The Portrait of a Lady and Dr. Breen's Practice

THE Atlantic may fairly claim to have exercised its critical function upon the just completed novels by Mr. James and Mr. Howells before the reader had begun to enjoy them, and to have reserved the right, when the reader should be in full possession, of explaining why and how much it liked them. Yet a book has, after all, a life distinct from the interrupted existence of a magazine serial, and it is quite possible to take up these comely volumes and receive a new impression of the integrity of the stories which they contain. Possibly, Mr. James’s novel1 suffers less than some others might from being read in fragmentary form, for the minute finish of touch with which the lines in the portrait are applied meets the reader’s eye with new power every time that he takes up the story after a fall upon other work ; yet this very refinement of manipulation may lead one to overlook the larger consistency of the whole figure. It is worth while to step back a few paces, and fail for a moment to see each individual stroke of the brush.

Come, then, since we have been looking at the portrait of Isabel from the near point of monthly chapters, let us seat ourselves before the book, and, armed with an imaginative tin operaglass to shut out all other pictures, renew our acquaintance with the portrait. How does it strike us as a whole ? What is the impression finally left upon our minds ? Have we added to our dream of fair women ?

The artist gives us this advantage, that all the elaboration of his work looks distinctly to the perfection of the central figure. One can repeat almost in a single breath the incidental story of the book. That is dissolved immediately, if the incidents deposited are the critical ones of Isabel’s meeting with her aunt, her rejection successively of Goodwood and Lord Warburton, her accession to wealth, her marriage with Osmond, her temporary separation, and her final return. A person hearing the narrative might be pardoned if he failed to see the making of a great novel in it, but only when one has recited it does he become aware how each step in the fatal series is a movement in the direction of destiny. By a fine concentration of attention upon the heroine, Mr. James impresses us with her importance, and the other characters, involved as they are with her life, fall back into secondary positions. It is much to have seized and held firmly so elusive a conception, and our admiration is increased when reflection shows that, individual as Isabel is in the painting, one may fairly take her as representative of womanly life today. The fine purpose of her freedom, the resolution with which she seeks to be the maker of her destiny, the subtle weakness into which all this betrays her, the apparent helplessness of her ultimate position, and the conjectured escape only through patient forbearance, — what are all these, if not attributes of womanly life expended under current conditions ?

The consistency of the work is observable under another aspect. Mr. James’s method is sufficiently well known, and since he has made it his own the critic may better accept it and measure it than complain of it. What renders it distinct from, say, Thackeray’s method, with which it has been compared, or from George Eliot’s, is the limitation of the favorite generalizations and analyses. If the reader will attend, he will see that these take place quite exclusively within the boundaries of the story and characters. That is to say, when the people in the book stop acting or speaking, it is to give to the novelist an opportunity, not to indulge in general reflections, having application to all sorts and conditions of men, of whom his dramatis personæ are but a part, — he has no desire to share humanity with them, —• but to make acute reflections upon these particular people, and to explain more thoroughly than their words and acts can the motives which lie behind. We may, on general grounds, doubt the selfconfidence or power of a novelist who feels this part of his performance to be essential, but there can be no doubt that Mr. James’s method is a part of that concentration of mind which results in a singular consistency.

Yet all this carries an intimation of what is curiously noticeable in his work. It is consistent, but the consistency is with itself. Within the boundaries of the novel the logic of character and events is close and firm. We say this after due reflection upon the latest pages. There can be little doubt that the novelist suffers more in the reader’s judgment from a false or ineffective scene at the close of his story than he gains from many felicitous strokes in the earlier development of plot or character. The impatient, undiscriminating objection, It does not end well, although it may incense the writer, is an ill-formulated expression of the feeling that the creation lacks the final, triumphant touch which gives life ; the sixth swan in the story got a stitch-weed shirt, like the rest, but in the hurry of the last moment it lacked a few stitches, and so in the transformation the youngest brother was forced to put up with one arm and to show a wing for the other. Isabel Archer, with her line horoscope, is an impressive figure, and one follows her in her free flight with so much admiration for her resolution and strong pinions that when she is caught in the meshes of Osmond’s net one’s indignation is moved, and a noble pity takes the place of frank admiration. But pity can live only in full communion with faith, and we can understand the hesitation which a reader might feel before the somewhat ambiguous passage of Isabel’s last interview with Goodwood. The passage, however, admits of a generous construction, and we prefer to take it, and to see in the scene the author’s intention of giving a final touch to his delineation of Goodwood’s iron but untempered will, Isabel’s vanishing dream of happiness, and her acceptance of the destiny which she had unwittingly chosen. We suspect that something of the reader’s dissatisfaction at this juncture comes from his dislike of Goodwood, the jack-in-thebox of the story, whose unyielding nature seems somehow outside of all the events.

To return to our point. This selfconsistency is a separate thing from any consistency with the world of reality. The characters, the situations, the incidents, are all true to the law of their own being, but that law runs parallel with the law which governs life, instead of being identical with it. In Andersen’s quaint story of the Emperor’s New Clothes, a little child discovers the unreality of the gossamer dress, and his voice breaks in upon the illusion from the outer world. Something of the same separation from the story, of the same unconscious naturalness of feeling, prompts the criticism that, though these people walk, and sit, and talk, and behave, they are yet in an illusionary world of their own. Only when one is within the charmed circle of the story is he under its spell, and so complete is the isolation of the book that the characters acquire a strange access of reality when they talk about each other. Not only so, but the introversion which now and then takes place deepens the sense of personality. In that masterly passage which occupies the forty-second section, where Isabel enters upon a disclosure of her changed life, the reader seems to be going down as in a diving-bell into the very secrets of her nature.

What is all this but saying that in the process of Mr. James’s art the suggestion always seems to come from within, and to work outward ? We recognize the people to whom he introduces us, not by any external signs, but by the private information which we have regarding their souls. The smiles which they wear — and one might make an ingenious collection of their variety — do not tell what is beneath the surface, but we know what they mean, because we already have an esoteric knowledge. Mr. James is at great pains to illustrate his characters by their attitudes, their movements, their by-play, yet we carry away but a slight impression of their external appearance; these are not bodily shapes, for the most part, but embodied spirits, who enjoy their materialization for a time, and contribute to a play which goes on upon a stage just a little apart from that great stage where the world’s play, with men and women for actors, is carried forward.

Is it a fanciful likeness which we detect between The Portrait of a Lady and Dr. Breen’s Practice?2 A likeness, that is to say, in the problems which the two novelists have set themselves. We imagined that we caught sight of Isabel Archer unconsciously figuring as a somewhat typical character ; with something of the same liberty of prophesying we find in Grace Breen a rellection of the womanly life which is a part of our familiar experience. It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that Mr. Howells has undertaken to present a type, or that, in choosing for the material in which he should work the experiences of a girl engaged in the practice of medicine, he has simply amused himself with a difficult question of the day. The method of his art quickly contradicts such assumptions. He sees people, and he sets himself the task of discovering what their real lives are, with the purpose of giving his readers just those particulars which seem to be most indicative. The perplexities which beset Dr. Breen are not paraded as triumphant obstacles to the practice of medicine by young women ; they are incidents in the life of one young woman, which throw a needed light upon her character and behavior ; but inasmuch as this young woman was really the product of a good many social forces, the life which she led, the problems which she had to solve, easily become typical of a class.

It would be interesting to pursue further a general comparison between the heroines of these two stories ; to note how the complex and firmer life of the Old World acts upon Isabel, with her free and generous nature, and how the crude, experimental, yet largely ethical elements of New England society have conspired to confine and torture the honest spirit of Dr. Breen. We please ourselves with thinking that the more refined and subtle workmanship of Mr. James belongs to the one subject, as the frank, humorous, and sympathetic treatment which Mr. Howells has made his own harmonizes with the other. That mingled respect for the conscience and playful quizzing of its inconvenient manifestations which characterizes much of Mr. Howells’s work is here seen to great advantage, and he certainly has succeeded, as no one else has done, in making New England people see the humorous side of their anxious lives. The atmosphere in which his characters move is brighter and sharper than the somewhat heavy and thick air which envelops the lives of the people in The Portrait of a Lady ; and if the texture of his story is more open, if, indeed, it seems almost gauzy by the side of the close and elaborate web of the other, it gains immensely in the naturalness of its life.

For, however we may generalize about these writers, and seek to find points of comparison, we easily come back to a perception of the thorough kindliness of Mr. Howells’s work. We call it delightful with reason : it possesses such quick sympathy, such lightness and grace and cheerfulness of mood, that we deliver ourselves up to the charm, almost indifferent to the exact turns of the story. There are few writers who manage to establish at once such relations of confidence with their readers; one gets into Mr. Howells’s light birch-bark, and is sure that the quick eye and deft hand of its master will keep it out of all shallows, and guide it securely through any turbid waters in the way.

The perfection of Mr. James’s art is in its intellectual order, and the precision with which he marshals all incidents and characters ; we have hinted at its weakness when we have referred the reader’s pleasure to an intellectual glow rather than to a personal warmth of feeling. The imagination which rules governs a somewhat cold world, and gives forth light rather than heat. The oppositeness of Mr. Howells’s method intimates the more human power which he possesses. He introduces us to people whom we know with some accuracy as soon as we meet them; then he chooses that we should become better acquainted with certain of the group, and he invites us to their more private society. We end with a more intimate knowledge of some than of others, but we know them all in the same way that we know the people whom we meet in actual life. That is to say, the unconscious movements and habits which enable us to recognize our friends when we do not see their faces are reproduced in the story with such fidelity to nature that they satisfy us at once. Take, for example, the figure of Barlow, in this story. We know him here in precisely the same way as we do his prototype in real life. The slouch of the figure in the story is entirely sufficient to recall the Barlow whom we have met; we do not know the man with any psychological thoroughness in real life, and we do not care to. The charm for us here is in the frankness with which his limitations are accepted. We have caught his ways and manners at a glance ; they are not the outcome of any conscious mutual analysis of which we have been guilty, and the humorous aspect in which he appears is all that we care about. Again, when we are admitted to some degree of intimacy with Mrs. Maynard, we really have all the materials for judgment which we should have were we to pass a summer with her in a boarding-house. Her conversation, her one or two escapades, furnish us with just the data in the story which would be provided in real life for the acquaintance with her character possible to an

ordinary friend, and her personality is as clear as it can be. We are not oppressed with a sense that the author of her being knows her much better than we do, and could make further disclosures for our instruction. Dr. Breen herself, who offers strong temptation to any writer for a philosophical treatise, is more fully made known, because she is best worth knowing, but the means adopted for discovering her life do not differ from those employed in other cases. There is no shameless betrayal of secrets which could be known only to her and the author, and the reader has no guilty sense of having intruded upon a sacred privacy. It is, we repeat, the admirable limitations of Mr. Howells’s art which make it so delightful now, and so truthful that we can safely intrust it to posterity as a fair picture of life. We can assure our distant readers that the interpretation is not prejudiced by any peculiarity of Mr. Howells’s nature, but that the mind with which he regards these affairs is that which he has in common with the rest of us. It is in the unconscious healthfulness of his literary nature that his strength lies, — a healthfulness which is well acquainted with plenty of fresh air and clear sunshine.

  1. The Portrait of a Lady. By HENRY JAMES, JR. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1882.
  2. Dr. Breen’s Practice. By WILLIAM D. HOWELLS. Boston: James R. Osgood & Co. 1882.