ABSTRACT

It is marked by the same merits and the same defects which are to be noticed in nearly all that he has written. There is the same minute and accurate observation, the same adroitness in keeping the reader's curiosity, if not always his interest, alive to the end, the same ingenious analysis of superficial feeling and motive. But in The Portrait of a Lady, as in so much that Mr. James has written, we cannot help remarking the care which the writer takes not to go down, if he can possibly avoid it, below the surface of his characters and of the situations in which he places them. And in those cases where he cannot escape doing so, he seems at once to lose hold of the characters whose outward and superficial qualities he depicts with so much ability. The real nature of his characters, which should appear most clearly in serious and critical situations, sees at such times to have no connexion with what he has told us of their past history. Mr. James devises a plot skilfully, and leads us up to a crisis where all our expectation is awake; but when the moment for action comes, he evades the catastrophe altogether, either -which is his most common method-by making his actors do nothing at all, or by making them do something which seems to be prompted by no reasonable motive. In either case he frustrates the curiosity of the reader, and leaves him with the sense that the plot, however ingenious, breaks down at the critical moment. Mr. James has certainly many of the qualities of a fine novelist; but his reluctance to go below the surface, or to grasp a character as a whole, renders his short sketches and little episodes more successful than his longer works . . . . What Isabel's charm is we can hardly make out. She is young, pretty, imaginative, and apparently has the faculty of striking her company as a girl of much depth and strength of character. She is, in truth, a rather selfish and heartless young lady, who acts as if the world were arranged in order to satisfy the claims of her imagination. She succeeds, however, in the course of the story in making three men deeply in love with her, and in making a fourth marry her; not however, by in any way intentionally drawing them on, but simply by the impression her personality makes upon them. Where the charm lies the

REVIEW IN Saturday Review DECEMBER I 8 8 I reader cannot easily discover, and he is in no way helped in his endeavours by any explanations of the writer. The first of Isabel's victims is a young American Caspar Goodwood, whom, it appears, she had encouraged in his suit before she left her native country. The next two are Lord Warburton and Ralph Touchett, the former of whom declares himself after he has known her a few days, and who, notwithstanding that he is a young English patrician of the most wholesome and eligible sort, is rejected, on the ground, apparently, that the lot he offers her is too circumscribed, and does not promise enough of the unforeseen for her imagination to feed upon. The third lover, Ralph Touchctt, makes Isabel no offer of marriage, which his state of health puts out of the question; but gives her to understand what his feelings towards her are, and follows her career partly with the chivalrous devotion of a lover whom circumstances forbid to seek to be more than a friend, and partly with the speculative curiosity of an active mind condemned by physical weakness to play the passive part of a spectator of the life of others. We are given to understand that Isabel is one of the striking complex, and problematic natures which repay such a study; but the reader can hardly help feeling that the chief point of interest in her is that we cannot quite tell what she will do next. However, her lack of defined motive passes with all her admirers as a sign of depth and originality .... The character of Osmond-a selfish, heartless, accomplished, and still ineffective man, reminding one in a good many points of George Eliot's Grandcourt-is one of the most successful in the book. In the teeth of the remonstrances of her aunt, Mrs. Touchett, and of her still faithful lovers, Ralph Touchett and Caspar Goodwood, Isabel, after once refusing Osmond, marries him at last. As to Isabel's change of mind, and the means Osmond takes to bring it about, we are left altogether in the dark. A year or so is supposed to elapse after the refusal, and we are then re-introduced to Isabel as an engaged woman. Surely if the portrait oflsabel's character is to be a living one, we ought to see something of the mental processes which decide her to take the gravest step of her life. Casper Goodwood, a powerful, energetic, positive, commanding nature, is rejected; Lord Warburton, a generous, manly, attractive, and every way eligible suitor, is rejected; Ralph Touchett, different from both, but quite as noticeable in his way, is hardly ever thought of as a man to be loved. The trains of feeling and association which lead a good and clever woman to prefer to types like these a person of Osmond's stamp, and the illusions she must create for herselfbefore she can do so, are precisely

The Portrait of a Lady the subjects on which a skilful analyst of human nature should be able to throw some light; but it is just here that Mr. James leaves us most in the dark. We can only wonder that a situation should be devised so cunningly on purpose, as it almost seems, to be made no use o£ . . . As we said before, till the time for action comes Mr. James's men and women are admirable imitations of human beings; but the moment the hour arrives for decision and deeds, they reveal themselves as mere simulacra. And this defect, which is characteristic of most of Mr. James's works, is nowhere more conspicuous than in his latest book.