Monday, October 26, 2015

her flexible figure turned itself lightly this way and that - James set The Portrait of a Lady in motion

The Portrait of a Lady begins as if it were a play.  A play of the George Bernard Shaw variety, with three and a half pages of scene setting and notes on the characters.  The scene is the lawn of an English country house at tea time – this takes two pages – the characters are an old American banker, his tubercular son, and a neighboring English lord, each of whom gets a paragraph.  Then the play:

The father caught his son’s eye at last, and gave him a mild, responsive smile.

“I am getting on very well,” he said.

“Have you drunk your tea?” asked the son.

“Yes, and enjoyed it.”

“Shall I give you some more?”  (Ch. 1)

Ah, so this is apparently a parody of a play, the most boring play ever staged.  The younger men are in theory in motion (“strolling to and from, in desultory talk”), but once the play begins they might as well be frozen.  Even the dog in the scene is motionless.  The talk turns to women and then to a niece from America who will soon visit.  She is in the title; she is the most important character in the book.  This is a strange, static beginning.

I turn to Chapter 2, and look what happens.

While this exchange of pleasantries took place between the two, Ralph Touchett wandered away a little… his little rowdyish terrier at his heels.  His face was turned towards the house, but his eyes were bent, musingly, upon the lawn; so that he had been an object of observation to a person who had just made her appearance in the doorway of the dwelling for some moments before he perceived her.

Isabel Archer has literally set the novel into motion by her appearance.  She had in fact appeared and thawed Ralph and his dog before I even knew of it, at some point  (“while”) back in the first chapter.

This is an unusual effect, available only in fiction.  In a play or film you would have to show part of the scene twice, once still and once mobile.  Another way to think of the switch between chapters is that James moves from a play to film.  The rest of the chapter has lots of filmic equivalents – the camera moves and pans (“She had been looking all round her again – at the lawn, the great trees, the reedy, silvery Thames, the beautiful old house”).  The male characters, along with the reader, take a good long gaze at Isabel, “her eyes brilliant, her flexible figure turned itself lightly this way and that.”

Then after more like this Chapter 3 does something else entirely, as I will describe tomorrow as I march through The Portrait of a Lady chapter by chapter.  No, I will not go that far – although tomorrow really will cover Chapter 3 – but I could, because James uses chapters in interesting and novel ways.  He uses a large number of the tools of fiction in new ways.  Finally, I have seen the long-rumored master technician with my own eyes.  Much of what he does has been so thoroughly absorbed that it takes a strong sense of literary chronology to see it at all.  Don’t neglect your literary history.


  1. What I like most about James are the exquisite sentences. Oh, how I wish students in my English composition classes (i.e., those I used to teach before my retirement) could have approximated that kind of syntax and diction. However, I do have a complaint: what is it with James and semicolons? Were he a student of mine, I would have imposed a restriction: "Henry, you are limited to no more than one semicolon per chapter."

  2. Ah, I plan to a pick out a few of the better sentences. I don't think I included any this time, or last.

    I am orthographically neutral - if anything I would like to bring back 18th century practices:- more colons and dashes. But you have given me something I can count.

    1st 4 chapter of New York edition of Portrait: 12,059 words & 175 semicolons: 69 words per semicolon, stable across chapters.

    Tristram Shandy, I.1-18: 14,779 words, 234 semicolons: 63 words per semicolon.

    Life of Johnson, 1st 13,190 words, 187 semicolons: 71 words per semicolon.

    Middlemarch, 1st 4 chapters, 13,945 words, 97 semicolons, 144 words per semicolon.

    James perhaps has an 18th century sense of how the semicolon works.

  3. Corrected Copy:

    Wow! I am impressed. You took time to count these things? Egads! And I thought I was OCD about such matters; I've encountered a kindred spirit. Yes -- someone else who pays attention to such matters.

    Yes, the semicolon is a bit of a relic; so, being difficult about such matters, that is why I encouraged some students to move themselves into the 21st century. I nagged them mercilessly!

    I am -- by the way -- one of those writers who cannot write without dashes; shame on me!

  4. "Time" - that took five minutes. The computer does all of the counting; it is the obsessive and compulsive one, not me.

    1. I'm still impressed. I am very inept with computers, and I don't know how to do such a search and count.