Home  »  The Portrait of a Lady  »  Criticisms and Interpretations. III. By W. C. Brownell

Henry James. (1843–1916). The Portrait of a Lady.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Criticisms and Interpretations. III. By W. C. Brownell

THE LIST of Mr. James’s novels is a long one, and his short stories are very numerous; and among them all there is not one with a perfunctory or desultory inspiration. Why is it that they in no sense constitute a comédie humaine? They are very populous; why is it that the characters that people them have so little relief? Taken together they constitute the least successful element of his fiction. Partly this is because, as I say, they possess so little typical quality. But why also do they possess so little personal interest? They have, seemingly, astonishingly little, even for their creator. So far from knowing the sound of their voices, as Thackeray said of his, he is apparently less pre-occupied with them than about the situation—the “predicament,” he would aptly say—in which he places them. Apparently he is chiefly concerned with what they are to do when confronted with the complications his ingenuity devises for them—how they are to “pull it off.” These complications are sometimes very slight, in order to show, or at least showing, what trifles control destinies; sometimes they are very grave, and exhibit the conflict of the soul with warring desires and distracting perplexities. And they are never commonplace—any more than the characters themselves, each one of which is intimately observed and thoroughly respected as an individuality. But their situation rather than themselves is what constitutes the claim, the raison d’être, of the book in which they figure. The interest in the book, accordingly, becomes analogous to that of a game in which the outcome rather than the pieces monopolizes the attention. It cannot be said that the pieces are not attentively described—some of them, indeed, are very artistically and even beautifully carved—but it is the moves that count most of all. Will Densher give a plausible solution to the recondite problem of how to combine the qualities of a cad and of a gentleman? Will Maisie decide for or against Sir Claude? What decision will Sir Claude himself make? Has Vanderbank ideality enough to marry Nanda? Will Chad Newsome go back to Woollett? The game is very well, often exquisitely, played; and the result, which, nevertheless, from all we know of the characters, we can rarely foresee, wears—when we argue it out in retrospect as the author clearly has done in advance—the proper artistic aspect of a foregone conclusion. Mr. James rarely seems to impose it himself; except on the few occasions when, as in “The Princess Casamassima” or “The Other House,” he deals in melodrama, in which he almost never succeeds in being convincing, his rectitude is so strong a reliance as to exclude all impression of perversity or wilfulness and convey the agreeable sense of sufficiently fatalistic predestination. Meantime you find out about the characters from the result. Since it has turned out in this way, they must have been such and such persons. In other words, they have not been characterized very vividly, have not been presented very completely as human beings.

At least they do not people one’s memory, I think, as the personages of many inferior artists do. When one thinks of the number of characters that Mr. James has created, each, as I have said, carefully individualized, and none of them replicas—an amazing world they certainly compose in their originality and variety—it is odd what an effort it is to recall even their names. The immortal Daisy Miller, the sensitive and highly organized Ralph Touchett, the robust and thoroughly national Christopher Newman, the gentle Miss Pynsent, and a number of others that do remain in one’s memory, mainly belong to the earlier novels and form but a small proportion of the great number of their author’s creations. Different readers, however, would no doubt answer this rather crude test differently, and in any case it is not because they fail in precision that Mr. James’s personages lose distinctness as their story, like all stories, fades from the recollection. They have a sharp enough outline, but they are not completely enough characterized.

Why? Why is it that when the American heroine of one of his stories, beautifully elaborated in detail, a perfect specimen of Dutch intarsia, kills herself because her English husband publishes a savage book about her country, we find ourselves perfectly unprepared for this dénouement? Why is it that with all the pains expended on the portrait of the extraordinary Mrs. Headway of “The Siege of London,” we never quite get his point of view, but are kept considering the social duty of the prig who passes his valuable time in observing her attempts at rehabilitation and—no doubt most justly—exposes her in the end? There is nothing to complain of in the result, the problem is worked out satisfactorily enough, but Mrs. Headway herself does not count for us, does not hang together, in the way in which Augier’s Aventurière does, or even Dumas’s Baronne d’Ange. It would be difficult, for example, for this reason, to make a play of “The Siege of London.”

The answer to this query, the explanation of this incompleteness of characterization in Mr. James’s nevertheless very precise personages, consists, I think, in the fact that he rather pointedly neglects the province of the heart. This has been from the first the natural peril of the psychological novelist, the neglect of what in the Scripture view constitutes “the whole man,” just as the neglect of the mind—which discriminates and defines personalities once constituted—was the defect of the psychological novelist’s predecessor. But for Mr. James this peril has manifestly no terrors. The province of the heart seems to him, perhaps, so much to be taken for granted as to be on the whole rather negligible, so far as romantic exploitation is concerned.

Incidentally, one may ask, if all the finest things in the world are to be assumed, what is there left for exploitation? Matter for curiosity mainly—the curiosity which in Mr. James is so sharp and so fruitful. The realm of the affections is that which—ex vi termini, one may say—most engages and attaches. Are we to be interested in fiction without liking it? And are we to savor art without experiencing emotion? The fact that few reread Mr. James means that his form, however adequate and effective, is not in itself agreeable. But it means still more that his “content” is not attaching. When Lockhart once made some remark to Scott about poets and novelists looking at life as mere material for art, the “veteran Chief of Letters” observed: “I fear you have some very young ideas in your head. We shall never learn to feel and respect our real calling, unless we have taught ourselves to consider everything as moonshine compared with the education of the heart.” Is it possible that Mr. James’s controlling idea is a “young one”? Is his undoubted originality, after all, the exploitation of what seemed to so wise a practitioner as Scott, “moonshine”? That would account, perhaps, for the pallid light that often fills his canvas when his characters are grouped in a scene where “the human heart”—insight into which used to be deemed the standard of the novelist’s excellence—has a part of any prominence to play. The voluntary abandonment by the novelist of such a field of interest as the province of the heart is witness, at all events, of an asceticism whose compensations ought in prudence to be thoroughly assured. Implied, understood—this domain! Very well, one may reply, but what a field of universal interest you neglect, what a rigorously puritanic sacrifice you make!…

He has, however, chosen to be an original writer in a way that precludes him from being, as a writer, a great one. Just as his theory of art prevents his more important fiction from being a rounded and synthetic image of life seen from a certain centralizing point of view, and makes of it an essay at conveying the sense and illusion of life by following, instead of focussing, its phenomena, so his theory of style prevents him from creating a texture of expression with any independent interest of its own. The interest of his expression consists solely in its correspondence to the character of what it endeavors to express. So concentrated upon this end is he that he very rarely gives scope to the talent for beautiful and effective expression which occasional lapses from his rigorous practice show him to possess in a distinguished degree. There are entire volumes of his writings that do not contain a sentence like, for example, this from a brief essay on Hawthorne: “His beautiful and light imagination is the wing that on the autumn evening just brushes the dusky pane.” Of a writer who has this touch, this capacity, in his equipment, it is justifiable to lament that his theory of art has so largely prevented his exercise of it. The fact that his practice has not atrophied the faculty—clear enough from a rare but perfect exhibition of it from time to time—only increases our regret. We do not ask of Mr. James’s fastidiousness the purple patch of poetic prose, any more than we expect from him any kind of mediocrity whatever. But when a writer, who shows us unmistakably now and then that he could give us frequent equivalents of such episodes as the death of Ralph. Touchett, rigorously refrains through a long series of admirable books from producing anything of greater extent than a sentence or a paragraph that can be called classic, that has the classic “note,” we may, I think, legitimately complain that his theory of art is exasperatingly exacting.—From “American Prose Masters” (1909).