Volume 1 - The story centres on Isabel Archer, an attractive American whom circumstances have brought to Europe. Isabel refuses the offer of marriage to an English peer and to a bulldog-like New Englander, to fall victim to a worthless and spiteful man, who marries her for her fortune and ruins her life.
THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY
“The Portrait of a Lady” was, like “Roderick Hudson,” begun in Florence, during three months spent there in the spring of 1879. Like “Roderick” and like “The American,” it had been designed for publication in “The Atlantic Monthly,” where it began to appear in 1880. It differed from its two predecessors, however, in finding a course also open to it, from month to month, in “Macmillan’s Magazine”; which was to be for me one of the last occasions of simultaneous “serialisation” in the two countries that the changing conditions of literary intercourse between England and the United States had up to then left unaltered. It is a long novel, and I was long in writing it; I remember being again much occupied with it, the following year, during a stay of several weeks made in Venice. I had rooms on Riva Schiavoni, at the top of a house near the passage leading off to San Zaccaria; the waterside life, the wondrous lagoon spread before me, and the ceaseless human chatter of Venice came in at my windows, to which I seem to myself to have been constantly driven, in the fruitless fidget of composition, as if to see whether, out in the blue channel, the ship of some right suggestion, of some better phrase, of the next happy twist of my subject, the next true touch for my canvas, mightn’t come into sight. But I recall vividly enough that the response most elicited, in general, to these restless appeals was the rather grim admonition that romantic and historic sites, such as the land of Italy abounds in, offer the artist a questionable aid to concentration when they themselves are not to be the subject of it. They are too rich in their own life and too charged with their own meanings merely to help him out with a lame phrase; they draw him away from his small question to their own greater ones; so that, after a little, he feels, while thus yearning toward them in his difficulty, as if he were asking an army of glorious veterans to help him to arrest a peddler who has given him the wrong change.
There are pages of the book which, in the reading over, have seemed to make me see again the bristling curve of the wide Riva, the large colour-spots of the balconied houses and the repeated undulation of the little hunchbacked bridges, marked by the rise and drop again, with the wave, of foreshortened clicking pedestrians. The Venetian footfall and the Venetian cry—all talk there, wherever uttered, having the pitch of a call across the water—come in once more at the window, renewing one’s old impression of the delighted senses and the divided, frustrated mind. How can places that speak in general so to the imagination not give it, at the moment, the particular thing it wants? I recollect again and again, in beautiful places, dropping into that wonderment. The real truth is, I think, that they express, under this appeal, only too much—more than, in the given case, one has use for; so that one finds one’s self working less congruously, after all, so far as the surrounding picture is concerned, than in presence of the moderate and the neutral, to which we may lend something of the light of our vision. Such a place as Venice is too proud for such charities; Venice doesn’t borrow, she but all magnificently gives. We profit by that enormously, but to do so we must either be quite off duty or be on it in her service alone. Such, and so rueful, are these reminiscences; though on the whole, no doubt, one’s book, and one’s “literary effort” at large, were to be the better for them. Strangely fertilising, in the long run, does a wasted effort of attention often prove. It all depends on how the attention has been cheated, has been squandered. There are high-handed insolent frauds, and there are insidious sneaking ones. And there is, I fear, even on the most designing artist’s part, always witless enough good faith, always anxious enough desire, to fail to guard him against their deceits.
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 a “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 particular engaging young woman, to which all the usual elements of a “subject,” certainly of a setting, were to need to be super added. Quite as interesting as the young woman herself at her best, do I find, I must again repeat, this projection of memory upon the whole matter of the growth, in one’s imagination, of some such apology for a motive. These are the fascinations of the fabulist’s art, these lurking forces of expansion, these necessities of upspringing in the seed, these beautiful determinations, on the part of the idea entertained, to grow as tall as possible, to push into the light and the air and thickly flower there; and, quite as much, these fine possibilities of recovering, from some good standpoint on the ground gained, the intimate history of the business—of retracing and reconstructing its steps and stages. I have always fondly remembered a remark that I heard fall years ago from the lips of Ivan Turgenieff in regard to his own experience of the usual origin of the fictive picture. It began for him almost always with the vision of some person or persons, who hovered before him, soliciting him, as the active or passive figure, interesting him and appealing to him just as they were and by what they were. He saw them, in that fashion, as disponibles, saw them subject to the chances, the complications of existence, and saw them vividly, but then had to find for them the right relations, those that would most bring them out; to imagine, to invent and select and piece together the situations most useful and favourable to the sense of the creatures themselves, the complications they would be most likely to produce and to feel.
“To arrive at these things is to arrive at my story,” he said, “and that’s the way I look for it. The result is that I’m often accused of not having ‘story’ enough. I seem to myself to have as much as I need—to show my people, to exhibit their relations with each other; for that is all my measure. If I watch them long enough I see them come together, I see them placed, I see them engaged in this or that act and in this or that difficulty. How they look and move and speak and behave, always in the setting I have found for them, is my account of them—of which I dare say, alas, que cela manque souvent d’architecture. But I would rather, I think, have too little architecture than too much—when there’s danger of its interfering with my measure of the truth. The French of course like more of it than I give—having by their own genius such a hand for it; and indeed one must give all one can. As for the origin of one’s wind-blown germs themselves, who shall say, as you ask, where they come from? We have to go too far back, too far behind, to say. Isn’t it all we can say that they come from every quarter of heaven, that they are there at almost any turn of the road? They accumulate, and we are always picking them over, selecting among them. They are the breath of life—by which I mean that life, in its own way, breathes them upon us. They are so, in a manner prescribed and imposed—floated into our minds by the current of life. That reduces to imbecility the vain critic’s quarrel, so often, with one’s subject, when he hasn’t the wit to accept it. Will he point out then which other it should properly have been?—his office being, essentially to point out. Il en serait bien embarrassé. Ah, when he points out what I’ve done or failed to do with it, that’s another matter: there he’s on his ground. I give him up my ‘sarchitecture,’” my distinguished friend concluded, “as much as he will.”
So this beautiful genius, and I recall with comfort the gratitude I drew from his reference to the intensity of suggestion that may reside in the stray figure, the unattached character, the image en disponibilité. It gave me higher warrant than I seemed then to have met for just that blest habit of one’s own imagination, the trick of investing some conceived or encountered individual, some brace or group of individuals, with the germinal property and authority. I was myself so much more antecedently conscious of my figures than of their setting—a too preliminary, a preferential interest in which struck me as in general such a putting of the cart before the horse. I might envy, though I couldn’t emulate, the imaginative writer so constituted as to see his fable first and to make out its agents afterwards. I could think so little of any fable that didn’t need its agents positively to launch it; I could think so little of any situation that didn’t depend for its interest on the nature of the persons situated, and thereby on their way of taking it. There are methods of so-called presentation, I believe among novelists who have appeared to flourish—that offer the situation as indifferent to that support; but I have not lost the sense of the value for me, at the time, of the admirable Russian’s testimony to my not needing, all superstitiously, to try and perform any such gymnastic. Other echoes from the same source linger with me, I confess, as unfadingly—if it be not all indeed one much-embracing echo. It was impossible after that not to read, for one’s uses, high lucidity into the tormented and disfigured and bemuddled question of the objective value, and even quite into that of the critical appreciation, of “subject” in the novel.
One had had from an early time, for that matter, the instinct of the right estimate of such values and of its reducing to the inane the dull dispute over the “immoral” subject and the moral. Recognising so promptly the one measure of the worth of a given subject, the question about it that, rightly answered, disposes of all others—is it valid, in a word, is it genuine, is it sincere, the result of some direct impression or perception of life?—I had found small edification, mostly, in a critical pretension that had neglected from the first all delimitation of ground and all definition of terms. The air of my earlier time shows, to memory, as darkened, all round, with that vanity—unless the difference to-day be just in one’s own final impatience, the lapse of one’s attention. There is, I think, no more nutritive or suggestive truth in this connexion than that of the perfect dependence of the “moral” sense of a work of art on the amount of felt life concerned in producing it. The question comes back thus, obviously, to the kind and the degree of the artist’s prime sensibility, which is the soil out of which his subject springs. The quality and capacity of that soil, its ability to “grow” with due freshness and straightness any vision of life, represents, strongly or weakly, the projected morality. That element is but another name for the more or less close connexion of the subject with some mark made on the intelligence, with some sincere experience. By which, at the same time, of course, one is far from contending that this enveloping air of the artist’s humanity—which gives the last touch to the worth of the work—is not a widely and wondrously varying element; being on one occasion a rich and magnificent medium and on another a comparatively poor and ungenerous one. Here we get exactly the high price of the novel as a literary form—its power not only, while preserving that form with closeness, to range through all the differences of the individual relation to its general subject-matter, all the varieties of outlook on life, of disposition to reflect and project, created by conditions that are never the same from man to man (or, so far as that goes, from man to woman), but positively to appear more true to its character in proportion as it strains, or tends to burst, with a latent extravagance, its mould.
The house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million—a number of possible windows not to be reckoned, rather; every one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its vast front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will. These apertures, of dissimilar shape and size, hang so, all together, over the human scene that we might have expected of them a greater sameness of report than we find. They are but windows at the best, mere holes in a dead wall, disconnected, perched aloft; they are not hinged doors opening straight upon life. But they have this mark of their own that at each of them stands a figure with a pair of eyes, or at least with a field-glass, which forms, again and again, for observation, a unique instrument, insuring to the person making use of it an impression distinct from every other. He and his neighbours are watching the same show, but one seeing more where the other sees less, one seeing black where the other sees white, one seeing big where the other sees small, one seeing coarse where the other sees fine. And so on, and so on; there is fortunately no saying on what, for the particular pair of eyes, the window may not open; “fortunately” by reason, precisely, of this incalculability of range. The spreading field, the human scene, is the “choice of subject”; the pierced aperture, either broad or balconied or slit-like and low-browed, is the “literary form”; but they are, singly or together, as nothing without the posted presence of the watcher—without, in other words, the consciousness of the artist. Tell me what the artist is, and I will tell you of what he has been conscious. Thereby I shall express to you at once his boundless freedom and his “moral” reference.
All this is a long way round, however, for my word about my dim first move toward “The Portrait,” which was exactly my grasp of a single character—an acquisition I had made, moreover, after a fashion not here to be retraced. Enough that I was, as seemed to me, in complete possession of it, that I had been so for a long time, that this had made it familiar and yet had not blurred its charm, and that, all urgently, all tormentingly, I saw it in motion and, so to speak, in transit. This amounts to saying that I saw it as bent upon its fate—some fate or other; which, among the possibilities, being precisely the question. Thus I had my vivid individual—vivid, so strangely, in spite of being still at large, not confined by the conditions, not engaged in the tangle, to which we look for much of the impress that constitutes an identity. If the apparition was still all to be placed how came it to be vivid?—since we puzzle such quantities out, mostly, just by the business of placing them. One could answer such a question beautifully, doubtless, if one could do so subtle, if not so monstrous, a thing as to write the history of the growth of one’s imagination. One would describe then what, at a given time, had extraordinarily happened to it, and one would so, for instance, be in a position to tell, with an approach to clearness, how, under favour of occasion, it had been able to take over (take over straight from life) such and such a constituted, animated figure or form. The figure has to that extent, as you see, been placed—placed in the imagination that detains it, preserves, protects, enjoys it, conscious of its presence in the dusky, crowded, heterogeneous back-shop of the mind very much as a wary dealer in precious odds and ends, competent to make an “advance” on rare objects confided to him, is conscious of the rare little “piece” left in deposit by the reduced, mysterious lady of title or the speculative amateur, and which is already there to disclose its merit afresh as soon as a key shall have clicked in a cupboard-door.
That may he, I recognise, a somewhat superfine analogy for the particular “value” I here speak of, the image of the young feminine nature that I had had for so considerable a time all curiously at my disposal; but it appears to fond memory quite to fit the fact—with the recall, in addition, of my pious desire but to place my treasure right. I quite remind myself thus of the dealer resigned not to “realise,” resigned to keeping the precious object locked up indefinitely rather than commit it, at no matter what price, to vulgar hands. For there are dealers in these forms and figures and treasures capable of that refinement. The point is, however, that this single small corner-stone, 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 came 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 round my young woman while she stood there in perfect isolation. That is to me, artistically speaking, the circumstance of interest; for I have lost myself once more, I confess, in the curiosity of analysing the structure. By what process of logical accretion was this slight “personality,” the mere slim shade of an intelligent but presumptuous girl, to find itself endowed with the high attributes of a Subject?—and indeed by what thinness, at the best, would such a subject not be vitiated? Millions of presumptuous girls, intelligent or not intelligent, daily affront their destiny, and what is it open to their destiny to be, at the most, that we should make an ado about it? The novel is of its very nature an “ado,” an ado about something, and the larger the form it takes the greater of course the ado. Therefore, consciously, that was what one was in for—for positively organising an ado about Isabel Archer.
One looked it well in the face, I seem to remember, this extravagance; and with the effect precisely of recognising the charm of the problem. Challenge any such problem with any intelligence, and you immediately see how full it is of substance; the wonder being, all the while, as we look at the world, how absolutely, how inordinately, the Isabel Archers, and even much smaller female fry, insist on mattering. George Eliot has admirably noted it—“In these frail vessels is borne onward through the ages the treasure of human affection.” In “Romeo and Juliet” Juliet has to be important, just as, in “Adam Bede” and “The Mill on the Floss” and “Middlemarch” and “Daniel Deronda,” Hetty Sorrel and Maggie Tulliver and Rosamond Vincy and Gwendolen Harleth have to be; with that much of firm ground, that much of bracing air, at the disposal all the while of their feet and their lungs. They are typical, none the less, of a class difficult, in the individual case, to make a centre of interest; so difficult in fact that many an expert painter, as for instance Dickens and Walter Scott, as for instance even, in the main, so subtle a hand as that of R. L. Stevenson, has preferred to leave the task unattempted. There are in fact writers as to whom we make out that their refuge from this is to assume it to be not worth their attempting; by which pusillanimity in truth their honour is scantly saved. It is never an attestation of a value, or even of our imperfect sense of one, it is never a tribute to any truth at all, that we shall represent that value badly. It never makes up, artistically, for an artist’s dim feeling about a thing that he shall “do” the thing as ill as possible. There are better ways than that, the best of all of which is to begin with less stupidity.
It may be answered meanwhile, in regard to Shakespeare’s and to George Eliot’s testimony, that their concession to the “importance” of their Juliets and Cleopatras and Portias (even with Portia as the very type and model of the young person intelligent and presumptuous) and to that of their Hettys and Maggies and Rosamonds and Gwendolens, suffers the abatement that these slimnesses are, when figuring as the main props of the theme, never suffered to be sole ministers of its appeal, but have their inadequacy eked out with comic relief and underplots, as the playwrights say, when not with murders and battles and the great mutations of the world. If they are shown as “mattering” as much as they could possibly pretend to, the proof of it is in a hundred other persons, made of much stouter stuff; and each involved moreover in a hundred relations which matter to them concomitantly with that one. Cleopatra matters, beyond bounds, to Antony, but his colleagues, his antagonists, the state of Rome and the impending battle also prodigiously matter; Portia matters to Antonio, and to Shylock, and to the Prince of Morocco, to the fifty aspiring princes, but for these gentry there are other lively concerns; for Antonio, notably, there are Shylock and Bassanio and his lost ventures and the extremity of his predicament. This extremity indeed, by the same token, matters to Portia—though its doing so becomes of interest all by the fact that Portia matters to us. That she does so, at any rate, and that almost everything comes round to it again, supports my contention as to this fine example of the value recognised in the mere young thing. (I say “mere” young thing because I guess that even Shakespeare, preoccupied mainly though he may have been with the passions of princes, would scarce have pretended to found the best of his appeal for her on her high social position.) It is an example exactly of the deep difficulty braved—the difficulty of making George Eliot’s “frail vessel,” if not the all-in-all for our attention, at least the clearest of the call.
Now to see deep difficulty braved is at any time, for the really addicted artist, to feel almost even as a pang the beautiful incentive, and to feel it verily in such sort as to wish the danger intensified. The difficulty most worth tackling can only be for him, in these conditions, the greatest the case permits of. So I remember feeling here (in presence, always, that is, of the particular uncertainty of my ground), that there would be one way better than another—oh, ever so much better than any other!—of making it fight out its battle. The frail vessel, that charged with George Eliot’s “treasure,” and thereby of such importance to those who curiously approach it, has likewise possibilities of importance to itself, possibilities which permit of treatment and in fact peculiarly require it from the moment they are considered at all. 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, so far as the raising on it of a superstructure goes, with the maximum of ease. Well, I recall perfectly how little, in my now quite established connexion, the maximum of ease appealed to me, and how I seemed to get rid of it by an honest transposition of the weights in the two scales. “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 could wish. Stick to that—for the centre; put the heaviest weight into 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 needn’t fear to be too limited. Place meanwhile in the other scale the lighter weight (which is usually the one that tips the balance of interest): press least hard, in short, on the consciousness of your heroine’s satellites, especially the male; make it an interest contributive only to the greater one. See, at all events, what can be done in this way. What better field could there be for a due ingenuity? The girl hovers, inextinguishable, as a charming creature, and the job will be to translate her into the highest terms of that formula, and as nearly as possible moreover into all of them. To depend upon her and her little concerns wholly to see you through will necessitate, remember, your really ‘doing’ her.”
So far I reasoned, and it took nothing less than that technical rigour, I now easily see, to inspire me with the right confidence for 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 speaking, a literary monument. Such is the aspect that to-day “The Portrait” wears for me: a structure reared with an “architectural” competence, as Turgenieff 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 it so many years later and which has, no doubt, a superior roundness. On one thing I was determined; that, though I should clearly have to pile brick upon brick for the creation of an interest, I would leave no pretext for saying that anything is out of line, scale or perspective. I would build large—in fine embossed vaults and painted arches, as who should say, and yet never let it appear that the chequered pavement, the ground under the reader’s feet, fails to stretch at every point to the base of the walls. That precautionary spirit, on re-perusal of the book, is the old note that most touches me: it testifies so, for my own ear, to the anxiety of my provision for the reader’s amusement. I felt, in view of the possible limitations of my subject, that no such provision could be excessive, and the development of the latter was simply the general form of that earnest quest. And I find indeed that this is the only account I can give myself of the evolution of the fable it is all under the head thus named that I conceive the needful accretion as having taken place, the right complications as having started. It was naturally of the essence that the young woman should be herself complex; that was rudimentary—or was at any rate the light in which Isabel Archer had originally dawned. It went, however, but a certain way, and other lights, contending, conflicting lights, and of as many different colours, if possible, as the rockets, the Roman candles and Catherine-wheels of a “pyrotechnic display,” would be employable to attest that she was. I had, no doubt, a groping instinct for the right complications, since I am quite unable to track the footsteps of those that constitute, as the case stands, the general situation exhibited. They are there, for what they are worth, and as numerous as might be; but my memory, I confess, is a blank as to how and whence they came.
I seem to myself to have waked up one morning in possession of them—of Ralph Touchett and his parents, of Madame Merle, of Gilbert Osmond and his daughter and his sister, of Lord Warburton, Caspar Goodwood and Miss Stackpole, the definite array of contributions to Isabel Archer’s history. I recognised them, I knew them, they were the numbered pieces of my puzzle, the concrete terms of my “plot.” It was as if they had simply, by an impulse of their own, floated into my ken, and all in response to my primary question: “Well, what will she do?” Their answer seemed to be that if I would trust them they would show me; on which, with an urgent appeal to them to make it at least as interesting as they could, I trusted them. They were like the group of attendants and entertainers who come down by train when people in the country give a party; they represented the contract for carrying the party on. That was an excellent relation with them—a possible one even with so broken a reed (from her slightness of cohesion) as Henrietta Stackpole. It is a familiar truth to the novelist, at the strenuous hour, that, as certain elements in any work are of the essence, so others are only of the form; that as this or that character, this or that disposition of the material, belongs to the subject directly, so to speak, so this or that other belongs to it but indirectly—belongs intimately to the treatment. This is a truth, however, of which he rarely gets the benefit—since it could be assured to him, really, but by criticism based upon perception, criticism which is too little of this world. He must not think of benefits, moreover, I freely recognise, for that way dishonour lies: he has, that is, but one to think of—the benefit, whatever it may be, involved in his having cast a spell upon the simpler, the very simplest, forms of attention. This is all he is entitled to; he is entitled to nothing, he is bound to admit, that can come to him, from the reader, as a result on the latter’s part of any act of reflexion or discrimination. He may enjoy this finer tribute—that is another affair, but on condition only of taking it as a gratuity “thrown in,” a mere miraculous windfall, the fruit of a tree he may not pretend to have shaken. Against reflexion, against discrimination, in his interest, all earth and air conspire; wherefore it is that, as I say, he must in many a case have schooled himself, from the first, to work but for a “living wage.” The living wage is the reader’s grant of the least possible quantity of attention required for consciousness of a “spell.” The occasional charming “tip” is an act of his intelligence over and beyond this, a golden apple, for the writer’s lap, straight from the wind-stirred tree. The artist may of course, in wanton moods, dream of some Paradise (for art) where the direct appeal to the intelligence might be legalised; for to such extravagances as these his yearning mind can scarce hope ever completely to close itself. The most he can do is to remember they are extravagances.
All of which is perhaps but a gracefully devious way of saying that Henrietta Stackpole was a good example, in “The Portrait,” of the truth to which I just adverted—as good an example as I could name were it not that Maria Gostrey, in “The Ambassadors,” then in the bosom of time, may be mentioned as a better. Each of these persons is but wheels to the coach; neither belongs to the body of that vehicle, or is for a moment accommodated with a seat inside. There the subject alone is ensconced, in the form of its “hero and heroine,” and of the privileged high officials, say, who ride with the king and queen. There are reasons why one would have liked this to be felt, as in general one would like almost anything to be felt, in one’s work, that one has one’s self contributively felt. We have seen, however, how idle is that pretension, which I should be sorry to make too much of. Maria Gostrey and Miss Stackpole then are cases, each, of the light ficelle, not of the true agent; they may run beside the coach “for all they are worth,” they may cling to it till they are out of breath (as poor Miss Stackpole all so visibly does), but neither, all the while, so much as gets her foot on the step, neither ceases for a moment to tread the dusty road. Put it even that they are like the fishwives who helped to bring back to Paris from Versailles, on that most ominous day of the first half of the French Revolution, the carriage of the royal family. The only thing is that I may well be asked, I acknowledge, why then, in the present fiction, I have suffered Henrietta (of whom we have indubitably too much) so officiously, so strangely, so almost inexplicably, to pervade. I will presently say what I can for that anomaly—and in the most conciliatory fashion.
A point I wish still more to make is that if my relation of confidence with the actors in my drama who were, unlike Miss Stackpole, true agents, was an excellent one to have arrived at, there still remained my relation with the reader, which was another affair altogether and as to which I felt no one to be trusted but myself. That solicitude was to be accordingly expressed in the artful patience with which, as I have said, I piled brick upon brick. The bricks, for the whole counting-over—putting for bricks little touches and inventions and enhancements by the way—affect me in truth as well-nigh innumerable and as ever so scrupulously fitted together and packed-in. It is an effect of detail, of the minutest; though, if one were in this connexion to say all, one would express the hope that the general, the ampler air of the modest monument still survives. I do at least seem to catch the key to a part of this abundance of small anxious, ingenious illustration as I recollect putting my finger, in my young woman’s interest, on the most obvious of her predicates. “What will she ‘do’? Why, the first thing she’ll do will be to come to Europe; which in fact will form, and all inevitably, no small part of her principal adventure. Coming to Europe is even for the ‘frail vessels,’ in this wonderful age, a mild adventure; but what is truer than that on one side—the side of their independence of flood and field, of the moving accident, of battle and murder and sudden death—her adventures are to be mild? Without her sense of them, her sense for them, as one may say, they are next to nothing at all; but isn’t the beauty and the difficulty just in showing their mystic conversion by that sense, conversion into the stuff of drama or, even more delightful word still, of ‘story’?” It was all as clear, my contention, as a silver bell. Two very good instances, I think, of this effect of conversion, two cases of the rare chemistry, are the pages in which Isabel, coming into the drawing-room at Gardencourt, coming in from a wet walk or whatever, that rainy afternoon, finds Madame Merle in possession of the place, Madame Merle seated, all absorbed but all serene, at the piano, and deeply recognises, in the striking of such an hour, in the presence there, among the gathering shades, of this personage, of whom a moment before she had never so much as heard, a turning-point in her life. It is dreadful to have too much, for any artistic demonstration, to dot one’s i’s and insist on one’s intentions, and I am not eager to do it now; but the question here was that of producing the maximum of intensity with the minimum of strain.
The interest was to be raised to its pitch and yet the elements to be kept in their key; so that, should the whole thing duly impress, I might show what an “exciting” inward life may do for the person leading it even while it remains perfectly normal. And I cannot think of a more consistent application of that ideal unless it be in the long statement, just beyond the middle of the book, of my young woman’s extraordinary meditative vigil on the occasion that was to become for her such a landmark. Reduced to its essence, it is but the vigil of searching criticism; but it throws the action further forward that twenty “incidents” might have done. It was designed to have all the vivacity of incidents and all the economy of picture. She sits up, by her dying fire, far into the night, under the spell of recognitions on which she finds the last sharpness suddenly wait. It is a representation simply of her motionlessly seeing, and an attempt withal to make the mere still lucidity of her act as “interesting” as the surprise of a caravan or the identification of a pirate. It represents, for that matter, one of the identifications dear to the novelist, and even indispensable to him; but it all goes on without her being approached by another person and without her leaving her chair. It is obviously the best thing in the book, but it is only a supreme illustration of the general plan. As to Henrietta, my apology for whom I just left incomplete, she exemplifies, I fear, in her superabundance, not an element of my plan, but only an excess of my zeal. So early was to begin my tendency to overtreat, rather than undertreat (when there was choice or danger) my subject. (Many members of my craft, I gather, are far from agreeing with me, but I have always held overtreating the minor disservice.) “Treating” that of “The Portrait” amounted to never forgetting, by any lapse, that the thing was under a special obligation to be amusing. There was the danger of the noted “thinness”—which was to be averted, tooth and nail, by cultivation of the lively. That is at least how I see it to-day. Henrietta must have been at that time a part of my wonderful notion of the lively. And then there was another matter. I had, within the few preceding years, come to live in London, and the “international” light lay, in those days, to my sense, thick and rich upon the scene. It was the light in which so much of the picture hung. But that is another matter. There is really too much to say.
Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known 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. Real dusk would not arrive for many hours; but the flood of summer light had begun to ebb, the air had grown mellow, the shadows were long upon the smooth, dense turf. They lengthened slowly, however, and the scene expressed that sense of leisure still to come which is perhaps the chief source of one’s enjoyment of such a scene at such an hour. From five o’clock to eight is on certain occasions a little eternity; but on such an occasion as this the interval could be only an eternity of pleasure. The persons concerned in it were taking their pleasure quietly, and they were not of the sex which is supposed to furnish the regular votaries of the ceremony I have mentioned. The shadows on the perfect lawn were straight and angular; they were the shadows of an old man sitting in a deep wicker-chair near the low table on which the tea had been served, and of two younger men strolling to and fro, in desultory talk, in front of him. The old man had his cup in his hand; it was an unusually large cup, of a different pattern from the rest of the set and painted in brilliant colours. He disposed of its contents with much circumspection, holding it for a long time close to his chin, with his face turned to the house. His companions had either finished their tea or were indifferent to their privilege; they smoked cigarettes as they continued to stroll. One of them, from time to time, as he passed, looked with a certain attention at the elder man, who, unconscious of observation, rested his eyes upon the rich red front of his dwelling. The house that rose beyond the lawn was a structure to repay such consideration and was the most characteristic object in the peculiarly English picture I have attempted to sketch.
It stood upon a low hill, above the river—the river being the Thames at some forty miles from London. A long gabled front of red brick, with the complexion of which time and the weather had played all sorts of pictorial tricks, only, however, to improve and refine it, presented to the lawn its patches of ivy, its clustered chimneys, its windows smothered in creepers. The house had a name and a history; the old gentleman taking his tea would have been delighted to tell you these things: how it had been built under Edward the Sixth, had offered a night’s hospitality to the great Elizabeth (whose august person had extended itself upon a huge, magnificent and terribly angular bed which still formed the principal honour of the sleeping apartments), had been a good deal bruised and defaced in Cromwell’s wars, and then, under the Restoration, repaired and much enlarged; and how, finally, after having been remodelled and disfigured in the eighteenth century, it had passed into the careful keeping of a shrewd American banker, who had bought it originally because (owing to circumstances too complicated to set forth) it was offered at a great bargain: bought it with much grumbling at its ugliness, its antiquity, its incommodity, and who now, at the end of twenty years, had become conscious of a real aesthetic passion for it, so that he knew all its points and would tell you just where to stand to see them in combination and just the hour when the shadows of its various protuberances which fell so softly upon the warm, weary brickwork—were of the right measure. Besides this, as I have said, he could have counted off most of the successive owners and occupants, several of whom were known to general fame; doing so, however, with an undemonstrative conviction that the latest phase of its destiny was not the least honourable. The front of the house overlooking that portion of the lawn with which we are concerned was not the entrance-front; this was in quite another quarter. Privacy here reigned supreme, and the wide carpet of turf that covered the level hill-top seemed but the extension of a luxurious interior. The great still oaks and beeches flung down a shade as dense as that of velvet curtains; and the place was furnished, like a room, with cushioned seats, with rich-coloured rugs, with the books and papers that lay upon the grass. The river was at some distance; where the ground began to slope the lawn, properly speaking, ceased. But it was none the less a charming walk down to the water.
The old gentleman at the tea-table, who had come from America thirty years before, had brought with him, at the top of his baggage, his American physiognomy; and he had not only brought it with him, but he had kept it in the best order, so that, if necessary, he might have taken it back to his own country with perfect confidence. At present, obviously, nevertheless, he was not likely to displace himself; his journeys were over and he was taking the rest that precedes the great rest. He had a narrow, clean-shaven face, with features evenly distributed and an expression of placid acuteness. It was evidently a face in which the range of representation was not large, so that the air of contented shrewdness was all the more of a merit. It seemed to tell that he had been successful in life, yet it seemed to tell also that his success had not been exclusive and invidious, but had had much of the inoffensiveness of failure. He had certainly had a great experience of men, but there was an almost rustic simplicity in the faint smile that played upon his lean, spacious cheek and lighted up his humorous eye as he at last slowly and carefully deposited his big tea-cup upon the table. He was neatly dressed, in well-brushed black; but a shawl was folded upon his knees, and his feet were encased in thick, embroidered slippers. A beautiful collie dog lay upon the grass near his chair, watching the master’s face almost as tenderly as the master took in the still more magisterial physiognomy of the house; and a little bristling, bustling terrier bestowed a desultory attendance upon the other gentlemen.
One of these was a remarkably well-made man of five-and-thirty, with a face as English as that of the old gentleman I have just sketched was something else; a noticeably handsome face, fresh-coloured, fair and frank, with firm, straight features, a lively grey eye and the rich adornment of a chestnut beard. This person had a certain fortunate, brilliant exceptional look—the air of a happy temperament fertilised by a high civilisation—which would have made almost any observer envy him at a venture. He was booted and spurred, as if he had dismounted from a long ride; he wore a white hat, which looked too large for him; he held his two hands behind him, and in one of them—a large, white, well-shaped fist—was crumpled a pair of soiled dog-skin gloves.
His companion, measuring the length of the lawn beside him, was a person of quite a different pattern, who, although he might have excited grave curiosity, would not, like the other, have provoked you to wish yourself, almost blindly, in his place. Tall, lean, loosely and feebly put together, he had an ugly, sickly, witty, charming face, furnished, but by no means decorated, with a straggling moustache and whisker. He looked clever and ill—a combination by no means felicitous; and he wore a brown velvet jacket. He carried his hands in his pockets, and there was something in the way he did it that showed the habit was inveterate. His gait had a shambling, wandering quality; he was not very firm on his legs. As I have said, whenever he passed the old man in the chair he rested his eyes upon him; and at this moment, with their faces brought into relation, you would easily have seen they were father and son. The father caught his son’s eye at last and gave him a mild, responsive smile.
“I’m getting on very well,” he said.
“Have you drunk your tea?” asked the son.
“Yes, and enjoyed it.”
“Shall I give you some more?”
The old man considered, placidly. “Well, I guess I’ll wait and see.” He had, in speaking, the American tone.
“Are you cold?” the son enquired.
The father slowly rubbed his legs. “Well, I don’t know. I can’t tell till I feel.”
“Perhaps some one might feel for you,” said the younger man, laughing.
“Oh, I hope some one will always feel for me! Don’t you feel for me, Lord Warburton?”
“Oh yes, immensely,” said the gentleman addressed as Lord Warburton, promptly. “I’m bound to say you look wonderfully comfortable.”
“Well, I suppose I am, in most respects.” And the old man looked down at his green shawl and smoothed it over his knees. “The fact is I’ve been comfortable so many years that I suppose I’ve got so used to it I don’t know it.”
“Yes, that’s the bore of comfort,” said Lord Warburton. “We only know when we’re uncomfortable.”
“It strikes me we’re rather particular,” his companion remarked.
“Oh yes, there’s no doubt we’re particular,” Lord Warburton murmured. And then the three men remained silent a while; the two younger ones standing looking down at the other, who presently asked for more tea. “I should think you would be very unhappy with that shawl,” Lord Warburton resumed while his companion filled the old man’s cup again.
“Oh no, he must have the shawl!” cried the gentleman in the velvet coat. “Don’t put such ideas as that into his head.”
“It belongs to my wife,” said the old man simply.
“Oh, if it’s for sentimental reasons—” And Lord Warburton made a gesture of apology.
“I suppose I must give it to her when she comes,” the old man went on.
“You’ll please to do nothing of the kind. You’ll keep it to cover your poor old legs.”
“Well, you mustn’t abuse my legs,” said the old man. “I guess they are as good as yours.”
“Oh, you’re perfectly free to abuse mine,” his son replied, giving him his tea.
“Well, we’re two lame ducks; I don’t think there’s much difference.”
“I’m much obliged to you for calling me a duck. How’s your tea?”
“Well, it’s rather hot.”
“That’s intended to be a merit.”
“Ah, there’s a great deal of merit,” murmured the old man, kindly. “He’s a very good nurse, Lord Warburton.”
“Isn’t he a bit clumsy?” asked his lordship.
“Oh no, he’s not clumsy—considering that he’s an invalid himself. He’s a very good nurse—for a sick-nurse. I call him my sick-nurse because he’s sick himself.”
“Oh, come, daddy!” the ugly young man exclaimed.
“Well, you are; I wish you weren’t. But I suppose you can’t help it.”
“I might try: that’s an idea,” said the young man.
“Were you ever sick, Lord Warburton?” his father asked.
Lord Warburton considered a moment. “Yes, sir, once, in the Persian Gulf.”
“He’s making light of you, daddy,” said the other young man. “That’s a sort of joke.”
“Well, there seem to be so many sorts now,” daddy replied, serenely. “You don’t look as if you had been sick, anyway, Lord Warburton.”
“He’s sick of life; he was just telling me so; going on fearfully about it,” said Lord Warburton’s friend.
“Is that true, sir?” asked the old man gravely.
“If it is, your son gave me no consolation. He’s a wretched fellow to talk to—a regular cynic. He doesn’t seem to believe in anything.”
“That’s another sort of joke,” said the person accused of cynicism.
“It’s because his health is so poor,” his father explained to Lord Warburton. “It affects his mind and colours his way of looking at things; he seems to feel as if he had never had a chance. But it’s almost entirely theoretical, you know; it doesn’t seem to affect his spirits. I’ve hardly ever seen him when he wasn’t cheerful—about as he is at present. He often cheers me up.”
The young man so described looked at Lord Warburton and laughed. “Is it a glowing eulogy or an accusation of levity? Should you like me to carry out my theories, daddy?”
“By Jove, we should see some queer things!” cried Lord Warburton.
“I hope you haven’t taken up that sort of tone,” said the old man.
“Warburton’s tone is worse than mine; he pretends to be bored. I’m not in the least bored; I find life only too interesting.”
“Ah, too interesting; you shouldn’t allow it to be that, you know!”
“I’m never bored when I come here,” said Lord Warburton. “One gets such uncommonly good talk.”
“Is that another sort of joke?” asked the old man. “You’ve no excuse for being bored anywhere. When I was your age I had never heard of such a thing.”
“You must have developed very late.”
“No, I developed very quick; that was just the reason. When I was twenty years old I was very highly developed indeed. I was working tooth and nail. You wouldn’t be bored if you had something to do; but all you young men are too idle. You think too much of your pleasure. You’re too fastidious, and too indolent, and too rich.”
“Oh, I say,” cried Lord Warburton, “you’re hardly the person to accuse a fellow-creature of being too rich!”
“Do you mean because I’m a banker?” asked the old man.
“Because of that, if you like; and because you have—haven’t you?—such unlimited means.”
“He isn’t very rich,” the other young man mercifully pleaded. “He has given away an immense deal of money.”
“Well, I suppose it was his own,” said Lord Warburton; “and in that case could there be a better proof of wealth? Let not a public benefactor talk of one’s being too fond of pleasure.”
“Daddy’s very fond of pleasure—of other people’s.”
The old man shook his head. “I don’t pretend to have contributed anything to the amusement of my contemporaries.”
“My dear father, you’re too modest!”
“That’s a kind of joke, sir,” said Lord Warburton.
“You young men have too many jokes. When there are no jokes you’ve nothing left.”
“Fortunately there are always more jokes,” the ugly young man remarked.
“I don’t believe it—I believe things are getting more serious. You young men will find that out.”
“The increasing seriousness of things, then that’s the great opportunity of jokes.”
“They’ll have to be grim jokes,” said the old man. “I’m convinced there will be great changes, and not all for the better.”
“I quite agree with you, sir,” Lord Warburton declared. “I’m very sure there will be great changes, and that all sorts of queer things will happen. That’s why I find so much difficulty in applying your advice; you know you told me the other day that I ought to ‘take hold’ of something. One hesitates to take hold of a thing that may the next moment be knocked sky-high.”
“You ought to take hold of a pretty woman,” said his companion. “He’s trying hard to fall in love,” he added, by way of explanation, to his father.
“The pretty women themselves may be sent flying!” Lord Warburton exclaimed.
“No, no, they’ll be firm,” the old man rejoined; “they’ll not be affected by the social and political changes I just referred to.”
“You mean they won’t be abolished? Very well, then, I’ll lay hands on one as soon as possible and tie her round my neck as a life-preserver.”
“The ladies will save us,” said the old man; “that is the best of them will—for I make a difference between them. Make up to a good one and marry her, and your life will become much more interesting.”
A momentary silence marked perhaps on the part of his auditors a sense of the magnanimity of this speech, for it was a secret neither for his son nor for his visitor that his own experiment in matrimony had not been a happy one. As he said, however, he made a difference; and these words may have been intended as a confession of personal error; though of course it was not in place for either of his companions to remark that apparently the lady of his choice had not been one of the best.
“If I marry an interesting woman I shall be interested: is that what you say?” Lord Warburton asked. “I’m not at all keen about marrying—your son misrepresented me; but there’s no knowing what an interesting woman might do with me.”
“I should like to see your idea of an interesting woman,” said his friend.
“My dear fellow, you can’t see ideas—especially such highly ethereal ones as mine. If I could only see it myself—that would be a great step in advance.”
“Well, you may fall in love with whomsoever you please; but you mustn’t fall in love with my niece,” said the old man.
His son broke into a laugh. “He’ll think you mean that as a provocation! My dear father, you’ve lived with the English for thirty years, and you’ve picked up a good many of the things they say. But you’ve never learned the things they don’t say!”
“I say what I please,” the old man returned with all his serenity.
“I haven’t the honour of knowing your niece,” Lord Warburton said. “I think it’s the first time I’ve heard of her.”
“She’s a niece of my wife’s; Mrs. Touchett brings her to England.”
Then young Mr. Touchett explained. “My mother, you know, has been spending the winter in America, and we’re expecting her back. She writes that she has discovered a niece and that she has invited her to come out with her.”
“I see,—very kind of her,” said Lord Warburton. Is the young lady interesting?”
“We hardly know more about her than you; my mother has not gone into details. She chiefly communicates with us by means of telegrams, and her telegrams are rather inscrutable. They say women don’t know how to write them, but my mother has thoroughly mastered the art of condensation. ‘Tired America, hot weather awful, return England with niece, first steamer decent cabin.’ That’s the sort of message we get from her—that was the last that came. But there had been another before, which I think contained the first mention of the niece. ‘Changed hotel, very bad, impudent clerk, address here. Taken sister’s girl, died last year, go to Europe, two sisters, quite independent.’ Over that my father and I have scarcely stopped puzzling; it seems to admit of so many interpretations.”
“There’s one thing very clear in it,” said the old man; “she has given the hotel-clerk a dressing.”
“I’m not sure even of that, since he has driven her from the field. We thought at first that the sister mentioned might be the sister of the clerk; but the subsequent mention of a niece seems to prove that the allusion is to one of my aunts. Then there was a question as to whose the two other sisters were; they are probably two of my late aunt’s daughters. But who’s ‘quite independent,’ and in what sense is the term used?—that point’s not yet settled. Does the expression apply more particularly to the young lady my mother has adopted, or does it characterise her sisters equally?—and is it used in a moral or in a financial sense? Does it mean that they’ve been left well off, or that they wish to be under no obligations? or does it simply mean that they’re fond of their own way?”
“Whatever else it means, it’s pretty sure to mean that,” Mr. Touchett remarked.
“You’ll see for yourself,” said Lord Warburton. “When does Mrs. Touchett arrive?”
“We’re quite in the dark; as soon as she can find a decent cabin. She may be waiting for it yet; on the other hand she may already have disembarked in England.”
“In that case she would probably have telegraphed to you.”
“She never telegraphs when you would expect it—only when you don’t,” said the old man. “She likes to drop on me suddenly; she thinks she’ll find me doing something wrong. She has never done so yet, but she’s not discouraged.”
“It’s her share in the family trait, the independence she speaks of.” Her son’s appreciation of the matter was more favourable. “Whatever the high spirit of those young ladies may be, her own is a match for it. She likes to do everything for herself and has no belief in any one’s power to help her. She thinks me of no more use than a postage-stamp without gum, and she would never forgive me if I should presume to go to Liverpool to meet her.”
“Will you at least let me know when your cousin arrives?” Lord Warburton asked.
“Only on the condition I’ve mentioned—that you don’t fall in love with her!” Mr. Touchett replied.
“That strikes me as hard, don’t you think me good enough?”
“I think you too good—because I shouldn’t like her to marry you. She hasn’t come here to look for a husband, I hope; so many young ladies are doing that, as if there were no good ones at home. Then she’s probably engaged; American girls are usually engaged, I believe. Moreover I’m not sure, after all, that you’d be a remarkable husband.”
“Very likely she’s engaged; I’ve known a good many American girls, and they always were; but I could never see that it made any difference, upon my word! As for my being a good husband,” Mr. Touchett’s visitor pursued, “I’m not sure of that either. One can but try!”
“Try as much as you please, but don’t try on my niece,” smiled the old man, whose opposition to the idea was broadly humorous.
“Ah, well,” said Lord Warburton with a humour broader still, “perhaps, after all, she’s not worth trying on!”