Wednesday, October 28, 2015

this young lady had been seated alone with a book - Henry James time-travels

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.


  1. Yes! One of James' great technical innovations, the fluidity of time. James creates long arguments about emotional states, almost extended syllogisms if you like, and the story elements are pushed and pulled around to illuminate the argument as needed. I think (or I'm beginning to think) that it's related to the digressive style of Ruskin; you know, "here is my point, and you see how these other things relate to my point, and you can see how these contributing factors developed over time, but look you, my point remains and here it is." You can also see how this led to Virgina Woolf's style and modernism in general, the story elements looping around the forward motion of the central idea, which was itself never a story. The Portrait of a Lady is a great novel. I should read it again soon.

    You're right about how some of James' machinery is clunky, and how it's only clunky to us because we've been exposed to more recent writers taking the technique for granted and using it more easily, seamlessly integrating it into narratives rather than sort of welding it on the way James had to.

  2. I am a relatively new follower of the blog, so I perused your previous James columns and note that you have more or less worked your way from the minor to the major arcana (some short stories aside, although I think The Spoils of Poynton a fine, fine, book). Now you have arrived at a major work, where you will see the Master at every exquisite, filigreed and often irritating turn, semicolon, caesura, interruption, or however you notice and react to the elements of his "grand style." You must continue. Perhaps tackle "Wings of the Dove," "The Golden Bowl," and "The Ambassadors" one after another, like a gourmand at a Roman bacchanal. If you arrive on the other side, you will have been transformed by the Master's fire. Or you may be ruined for any other author since no one but James can take the material of a 40-page short story and turn it into a 500 page novel that, when you have finished, leaves you begging for just one more detail about Madame de Vionnet or Kate Croy or Maggie Verver. (Many authors can turn a short story into a long novel but not necessarily well.)

    Or you could go back to Roderick Hudson and see James create modern point of view where, instead of telling the story of the title character, he tells the story of how the third-person narrator FEELS about the title character changing, since his refusal to alter point of view only gives access to limited interiority which, after all, is the limit that each of us possesses. What larks you have before you (which, of course, is a Dickensian, not a Jamesian, sentiment)...

    Just keep reading James.

  3. Ah, Christopher, you make Roderick Hudson sound all too appealing. I believe next year will be a big Year of James. A big American year. Cut back on the fattening literature in translation for a while. All three late novels in a row, though - that would be a feat. An achievement.

    I will bet that I have mentioned, at this point, everything by James I have ever read, even pre-blog, except perhaps "The Turn of the Screw." So this build-up to Portrait was as you describe it, with the one addition that Portrait likely stood as, among novels I had not read, the one I had read the most about.

    I knew, for example, that James himself had been deliberately building up to a major work, to Portrait, which helped me how whereto go to watch him doing it.

    However, there was no way to see in the shorter works the variety of techniques James now had at hand. The short works gave him no room, for example, to do anything like the big, impressive post-marriage leap. Maybe that episode will be the subject tomorrow.

    Reading Eliot helped me see this, too. Eliot does not have a sufficient reputations as a formal innovator. Some of her clumsiness is like that of James - it comes from the strain she is putting on her form by trying to make it do new things. Both James and Eliot also had to make sure that their readers could follow them - they had to hammer in more signposts - which writers can now take more for granted.

    How many times, reading Trollope, have I yelled at him, quietly, "You know you don't have to tell this entire story in chronological order!" But he did not know, and his readers most definitely did not know.

  4. But perhaps Trollope did have to tell this entire story in chronological order. The way Trollope imagined the novel - every novel - two hundred and fifty words every fifteen minutes for three hours before he went to his day-job in the morning - meant that he put it together in a very different way to Eliot and James..
    He wrote "...and then...and then..." and he imagined "...and then...and then..." so it just didn't occur to him to do the time-tricks they did. Trollope's characters and books move in a line, where James's circle round a point. At the end of his books Trollope's characters have been educated and changed and are married or dead or resigned to life; James's still have the potentialities they had at the start.
    Did James leave manuscripts of his novels? Do we know how he revised and reconstructed them? Did he bear in mind a character's past and future all the way through or did he do later adjustments?
    Surely there must have been other writers who glanced at the possibilities of this technique even if they didn't use it fully. Dickens? Austen? Thackeray? Flaubert?...

  5. Ah, we mean different things by "have to." Those constraints of Trollope's were self-imposed. I am imagining a better Trollope novel; it is perhaps no longer a Trollope novel. Would we have any Karamazov at all if Dostoyevsky had wanted or known how to revise it? You are right, Dostoevsky wrote Dostoyevsky novels and Trollope wrote Trollope novels using the methods that worked to create Dostoyevsky and Trollope novels.

    I will defer on James and revisions. I just have guesses.

    Flaubert is shockingly chronological. The Dickens example that is tantalizingly close is the first move to Esther's narration in Bleak House. Austen's is near the beginning of Persuasion, but the early courtship of the protagonists never exactly turns into a scene (or am I forgetting?). As for Thackeray, I have only read two, and one is in the first person.

    Earlier German fiction has plenty of examples where a character tells a story from the past, perhaps completing a missing part of the "present" story, but I am really thinking, here, of third person narrators who put scenes out of order and expect the reader to be able to follow along.

    1. Nostromo and The Good Soldier are the best examples I can think of of the technique - "Oh! We went back a few years a few pages ago!" - you're often not sure which is the core scene they're going back or forward from. Faulkner goes about as far as you can go - though no doubt there's someone else I should have thought of who did more.
      It's so much part of what we think of as the way novels work now that it hadn't occurred to me that it was an innovation. I've always read as if some people chose not to do it rather than thinking people thought of it and brought it in.

  6. Faulkner and The Good Soldier, yes, exactly what I have had in the background of this post. Extreme examples.

    But the basic technique goes back to Homer. A huge part of The Odyssey is told - told by Odysseus, or someone else - in flashback. Or I think of the scramble in Tristram Shandy. But there seems to have been some difficulty in moving the idea into more ordinary third person narration.

    1. Speaking of The Odyssey, Book XII (I think) starts as a flashforward to the days after the war is long over, and the Greek ramparts on the beach have all been torn apart by the waves, the soldiers long returned home, etc. It's fantastic and unexpected, and then the narrative flings itself back into the action at Troy-under-siege.

    2. Right, Homer is like Don Quixote. Whatever I think is new is actually old but just somehow not noticed for a long time.

  7. Interesting observation. You know I am so used to reading stuff like that in later novels that if never made me pause that James was actually doing something different at the time.

  8. My chronological bias finally pays off!