Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece

James Wood writes:

I first read The Portrait of a Lady at the age of 17, in school, as one of the set texts for A-level English. It is the one novel about which I most regularly feel – as now – that I have failed to describe the totality, the coverage of its intelligence. When I think ideally of ‘the novel’, this is the one I recur to. One of the many pleasures of Michael Gorra’s book is that he too has loved this novel since he studied it in college, and wants to share his passion for it. He has also taught it for many years, at Smith College, and he has written the kind of patient, sensitive, acute study that gifted teachers should write but rarely do. Portrait of a Novel is effectively a new biography of James, with The Portrait of a Lady at its centre. Gorra describes the entire arc of James’s life, unobtrusively (this is made possible by the fact that James wrote it as a youngish man, and rewrote it, in 1906, as an oldish man); but he does so in order to tell the story of the novel – both as a critic and as a biographer.

(LRB 11 October 2012)

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