“I think he has quite exhausted Rome.”
“Ah no, that’s a shallow judgment. Rome is inexhaustible.” (The Portrait of a Lady, Ch. 46)
The Portrait of a Lady, the 1881 novel about a young American woman who travels to Europe and attracts a series of stalkers, has a peculiar relationship with Rome, the city, not the empire. One scene in America, barely more than one setting in England, glimpses of London and Paris, a bit more of Florence, but plenty of Rome.
James reverts to the travel writing mode I noted in his 1871 story “The Passionate Pilgrim,” but now he integrates the plot more closely with the tourism. The heroine, Isabel Archer, is attending church at St. Peters (as a tourist – she is not Catholic) when she comes across one of her many obsessive suitors, Lord Warburton, and a scene with him takes place amidst the service. “In that splendid immensity individual indiscretion carries but a short distance” (Ch. 27) – that is James taking a jab at the suitor, who should know to behave better in church, more like the second suitor attending the service:
“What’s your opinion of St. Peter’s?” Mr. Osmond asked of Isabel.
“It’s very large and very bright,” said the girl.
An answer worthy of Daisy Miller, although Isabel is smarter than Daisy Miller, or is smarter than Daisy Miller acts.
In the next chapter, the encounter with the Lord Warburton takes place in front of “the lion of the collection,” (Ch. 28), the Dying Gladiator (“It is a work of profound interest and unrivalled excellence,” see p. 208). Is James going to write his novel by working his way through his Baedeker, I wondered? No, James used Murray, not Baedeker.
After her marriage, Isabel lives in Rome in a palace, “a dark and massive structure,”
which bore a stern old Roman name, which smelt of historic deeds, of crime and craft and violence, which was mentioned in “Murray” and visited by tourists who looked disappointed and depressed… (Ch. 36)
Whatever my frustrations with James, I have learned to get his humor, and also his indirection. In this scene one secondary character (Mr. Rosier) is fretting over another (Pansy), but James has not yet described the living arrangements of the heroine; this is the way he slips that in, as if I care about where Pansy lives.
The theme culminates with Isabel taking a drive on the Campagna, on the Appian Way, thus connecting her to Carducci and Pater:
She had long ago taken old Rome into her confidence, for in a world of ruins the ruin of her happiness seemed a less unnatural catastrophe. She rested her weariness upon things that had crumbled for centuries and yet were still upright; she dropped her secret sadness into the silence of lonely places, where its very modern quality detached itself and grew objective… (Ch. 49)
That last is a highly Jamesian phrase. The pathetic fallacy amongst the ruins. “[S]he had grown to think of [Rome] chiefly as the place where people had suffered.” Thus her cruel husband who, a few chapters earlier, had called Rome “inexhaustible,” an irony for poor suffering Isabel.