Critical Assessment of ‘The Preface’ - Portrait of a Lady

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      While editing the “New York Edition” of his tales and novels James also wrote Prefaces to his novels. These Prefaces are indispensable for a proper understanding, for a good estimate and for the establishment of a true relationship with the author of these novels. While writing The Preface for The Portrait of a Lady James also revised The Portrait and the old impression of delighted senses and ‘the divided, frustrated mind’ was renewed.

      The Preface sheds light on some of the important aspects of the novel. Though in it we don’t get a systematic account, still different recollections and comments equip us better to examine the connection among James’s moral, social and aesthetic themes, in the realm of James’s concern for form. The Preface also helps us in defining James’s relation to the society, human institutions and aspirations. This preface can be read at two levels : literal and metaphorical. At the literal level it is an explicit argument but, at the metaphorical level, it is an implicit exploration of an intimate drama. This intimate drama is, in other words, a process of self-recognition; is the centrifugal force in the whole of the novel.

‘Agents’ first or the ‘Fable’ ?

      James wrote in the Preface: “Trying to recover here, for recognition, the germ of my idea, I see that it must have consisted not at all in any conceit of ‘Plot, nefarious name, in any flash, upon the fancy, of a set of relations, or in any one of those situations that by a logic of their own, immediately fall, for the fabulist, into movement, into a march or a rush, a patter of quick steps; but altogether in the sense of a single character, the character and aspect of a particularly engaging young woman, to which all the usual elements of a ‘subject’, certainly of a setting, were to need to be super-added”.

      James goes on to explain that the germ of the book is in the concept of a single character. To this concept of a single character were super-added all the other elements. James points out that he has executed this concept of a single character through a process of growth. It was this concept of a single character which triggered oft the whole novel. He saw his characters first, the fable afterward. He envied such writers who could see the fable first and make out its agents afterward though he could not emulate them, since for him it was like putting the cart before the horse.

      Both as a man and as a writer, Turgenev was admired by James. His creative process too, is analogous to Turgenev’s. Mere ‘Plot’ or ‘Story’ never sufficed James. It was the ‘character’ which interestingly ensnared him and he always made the whole action proceed from the character. Since The Portrait of a Lady is a study of Isabel, the whole action proceeds from her only ; we don’t find anything like an ‘imposed story’ in the novel and all the actions moves as a direct result of Isabel’s determination and decisions, Isabel’s fortunes do not change as the result of external events such as wars, accidents, historical events or the overt intervention of other people. It is true that other people (old Daniel Touchett, Madame Merle, Mrs. Touchett, Henrietta) support or provide for the accomplishment of her decisions, but the original motivations always belong to Isabel.

Morality and Art

      Discussing the relation between morality and art, James refers to the dull dispute over the ‘immoral’ subject and the ‘moral’. Such a dispute is quite inane since a particular concern for this issue can easily darken the critical climate of a writer’s career. In the 18th century, it was thought right to be explicitly moralistic. We get a good illustration of it in Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare. We are also aware of the writers who propagated art for art’s sake. He never even believed in explicit moral concerns in a work of art. According to him the moral vision undergirding a work of art depends upon the amount of ‘felt life’, concerned in producing it. The quantum and quality of a writer’s experience is the soil out of which the ‘subject’ springs. Morality is the outcome of the interaction of intelligence and sincere experience. It is the ‘artist’s humanity which gives the subject the mark of ‘intelligence’ or ‘experience’. It is this mark of ‘intelligence or experience’ which bestows upon the work its ‘moral sense’. The moral fibers of a world of art do not start disturbing the writer before hand but are inextricably connected with the writer’s temperament and aspiration.

Problem of Unity and Emphasis

      There was the problem of unity and emphasis. James was using a ‘small’ person, and he was in for organizing an ‘ado’ about her. That it could be done, he had no doubt about it, for Shakespeare and George Eliot had often done it. There were Juliet and Hetty and Maggie and Rosamond and Gwendolen—but George Eliot and Shakespeare always put such persons with sub-plots never let them matter enough, as much as they might matter. With a weak agent, such as he had in Isabel, there was the danger that the story would become that of Someone else, of Ralph, or of Madame Merle, or of Osmond, even possibly of Lord Warburton or of Caspar Goodwood or of all these people put together. To get over this danger, he had wisely determined that he must take the view not of Isabel’s relation to them, but of theirs- to her :

      “There is always the escape from any close account of the weak agent of such spells by using as a bridge for evasion, for retreat and flight, the view of her relation to those surrounding her. Make it predominantly a view of their relation and the trick is played : you give the general sense of her effect, and you give it... with the maximum of else.”

      While they were all interested in her, she must feel herself apart, think of herself as working out her destiny by herself. That had meant he would have to get into Isabel’s mind, and this had suggested placing the centre of the subject in Isabel’s consciousness.

      “Place the centre of the subject in the young woman’s own consciousness” I said to myself, “and you get as interesting and as beautiful a difficulty as you wish. Stick to that—for the centre; put the heaviest weight in that scale, which will be so largely the scale of her relation to herself. Make her only interested enough, at the same time, in the things that are not herself, and this relation need not fear to be too limited. Place meanwhile in the other scale, the lighter less hard, in short, on the consciousness of your heroine’s satellites, especially the male : make it an interest contributive only to the greater one”. Thus James envisaged in 1907 the problem which had confronted him when he wrote The Portrait of a Lady, showing where Turgenev had reassured him, George Eliot and Shakespeare had warned him, and he himself had solved his ‘deep difficulty’ by finding the most important way.

      After reading the novel, there is no doubt about the fact that young woman’s ‘consciousness’ is the subject of James’s novel. In a way, the novel is a study of the subject of Isabel’s mind and heart in all its shades. In the end there is ‘definite’ expansion of Isabel’s consciousness. James is concerned in his novels with the expansion, not the extinction of consciousness. In his ‘Preface’ to Lady Barbarine James speaks of his ability to accept the limitations of human consciousness in art. Yet his novels are an effort to transcend these limitations. He wrote : “Nothing appeals to me more. I confess, as a critic of life in any sense worthy of the name, that the finer—if indeed thereby the less easily formulated group of the conquests of civilization, the multiplied symptoms among educated people from wherever drawn, of a common intelligence and a social fusion tending to bridge old regions of separation”.

The Structure ‘Reared’ with ‘Architectural’ competence

      Extending his architectural metaphor James comments on the structure of the novels. James’s remarks will always be the starting point of the attempt at the analysis of the structure. On the dements of structure in the novel, James makes two important pronouncements in the preface to the “New York Edition”: “The point is, however, that this single small cornerstone, the conception of a certain young woman affronting her destiny had begun with being all my outfit for the large building of The Portrait of a Lady. It comes to be a square and spacious house—or has at least seemed so, to me in this going over it again ; but, such as it is, it had to be put up around my young woman while she stood there in perfect isolation. Again, more judiciously, he speaks of “erecting on such a plot of ground the neat and careful and proportioned pile of bricks that arches over it and that was thus to form, constructionally, a literary monument. Such is the subject that today The Portrait has for me: a structure reared with an ‘architectural’ competence, as Turgenev would have said, that makes it, to the author’s own sense, the most proportioned of his productions after the Ambassadors which was to follow so many years later and which has, no doubt, a superior roundness”.

      James’s overall aim in writing The Portrait of a Lady a persistent and exacting demand was that of structure, and his judgment as to whether or not he had met this demand is unequivocal. The novel falls, structurally into three almost equal parts, like the three acts of a play, followed by an epilogue, James’s discussion of the structure in architectural terms illuminates better his concern for the technical aspect of a work of art. James displayed remarkable skill in building up the structure of the novel and if he had handled it otherwise, the novel would have been full of sentimental cliches. It is right to hold the view that The Portrait of a Lady is triumphs of his careful, rich and architectural art.

Isabel: the Heroine

      James says that Isabel is undoubtedly the heroine of the novel. But there are other characters too. All these characters are necessary either for the reader’s comprehension or for the propulsion of the developing action. Isabel is the ‘subject’ ‘ensconced’ on the ‘coach’ of the novel and the other characters like Henrietta Stackpole, are no more than wheels to the coach and these ‘wheels’ help the reader in ‘seeing’ Isabel in the way James wants her to be seen. James tries to explain why has he ‘suffered Henrietta so officiously so strongly, so almost inexplicably to pervade”. He says that Henrietta might have been his representation of the lively at that time. Besides this, his interest in the ‘international light’ too could have contributed in the making of Henrietta.

“The Stuff of Drama”

      Towards the end of the Preface, James tells us that Isabel’s coming to Europe is her principal adventure of which she is quite conscious. It is an adventure of the mind and her mystic conversion forms ‘the stuff’ of the drama or even more delightful world still of ‘story’ : ‘‘Different events of the story are
next to nothing without her sense of them, her sense for them. Isabel has an image of herself and every action has to be viewed by her in connection with that image. The events may be termed as ‘externals’ but the effect that they produce on Isabel’s consciousness are, then, ‘integral’. The mystic conversion takes place when an incident is converted to an incident in the consciousness. Chapter nineteen and chapter forty-two are glaring illustrations in this respect. Thus, the whole novel becomes a drama of aggression, repulsion, attraction, withdrawal, retreat in the consciousness—an amalgam of great dramatic moments. Isabel has to encounter herself to recognition as the most important thing in the novel.

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