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Home » literature » fiction » The Portrait of a Lady and a Portrait of a Novel: James, Wood and a biography

The Portrait of a Lady and a Portrait of a Novel: James, Wood and a biography


Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady is on my Classics Club list, but the London Review of Books has an interesting piece by James Wood reviewing a new James biography by Michael Gorra.

I enjoy James’ prose – I particularly like What Maisie Knew – but I confess to not knowing very much about the man himself. I am never one for biographies, though (unless as secondary sources to rifle), so reading reviews and introductions to critical editions is typically the closest I get.

In a way, reading the review is spoiling my reading experience of Portrait, but not much more than reading the blurb on the back, so I don’t feel too guilty. Wood begins with an exploration of James’ style in Portrait and how it may (or may not) jibe with his previously excoriating critique of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd.

Wood pegs analysis of James’ stylistic choices and devices in Portrait with his criticism for much of the first third of the review before turning to his own relationship with the novel, which teeters on worship. This he has in common with Gorra, whose biography centres around Portrait, as its title — Portrait of a Novel – suggests. James’ own curious relationship with the book, which he substantially rewrote nearly thirty years after its initial publication, facilitates this and gives Portrait a sense of encompassing much of his life as an author.

What sounds particularly interesting about Gorra’s biography is that it focuses on ‘authorial scenes’, the way and moments in which James wrote Portrait. As someone for whom authorial biography always feels relevant to a critical understanding of a work (even if it does not surface in criticism itself), I think this is attractive.

In parts, Wood takes Gorra to task – for example, where Gorra makes an assertion about Isabel, the main character of Portrait – but it seems overall he recommends the biography! It is a little hard to tell because by and large he makes it his excuse to write a review/analysis of Portrait, but if I were writing about the novel I would be inclined to pick up Gorra’s biography, and I suppose in that way the LRB achieves its aim!

If, like me, you are no good at keeping up with new publications (barring areas of pretty niche interest!), then the LRB is really recommended. Besides which, their tea and cake are pretty tasty! (It will be one of my haunts during NaNoWriMo writing weekends.)

I will come back to this post and essay by Wood when I’ve read Portrait itself, and I might write a joint review of the two.


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