from charges of being boring, could also be implicitly be defending the novel itself from charges of being boring. Alas: if it isn’t boring, I’m not clever enough to realize it.
To the extent The Portrait of a Lady has a plot, it turns on marriage, and though I appreciate that institution’s importance to James’ time, I wrote about its contemporary problems as a driver of modern fiction in the third paragraph of this post on Francine Prose’s Blue Angel. It’s hard to get as excited about it as the characters in The Portrait of a Lady do. Furthermore, I’m sure the novel was relatively progressive and frank for its time, but now it seems reserved and euphemistic. The painful thing about describing its macro flaws is how spectacular and virtuosic many descriptions are. One in particular stood out: “Isabel perhaps took a small opportunity because she would not have availed herself of a great one.” Note the word “perhaps:” James is a master at depicting ambiguity, perhaps explaining why The Turn of the Screw is so exquisite in its depiction of the maybe ghosts, giving such creeping horror and power that I was compelled to keep reading it as if I were the one at the whip of an apparition—or insane. The Portrait of a Lady, however, is too still and reserved, too much like a portrait and containing too little narrative force to keep me attached, despite how often perfect turns of phrase appear in the context of characters who have not done enough to deserve them. There are enough aphorisms for months of daily quotes, but not enough sinew holding them together.
On the other hand, it may be that nineteenth century fiction demands the acceptance or acknowledgement of a set of conventions and writing practices, and I haven’t cultivated the skill to read it. Of pre-1900 writers, Melville is the only novelist who really chiseled a place in my imagination. The others I tend to read only if I have to, and The Portrait of a Lady didn’t change my outlook. It’s also possible that, as William Blake said according to the unreliable source Barney’s Version, “… that What is Grand is necessarily obscure to Weak Men […] That which can be made Explicit to the Idiot is not worth my care.”