From New Statesman:
Henry James once defined criticism as the mind “reaching out for the reasons of its interest”, a process that he deemed “the very education of our imaginative life”. Michael Gorra doesn’t include this quotation in Portrait of a Novel but it is an apt description of the book he has written about James’s The Portrait of a Lady (1881). For many readers, Portrait is the greatest of James’s many masterpieces. It was indisputably the pivot on which his fiction turned toward the problem that would absorb him for the rest of his life, the problem of consciousness. It is the novel that defined psychological interiority as drama, forever changing our ideas about what fiction can do. In particular, its famous 42nd chapter, in which Isabel Archer discovers that instead of “affronting her destiny”, as she hoped, her destiny has affronted her, must, as Gorra argues, stand “as one of James’s greatest achievements and a turning point in the history of the novel”.
I expect that mine will prove a minority perspective on Gorra’s marvellous portrait of Portrait, for I read it while in the final stages of revising my own book about the genesis of an American masterpiece, in my case F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Unearthing the roots of a classic novel is a (comparatively) novel way for the critic to reach out for the reasons of our own interests, to explore the education of our imaginative life. For Gorra, it provides an opportunity to reframe The Portrait of a Lady against the background of James’s life and art, his ideas about consciousness, desire and autonomy and his role in the invention of American literature. Like Gorra, I am also drawing on biography, correspondence, history and literary criticism to discover the origins of great fiction.