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MonkeyNotes-Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
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LITERARY/HISTORICAL INFORMATION

Henry James began his writing career in magazine publications during his twenties. When he was thirty-two years old, James moved to Europe permanently. He wrote Roderick Hudson (1875), The American (1877), and The Portrait of a Lady (1881). These novels have in common their interest in contrasting American and European values. They are novels of transplanted Americans who struggle in the Old World between its realities and their romantic preconceptions of it. These novels are usually placed in what critics call Jamesís realistic period (1875-1889).

Henry James wrote The Portrait of a Lady in 1880-81 and later, in 1908, revised the novel. He was in his thirties when he wrote the first draft. He had just come out with "Daisy Miller" with great success and looked forward hopefully to a productive career as a writer. He revised The Portrait almost thirty years later when he was writing prefaces to all his major works for the definitive New York Edition of his works. He wrote The Portrait initially in two steps. He began it, then put it aside to write Washington Square and then he returned to it after a trip to Florence in 1880 and worked on it for a year. He began publishing it in serial form in Macmillanís Magazine beginning in October of 1880 and also in the American magazine The Atlantic Monthly before he had finished it. He published the book as a whole in November of 1881.


Henry Jamesís favorite writers included Hawthorne, Balzac, Flaubert, George Sand, Turgenev, and George Eliot. James did a critical study of Nathaniel Hawthorneís novel The Scarlett Letter in 1879. He doesnít much like Hawthorneís heavy use of symbolism and his narrative method, but he admires what he calls Hawthorneís treatment of "the subtleties and mysteries of life, the moral and spiritual maze." In this appreciation, the reader recognizes Henry Jamesís own fictional preoccupation with moral and spiritual mazes.

He also read a great deal of popular fiction. He often reworked popular stories in his own work. One such work is The Portrait of a Lady. It contains the germs of a very common plot used by womenís novels of the 1860s and 1870s of the independent woman who is ruined by an oppressive marriage. Jamesís own twist on this common plot was to resolve the conflict by making his heroine submit to her marriage vows, sacrificing her happiness, a plot resolution his conservative father would have approved of.

Henry James developed his own version of literary realism. His realism has been admired by those who see it as a subtle critique of American culture and it has been denigrated for its subject matter--upper class people and their social conflicts. Henry James had a life-long interest in the workings of social class. His famous short story "Daisy Miller: A Study" focuses on an upper class manís attraction to a young woman of the new American rich. Her violation of social conventions results in her ostracism from the circles of the American expatriates of old wealth who are living in Europe, and, eventually, her death.

James set most of his fiction in Europe. However, several of his novels feature the American scene. Washington Square (1880) explores the oppression of a young woman, The Bostonians (1886) also focused on womenís rights, specifically their struggle for the vote. In it, he largely demonizes feminists and suffragists.

In his later writing, James became interested in drama, but was never successful in writing plays. He did, however, incorporate a dramatic sense in his late novels. The Spoils of Poynton (1897), What Maisie Knew (1897), The Turn of the Screw (1898), and The Awkward Age (1899) each contains a strong structural sense of drama. They all focus on a very young woman who struggles with the often perverse world of adult sexuality and conventionality.

Jamesís last novels are his most polished and also his most difficult. The Wings of a Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904) come back to the theme of the innocent American among sophisticated Europeans. James leaves behind social realism in these novels. The style is extremely complex and the focus is on extremely ambiguous social situations drawn out in great and often painstaking detail. The famous short story "The Beast in the Jungle" (1903) is written in this late style. It explores some element never named which keeps the hero aloof and unable to express love.

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