wood on goodwood


Aspiring writers are usually dissuaded from the kind of gauche proscenium overture in which characters sit around discussing the protagonist, only to discover that the protagonist is conveniently at hand. And the coy titivations and velvet evasions (‘A momentary silence marked perhaps on the part of his auditors a sense of the magnanimity of this speech’) might properly alienate readers only slightly attracted to the lure of the Master. But the self-consciousness is here calculated. Isabel is a heroine in triplicate. She has just walked into a novel; she thinks of herself in heroic terms; and a group of gazers – or readers – watchful as a Greek chorus but endowed with greater agency, seems to have begun to plot this heroine’s destiny. We understand that the three men have effectively spent the first chapter in a long whine: ‘We’re so bored; give us a heroine to make things interesting!’ And here she is. But The Portrait of a Lady gets stranger before it gets more conventional. Instead of putting his heroine through her narrative paces, James slows down, and writes a kind of essay-portrait, almost a paternal introduction, on the subject of Isabel. Over the next forty or so pages, he serves up a mess of propositions, often contradictory.

more from James Wood at the LRB here.