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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Preface

Though The Portrait of a Lady was published in 1881, James did not write a preface for the work until 1908 for the New York edition of his work.  In his preface, James describes how he came to write novel, which was begun in Florence  in the spring of 1879 and continued in Venice the following year.  He points out that the novel developed from not an idea for a plot but the idea of a single character:  Isabel Archer.  A technique he learned from Turgenev, James then had to find :the right relations" that would produce the character in Isabel he envisioned.  He describes his thus:  "Place the centre of the subject in the young woman's own consciousness," only then conceiving of the other characters who help to develop the plot.

He calls Isabel Archer a "single small cornerstone" in the "square and spacious house" that is the novel.  Everything that happens in the novel begins with and affects Isabel.  She is "an intelligent but presumptuous" "young woman" in "perfect isolation.  She stands aloof and rejects the offers of others in order to maintain her independence, which she highly values.  The one character with which James expresses disappointment is Henrietta Stackpole, whom he calls "incomplete."  Described as only a wheel to the coach, Henrietta was included by James in order to add levity and liveliness to the story.

The above painting is Portrait of a Lady (1455) by Rogier van der Weyden.

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