Henry James, why have I avoided reading you for so long? I knew I liked your work. First I tried The Turn of the Screw and was suitably impressed--not only a ghost story, but a really good one. A thoughtful one that made me think and sent chills up my spine. You left me wondering and thinking just as any really good book should do. And then I tried Washington Square and was even more impressed. Gorgeous prose, another thoughtful story that left me thinking again with heartfelt feelings of disappointment for Catherine. She was only trying to find some happiness like we all are. And now I am thinking that maybe reading The Portrait of a Lady is really the true beginning of what might just be a little (maybe even big) love affair with you. Hopefully a life long affair. Some books, some authors have that sort of effect on readers. Raising hand here, that's me and you and this book.
I was a little apprehensive that I might not be a good enough reader for you. You would smugly scoff at my attempts to find my way into this story. Some books take a little time and effort to begin showing a reader some rewards. But I find that on both counts I was wrong. From the first page you had me hooked. And here is a real test. You're going to think me a little strange perhaps, but I do quite a lot of my reading at the gym. Yes, it can be noisy and distracting there. I have to choose my books carefully. But how often do I get half or even a whole hour of reading time where I can just devote myself to my book? I have a lovely paperback Modern Library edition of Portrait, which I have been slipping into my bookbag daily. But I decided on a whim to load a digital copy to my tablet as well. Just in case. You never know. And then yesterday, I tentatively opened the story up and picked up the thread of the story where I had left off from earlier in the day. I settled into my routine and you whisked me away. The world and all its distractions faded away. There might have not been another person in that gym.
Sometimes I turn a page and am faced with a solid wall of words. No dialogue. Not even a paragraph break. That can be a little intimidating sometimes. As a matter of fact I have often looked longingly at this very book (and it has been a constant inhabitant in my bedroom on a shelf by my bed--never relocated to some bin or storage area or sunk to the bottom of a pile of books and hemmed in by other piles of books), but then thought maybe not. Not until I can devote long stretches of quiet reading time to you. And how often do I get that since my reading is almost always cobbled together. Sigh. Maybe another day. And so you kept getting passed by. But all of a sudden it hit me. I wanted to read about Isabel Archer, your lovely and spirited (my first impression) heroine. I thought, I'll risk it. I want a good juicy classic, something I can truly sink me teeth into. I can always quietly put you back if things don't work out.
But you have floored me. Or maybe I have surprised myself. You are not nearly as scary as I have made you out to be. Sorry, not scary, but challenging. (In a good way, of course). I have not read your preface yet or the introduction. I only know that this is considered by some to be your masterpiece. It is a mid-career book and not nearly as difficult structure-wise as your later work. Whatever the reason I have settled comfortably into the story and want to keep reaching for you. I am pleased to think you are not going to get quietly set aside or end up languishing on a pile of in progress books. I think we are a pair and you will be always close by my side for the duration of the story you are telling.
Thank you for being so patient with me Mr. James. I am sure this book is going to be well worth the wait. Maybe it and you came along at just the right moment. I hope you won't mind if I share some of your prose with my friends? Which bit do you think they would like? I liked this bit about Isabel's cousin Ralph. A banker like his father, though due to illness he must take care of his health rather than work.
"Living as he now lived was like reading a good book in a poor translation--a meagre entertainment for a young man who felt that he might have been an excellent linguist."
And this about Isabel is a wonderful first description:
"She saw the young men who came in large numbers to see her sister [elder sister Edith]; but as a general thing they were afraid of her; they had a belief that some special preparation was required for talking with her. Her reputation of reading a great deal hung about her like the cloudy envelope of a goddess in an epic; it was supposed to engender difficult questions and to keep the conversation at a low temperature. The poor girl liked to be thought clever, but she hated to be thought bookish; she used to read in secret and, though her memory was excellent, to abstain from showy reference. She had a great desire for knowledge, but she really preferred almost any source of information to the printed page; she had an immense curiosity about life and was constantly staring and wondering. She carried within herself a great fund of life, and her deeper enjoyment was to feel the continuity between the movements of her own soul and the agitations of the world."
Oh, and she reads the London Spectator, the poetry of Robert Browning and the prose of George Eliot. I like Isabel.