William Gass astutely describes the literary style of Henry James, “If any of us were as well taken care of as the sentences of Henry James, we would never long for another, never wander away; where else would we receive such constant attention, our thoughts anticipated, our feelings understood?” As I was struggling to decide which title on my list of epic books to read first, I opened up a few of them and read a paragraph or two. After reading only a page of The Portrait of a Lady I knew exactly what Gass was talking about. That’s not to say that some of the other books on my list didn’t appeal, but the language of The Portrait of a Lady struck me as so meticulous and precise that I was immediately drawn in:
Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony know as afternoon tea. There are circumstances in which, whether you partake of the tea or not—some people of course never do—the situation is in itself delightful. Those that I have in mind in beginning to unfold this simple history offered an admirable setting to an innocent pastime. The implements of the little feast had been disposed upon the lawn of an old English country-house, in what I should call the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon. Part of the afternoon had waned, but much of it was left, and what was left was of the finest and rarest quality.
I also noticed, and was delighted by, James’s droll sense of humor. Mr. and Mrs. Touchett, ex-pats from the United States, have been married for many years, most of which they have lived apart. It is clear that the couple has not had a successful or happy marriage, and Mrs. Touchett’s reasons for not staying in London with her husband are trite and hilarious:
Mrs. Touchett indulged in no regrets nor speculations, and usually came once a year to spend a month with her husband, a period during which she apparently took pains to convince him that she had adopted the right system. She was not fond of the English style of life, and had three or four reasons for it to which she currently alluded; they bore upon minor points of that ancient order, but for Mrs. Touchett they amply justified non-residence. She detested bread-sauce, which, as she said, looked like a poultice and tasted like soap; she objected to the consumption of beer by her maidservants; and she affirmed that the British laundress (Mrs. Touchett was very particular about the appearance of her linen) was not a mistress of her art.
These seem like rather trivial reasons to reject living in a country. I have to admit that, although I’ve never heard of or had bread-sauce, after looking at photos and recipes it does seem rather unappetizing.
Finally, James’s contrast of American versus British customs, attitudes and characters I found most compelling. He often lingers on the habits, speech and physiognomy of his American characters. My impression, so far, is that the English are traditional, reserved, quiet, and, perhaps, a bit uptight. The Americans, especially in the form of the heroine Isabel Archer, possess a great deal more candor, are less interested in social classes, and, in general, are a bit more carefree. Isabel, who has been brought to London from New York by her Aunt Touchett after the death of her parents, is intelligent, speaks on a variety of interesting topics, is well-read, and English men like Lord Warburton, when they first encounter Isabel, find her more appealing than her British counterparts: “Lord Warburton was left standing with Ralph Touchett, to whom in a moment he said: ‘You wished a while ago to see my idea of an interesting woman. There it is!'”
On a rather tangential note, I visited the Frederic Malle store in Manhattan and had the chance to sample his famous Portrait of a Lady scent. It is spicy, sensual and exotically intriguing. It is unclear whether or not the scent was inspired by James’s novel or character, but the description of the scent, I think, can be equally applied to what I already know about Isabel: “A rare symphonic perfume appeared: a new oriental rose, a sensuous beauty that attracts people like a magnet, a modern classic: Portrait of a Lady.”