Henry James does something so remarkable in the third chapter of The Portrait of a Lady that it is, now, almost invisible. It is no longer remarkable, yet here I am remarking.
We left Isabel Archer on the lawn of an English country house with her uncle and cousin, whom she had just met. It was her aunt who brought her to England, so we need a bit of the aunt, and chapter 3 begins with a long paragraph about the aunt, about her situation. Then:
She had taken up her niece – there was little doubt of that. One wet afternoon, some four months earlier than the occurrence lately narrated, this young lady had been seated alone with a book. To say that she had a book is to say…
James has shifted from the aunt to Isabel and he has also shifted to a scene, with weather and props and a setting, “an old house in Albany,” and something like action. “The visitor had not been announced; the girl heard her at last walking about the adjoining room.” James needs to move the characters into the same room, right?
But he puts that off for three pages so he can sit with Isabel and her book, and more curiously the room and window and sofa where she likes to read, where she – this is the most remarkable thing James does – where she has always liked to read. The long paragraph moves from the aunt to the niece to the niece as a child. “She had been in the house… weeks of which Isabel had the happiest memory… even as a child she thought… somehow, all her visits had a flavour of peaches…”
Are we still with Isabel in the “present” of the novel (the new present, the one that is “some four months earlier”), with Isabel’s memories? James is subtly moving the scene into the past.
… she had uncontrolled use of a library full of books with frontispieces, which she used to climb upon a chair to take down. When she had found one to her taste – she was guided in the selection chiefly by the frontispiece – she carried it into a mysterious apartment which lay beyond the library, and which was called, traditionally, no one knew why, the office… There was an old haircloth sofa, in especial, to which she had confided a hundred childish sorrows. [Some stuff about a door to the street]. But she had no wish to look out, for this would have interfered with her theory that there was a strange, unseen place on the other side – a place which became, to the child’s imagination, according to its different moods, a region of delight or of terror.
It was in the “office” still that Isabel was sitting on that melancholy afternoon of early spring which I have just mentioned.
It is as if James has filmed the child reading on the sofa, perhaps with a sepia filter, and faded to the adult Isabel in the same place and posture, although with a different book (she “had been trudging over the sandy plains of a history of German Thought”). Finally, hey, the aunt is in the doorway resulting in a more ordinary dialogue-heavy scene.
So: the present to four months past to, subtly, Isabel as a child to, with a snap of the fingers (actually with a paragraph break), Isabel as an adult. Some of James’s transitional language looks clumsy and unnecessary (“the occurrence lately narrated,” “which I have just mentioned”) but this is because later fiction writers have filed the technique down to a perfect smoothness.
In 1881 no one – no one – had written a scene like this.
Can that claim possibly be true? I assume, actually, that it is not, that someone was constructing fiction like this. Someone less canonical than my usual reading. Victor Hugo had a relatively free conception of fictional time. He gets close in a couple of places. George Eliot was sufficiently innovative that I have mentioned, somewhere on Wuthering Expectations, every single instance in her fiction when she shifts time. I have mentioned it every time I have seen it because it is so rare. Or was so rare.
If there had been MFA creative writing programs in 1881, The Portrait of a Lady would have become the standard textbook. It’s full of stuff like this.