"The Portrait of a Lady" was, like "Roderick Hudson," begun in
Florence, during three months spent there in the spring of 1879.
Like "Roderick" and like "The American," it had been
designed for publication in "The Atlantic Monthly," where it
began to appear in 1880. It differed from its two predecessors,
however, in finding a course also open to it, from month to
month, in "Macmillan's Magazine"; which was to be for me one of
the last occasions of simultaneous "serialisation" in the two
countries that the changing conditions of literary intercourse
between England and the United States had up to then left
unaltered. It is a long novel, and I was long in writing it; I
remember being again much occupied with it, the following year,
during a stay of several weeks made in Venice. I had rooms on
Riva Schiavoni, at the top of a house near the passage leading
off to San Zaccaria; the waterside life, the wondrous lagoon
spread before me, and the ceaseless human chatter of Venice came
in at my windows, to which I seem to myself to have been
constantly driven, in the fruitless fidget of composition, as if
to see whether, out in the blue channel, the ship of some right
suggestion, of some better phrase, of the next happy twist of my
subject, the next true touch for my canvas, mightn't come into
sight. But I recall vividly enough that the response most
elicited, in general, to these restless appeals was the rather
grim admonition that romantic and historic sites, such as the
land of Italy abounds in, offer the artist a questionable aid to
concentration when they themselves are not to be the subject of
it. They are too rich in their own life and too charged with
their own meanings merely to help him out with a lame phrase;
they draw him away from his small question to their own greater
ones; so that, after a little, he feels, while thus yearning
toward them in his difficulty, as if he were asking an army of
glorious veterans to help him to arrest a peddler who has given
him the wrong change.

There are pages of the book which, in the reading over, have
seemed to make me see again the bristling curve of the wide Riva,
the large colour-spots of the balconied houses and the repeated
undulation of the little hunchbacked bridges, marked by the rise
and drop again, with the wave, of foreshortened clicking
pedestrians. The Venetian footfall and the Venetian cry--all
talk there, wherever uttered, having the pitch of a call across
the water--come in once more at the window, renewing one's old
impression of the delighted senses and the divided, frustrated
mind. How can places that speak IN GENERAL so to the imagination
not give it, at the moment, the particular thing it wants? I
recollect again and again, in beautiful places, dropping into
that wonderment. The real truth is, I think, that they express,
under this appeal, only too much--more than, in the given case,
one has use for; so that one finds one's self working less
congruously, after all, so far as the surrounding picture is
concerned, than in presence of the moderate and the neutral, to
which we may lend something of the light of our vision. Such a
place as Venice is too proud for such charities; Venice doesn't
borrow, she but all magnificently gives. We profit by that
enormously, but to do so we must either be quite off duty or be
on it in her service alone. Such, and so rueful, are these
reminiscences; though on the whole, no doubt, one's book, and
one's "literary effort" at large, were to be the better for
them. Strangely fertilising, in the long run, does a wasted
effort of attention often prove. It all depends on HOW the
attention has been cheated, has been squandered. There are
high-handed insolent frauds, and there are insidious sneaking
ones. And there is, I fear, even on the most designing artist's
part, always witless enough good faith, always anxious enough
desire, to fail to guard him against their deceits.

Trying to recover here, for recognition, the germ of my idea, I
see that it must have consisted not at all in any conceit of a
"plot," nefarious name, in any flash, upon the fancy, of a set of
relations, or in any one of those situations that, by a logic of
their own, immediately fall, for the fabulist, into movement,
into a march or a rush, a patter of quick steps; but altogether in
the sense of a single character, the character and aspect of a
particular engaging young woman, to which all the usual elements
of a "subject," certainly of a setting, were to need to be super
added. Quite as interesting as the young woman herself at her
best, do I find, I must again repeat, this projection of memory
upon the whole matter of the growth, in one's imagination, of
some such apology for a motive. These are the fascinations of the
fabulist's art, these lurking forces of expansion, these
necessities of upspringing in the seed, these beautiful
determinations, on the part of the idea entertained, to grow as
tall as possible, to push into the light and the air and thickly
flower there; and, quite as much, these fine possibilities of
recovering, from some good standpoint on the ground gained, the
intimate history of the business--of retracing and reconstructing
its steps and stages. I have always fondly remembered a remark
that I heard fall years ago from the lips of Ivan Turgenieff in
regard to his own experience of the usual origin of the fictive
picture. It began for him almost always with the vision of some
person or persons, who hovered before him, soliciting him, as the
active or passive figure, interesting him and appealing to him
just as they were and by what they were. He saw them, in that
fashion, as disponibles, saw them subject to the chances, the
complications of existence, and saw them vividly, but then had to
find for them the right relations, those that would most bring
them out; to imagine, to invent and select and piece together the
situations most useful and favourable to the sense of the
creatures themselves, the complications they would be most likely
to produce and to feel.

"To arrive at these things is to arrive at my story," he
said, "and that's the way I look for it. The result is that I'm
often accused of not having 'story' enough. I seem to myself to
have as much as I need--to show my people, to exhibit their
relations with each other; for that is all my measure. If I watch
them long enough I see them come together, I see them PLACED, I
see them engaged in this or that act and in this or that
difficulty. How they look and move and speak and behave, always
in the setting I have found for them, is my account of them--of
which I dare say, alas, que cela manque souvent d'architecture.
But I would rather, I think, have too little architecture than
too much--when there's danger of its interfering with my measure
of the truth. The French of course like more of it than I give--
having by their own genius such a hand for it; and indeed one
must give all one can. As for the origin of one's wind-blown
germs themselves, who shall say, as you ask, where THEY come
from? We have to go too far back, too far behind, to say. Isn't
it all we can say that they come from every quarter of heaven,
that they are THERE at almost any turn of the road? They
accumulate, and we are always picking them over, selecting among
them. They are the breath of life--by which I mean that life, in
its own way, breathes them upon us. They are so, in a manner
prescribed and imposed--floated into our minds by the current of
life. That reduces to imbecility the vain critic's quarrel, so
often, with one's subject, when he hasn't the wit to accept it.
Will he point out then which other it should properly have been?
--his office being, essentially to point out. Il en serait bien
embarrasse. Ah, when he points out what I've done or failed to do
with it, that's another matter: there he's on his ground. I give
him up my 'sarchitecture,'" my distinguished friend concluded,
"as much as he will."

So this beautiful genius, and I recall with comfort the gratitude
I drew from his reference to the intensity of suggestion that may
reside in the stray figure, the unattached character, the image
en disponibilite. It gave me higher warrant than I seemed then to
have met for just that blest habit of one's own imagination, the
trick of investing some conceived or encountered individual, some
brace or group of individuals, with the germinal property and
authority. I was myself so much more antecedently conscious of my
figures than of their setting--a too preliminary, a preferential
interest in which struck me as in general such a putting of the
cart before the horse. I might envy, though I couldn't emulate,
the imaginative writer so constituted as to see his fable first
and to make out its agents afterwards. I could think so little of
any fable that didn't need its agents positively to launch it; I
could think so little of any situation that didn't depend for its
interest on the nature of the persons situated, and thereby on
their way of taking it. There are methods of so-called
presentation, I believe among novelists who have appeared to
flourish--that offer the situation as indifferent to that
support; but I have not lost the sense of the value for me, at
the time, of the admirable Russian's testimony to my not needing,
all superstitiously, to try and perform any such gymnastic. Other
echoes from the same source linger with me, I confess, as
unfadingly--if it be not all indeed one much-embracing echo. It
was impossible after that not to read, for one's uses, high
lucidity into the tormented and disfigured and bemuddled question
of the objective value, and even quite into that of the critical
appreciation, of "subject" in the novel.

One had had from an early time, for that matter, the instinct of
the right estimate of such values and of its reducing to the
inane the dull dispute over the "immoral" subject and the moral.
Recognising so promptly the one measure of the worth of a given
subject, the question about it that, rightly answered, disposes
of all others--is it valid, in a word, is it genuine, is it
sincere, the result of some direct impression or perception of
life?--I had found small edification, mostly, in a critical
pretension that had neglected from the first all delimitation of
ground and all definition of terms. The air of my earlier time
shows, to memory, as darkened, all round, with that vanity--
unless the difference to-day be just in one's own final
impatience, the lapse of one's attention. There is, I think, no
more nutritive or suggestive truth in this connexion than that of
the perfect dependence of the "moral" sense of a work of art on
the amount of felt life concerned in producing it. The question
comes back thus, obviously, to the kind and the degree of the
artist's prime sensibility, which is the soil out of which his
subject springs. The quality and capacity of that soil, its
ability to "grow" with due freshness and straightness any vision
of life, represents, strongly or weakly, the projected morality.
That element is but another name for the more or less close
connexion of the subject with some mark made on the intelligence,
with some sincere experience. By which, at the same time, of
course, one is far from contending that this enveloping air of
the artist's humanity--which gives the last touch to the worth of
the work--is not a widely and wondrously varying element; being
on one occasion a rich and magnificent medium and on another a
comparatively poor and ungenerous one. Here we get exactly the
high price of the novel as a literary form--its power not only,
while preserving that form with closeness, to range through all
the differences of the individual relation to its general
subject-matter, all the varieties of outlook on life, of
disposition to reflect and project, created by conditions that
are never the same from man to man (or, so far as that goes, from
man to woman), but positively to appear more true to its
character in proportion as it strains, or tends to burst, with a
latent extravagance, its mould.

The house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million--
a number of possible windows not to be reckoned, rather; every
one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its
vast front, by the need of the individual vision and by the
pressure of the individual will. These apertures, of dissimilar
shape and size, hang so, all together, over the human scene that
we might have expected of them a greater sameness of report than
we find. They are but windows at the best, mere holes in a dead
wall, disconnected, perched aloft; they are not hinged doors
opening straight upon life. But they have this mark of their own
that at each of them stands a figure with a pair of eyes, or at
least with a field-glass, which forms, again and again, for
observation, a unique instrument, insuring to the person making
use of it an impression distinct from every other. He and his
neighbours are watching the same show, but one seeing more where
the other sees less, one seeing black where the other sees white,
one seeing big where the other sees small, one seeing coarse
where the other sees fine. And so on, and so on; there is
fortunately no saying on what, for the particular pair of eyes,
the window may NOT open; "fortunately" by reason, precisely, of
this incalculability of range. The spreading field, the human
scene, is the "choice of subject"; the pierced aperture, either
broad or balconied or slit-like and low-browed, is the "literary
form"; but they are, singly or together, as nothing without the
posted presence of the watcher--without, in other words, the
consciousness of the artist. Tell me what the artist is, and I
will tell you of what he has BEEN conscious. Thereby I shall
express to you at once his boundless freedom and his "moral"

All this is a long way round, however, for my word about my dim
first move toward "The Portrait," which was exactly my grasp of a
single character--an acquisition I had made, moreover, after a
fashion not here to be retraced. Enough that I was, as seemed to
me, in complete possession of it, that I had been so for a long
time, that this had made it familiar and yet had not blurred its
charm, and that, all urgently, all tormentingly, I saw it in
motion and, so to speak, in transit. This amounts to saying that
I saw it as bent upon its fate--some fate or other; which, among
the possibilities, being precisely the question. Thus I had my
vivid individual--vivid, so strangely, in spite of being still at
large, not confined by the conditions, not engaged in the tangle,
to which we look for much of the impress that constitutes an
identity. If the apparition was still all to be placed how came
it to be vivid?--since we puzzle such quantities out, mostly,
just by the business of placing them. One could answer such a
question beautifully, doubtless, if one could do so subtle, if
not so monstrous, a thing as to write the history of the growth
of one's imagination. One would describe then what, at a given
time, had extraordinarily happened to it, and one would so, for
instance, be in a position to tell, with an approach to
clearness, how, under favour of occasion, it had been able to
take over (take over straight from life) such and such a
constituted, animated figure or form. The figure has to that
extent, as you see, BEEN placed--placed in the imagination that
detains it, preserves, protects, enjoys it, conscious of its
presence in the dusky, crowded, heterogeneous back-shop of the
mind very much as a wary dealer in precious odds and ends,
competent to make an "advance" on rare objects confided to him,
is conscious of the rare little "piece" left in deposit by the
reduced, mysterious lady of title or the speculative amateur, and
which is already there to disclose its merit afresh as soon as a
key shall have clicked in a cupboard-door.

That may he, I recognise, a somewhat superfine analogy for the
particular "value" I here speak of, the image of the young
feminine nature that I had had for so considerable a time all
curiously at my disposal; but it appears to fond memory quite to
fit the fact--with the recall, in addition, of my pious desire but
to place my treasure right. I quite remind myself thus of the
dealer resigned not to "realise," resigned to keeping the
precious object locked up indefinitely rather than commit it, at
no matter what price, to vulgar hands. For there ARE dealers in
these forms and figures and treasures capable of that refinement.
The point is, however, that this single small corner-stone, the
conception of a certain young woman affronting her destiny, had
begun with being all my outfit for the large building of "The
Portrait of a Lady." It came to be a square and spacious house--
or has at least seemed so to me in this going over it again; but,
such as it is, it had to be put up round my young woman while she
stood there in perfect isolation. That is to me, artistically
speaking, the circumstance of interest; for I have lost myself
once more, I confess, in the curiosity of analysing the
structure. By what process of logical accretion was this slight
"personality," the mere slim shade of an intelligent but
presumptuous girl, to find itself endowed with the high
attributes of a Subject?--and indeed by what thinness, at the
best, would such a subject not be vitiated? Millions of
presumptuous girls, intelligent or not intelligent, daily affront
their destiny, and what is it open to their destiny to be, at the
most, that we should make an ado about it? The novel is of its
very nature an "ado," an ado about something, and the larger the
form it takes the greater of course the ado. Therefore,
consciously, that was what one was in for--for positively
organising an ado about Isabel Archer.

One looked it well in the face, I seem to remember, this
extravagance; and with the effect precisely of recognising the
charm of the problem. Challenge any such problem with any
intelligence, and you immediately see how full it is of
substance; the wonder being, all the while, as we look at the
world, how absolutely, how inordinately, the Isabel Archers, and
even much smaller female fry, insist on mattering. George Eliot
has admirably noted it--"In these frail vessels is borne onward
through the ages the treasure of human affection." In "Romeo and
Juliet" Juliet has to be important, just as, in "Adam Bede" and
"The Mill on the Floss" and "Middlemarch" and "Daniel
Deronda," Hetty Sorrel and Maggie Tulliver and Rosamond Vincy and
Gwendolen Harleth have to be; with that much of firm ground, that
much of bracing air, at the disposal all the while of their feet
and their lungs. They are typical, none the less, of a class
difficult, in the individual case, to make a centre of interest;
so difficult in fact that many an expert painter, as for instance
Dickens and Walter Scott, as for instance even, in the main, so
subtle a hand as that of R. L. Stevenson, has preferred to leave
the task unattempted. There are in fact writers as to whom we
make out that their refuge from this is to assume it to be not
worth their attempting; by which pusillanimity in truth their
honour is scantly saved. It is never an attestation of a value,
or even of our imperfect sense of one, it is never a tribute to
any truth at all, that we shall represent that value badly. It
never makes up, artistically, for an artist's dim feeling about a
thing that he shall "do" the thing as ill as possible. There
are better ways than that, the best of all of which is to begin
with less stupidity.

It may be answered meanwhile, in regard to Shakespeare's and to
George Eliot's testimony, that their concession to the
"importance" of their Juliets and Cleopatras and Portias (even
with Portia as the very type and model of the young person
intelligent and presumptuous) and to that of their Hettys and
Maggies and Rosamonds and Gwendolens, suffers the abatement that
these slimnesses are, when figuring as the main props of the
theme, never suffered to be sole ministers of its appeal, but
have their inadequacy eked out with comic relief and underplots,
as the playwrights say, when not with murders and battles and the
great mutations of the world. If they are shown as "mattering"
as much as they could possibly pretend to, the proof of it is in
a hundred other persons, made of much stouter stuff; and each
involved moreover in a hundred relations which matter to THEM
concomitantly with that one. Cleopatra matters, beyond bounds, to
Antony, but his colleagues, his antagonists, the state of Rome
and the impending battle also prodigiously matter; Portia matters
to Antonio, and to Shylock, and to the Prince of Morocco, to the
fifty aspiring princes, but for these gentry there are other
lively concerns; for Antonio, notably, there are Shylock and
Bassanio and his lost ventures and the extremity of his
predicament. This extremity indeed, by the same token, matters to
Portia--though its doing so becomes of interest all by the fact
that Portia matters to US. That she does so, at any rate, and
that almost everything comes round to it again, supports my
contention as to this fine example of the value recognised in the
mere young thing. (I say "mere" young thing because I guess that
even Shakespeare, preoccupied mainly though he may have been with
the passions of princes, would scarce have pretended to found the
best of his appeal for her on her high social position.) It is an
example exactly of the deep difficulty braved--the difficulty of
making George Eliot's "frail vessel," if not the all-in-all for
our attention, at least the clearest of the call.

Now to see deep difficulty braved is at any time, for the really
addicted artist, to feel almost even as a pang the beautiful
incentive, and to feel it verily in such sort as to wish the
danger intensified. The difficulty most worth tackling can only
be for him, in these conditions, the greatest the case permits
of. So I remember feeling here (in presence, always, that is, of
the particular uncertainty of my ground), that there would be one
way better than another--oh, ever so much better than any other!--
of making it fight out its battle. The frail vessel, that charged
with George Eliot's "treasure," and thereby of such importance
to those who curiously approach it, has likewise possibilities of
importance to itself, possibilities which permit of treatment and
in fact peculiarly require it from the moment they are considered
at all. There is always the escape from any close account of the
weak agent of such spells by using as a bridge for evasion, for
retreat and flight, the view of her relation to those surrounding
her. Make it predominantly a view of THEIR relation and the trick
is played: you give the general sense of her effect, and you
give it, so far as the raising on it of a superstructure goes,
with the maximum of ease. Well, I recall perfectly how little, in
my now quite established connexion, the maximum of ease appealed
to me, and how I seemed to get rid of it by an honest
transposition of the weights in the two scales. "Place the
centre of the subject in the young woman's own consciousness," I
said to myself, "and you get as interesting and as beautiful a
difficulty as you could wish. Stick to THAT--for the centre;
put the heaviest weight into THAT scale, which will be so largely
the scale of her relation to herself. Make her only interested
enough, at the same time, in the things that are not herself, and
this relation needn't fear to be too limited. Place meanwhile in
the other scale the lighter weight (which is usually the one that
tips the balance of interest): press least hard, in short, on
the consciousness of your heroine's satellites, especially the
male; make it an interest contributive only to the greater one.
See, at all events, what can be done in this way. What better
field could there be for a due ingenuity? The girl hovers,
inextinguishable, as a charming creature, and the job will be to
translate her into the highest terms of that formula, and as
nearly as possible moreover into ALL of them. To depend upon her
and her little concerns wholly to see you through will
necessitate, remember, your really 'doing' her."

So far I reasoned, and it took nothing less than that technical
rigour, I now easily see, to inspire me with the right confidence
for erecting on such a plot of ground the neat and careful and
proportioned pile of bricks that arches over it and that was thus
to form, constructionally speaking, a literary monument. Such is
the aspect that to-day "The Portrait" wears for me: a structure
reared with an "architectural" competence, as Turgenieff would
have said, that makes it, to the author's own sense, the most
proportioned of his productions after "The Ambassadors" which was
to follow it so many years later and which has, no doubt, a
superior roundness. On one thing I was determined; that, though I
should clearly have to pile brick upon brick for the creation of
an interest, I would leave no pretext for saying that anything is
out of line, scale or perspective. I would build large--in fine
embossed vaults and painted arches, as who should say, and yet
never let it appear that the chequered pavement, the ground under
the reader's feet, fails to stretch at every point to the base of
the walls. That precautionary spirit, on re-perusal of the book,
is the old note that most touches me: it testifies so, for my own
ear, to the anxiety of my provision for the reader's amusement. I
felt, in view of the possible limitations of my subject, that no
such provision could be excessive, and the development of the
latter was simply the general form of that earnest quest. And I
find indeed that this is the only account I can give myself of
the evolution of the fable it is all under the head thus named
that I conceive the needful accretion as having taken place, the
right complications as having started. It was naturally of the
essence that the young woman should be herself complex; that was
rudimentary--or was at any rate the light in which Isabel Archer
had originally dawned. It went, however, but a certain way, and
other lights, contending, conflicting lights, and of as many
different colours, if possible, as the rockets, the Roman candles
and Catherine-wheels of a "pyrotechnic display," would be
employable to attest that she was. I had, no doubt, a groping
instinct for the right complications, since I am quite unable to
track the footsteps of those that constitute, as the case stands,
the general situation exhibited. They are there, for what they
are worth, and as numerous as might be; but my memory, I confess,
is a blank as to how and whence they came.

I seem to myself to have waked up one morning in possession of
them--of Ralph Touchett and his parents, of Madame Merle, of
Gilbert Osmond and his daughter and his sister, of Lord
Warburton, Caspar Goodwood and Miss Stackpole, the definite array
of contributions to Isabel Archer's history. I recognised them, I
knew them, they were the numbered pieces of my puzzle, the
concrete terms of my "plot." It was as if they had simply, by an
impulse of their own, floated into my ken, and all in response to
my primary question: "Well, what will she DO?" Their answer seemed
to be that if I would trust them they would show me; on which,
with an urgent appeal to them to make it at least as interesting
as they could, I trusted them. They were like the group of
attendants and entertainers who come down by train when people
in the country give a party; they represented the contract for
carrying the party on. That was an excellent relation with them
--a possible one even with so broken a reed (from her slightness
of cohesion) as Henrietta Stackpole. It is a familiar truth to
the novelist, at the strenuous hour, that, as certain elements
in any work are of the essence, so others are only of the form;
that as this or that character, this or that disposition of the
material, belongs to the subject directly, so to speak, so this
or that other belongs to it but indirectly--belongs intimately to
the treatment. This is a truth, however, of which he rarely gets
the benefit--since it could be assured to him, really, but by
criticism based upon perception, criticism which is too little of
this world. He must not think of benefits, moreover, I freely
recognise, for that way dishonour lies: he has, that is, but one
to think of--the benefit, whatever it may be, involved in his
having cast a spell upon the simpler, the very simplest, forms of
attention. This is all he is entitled to; he is entitled to
nothing, he is bound to admit, that can come to him, from the
reader, as a result on the latter's part of any act of reflexion
or discrimination. He may ENJOY this finer tribute--that is
another affair, but on condition only of taking it as a gratuity
"thrown in," a mere miraculous windfall, the fruit of a tree he
may not pretend to have shaken. Against reflexion, against
discrimination, in his interest, all earth and air conspire;
wherefore it is that, as I say, he must in many a case have
schooled himself, from the first, to work but for a "living
wage." The living wage is the reader's grant of the least
possible quantity of attention required for consciousness of a
"spell." The occasional charming "tip" is an act of his
intelligence over and beyond this, a golden apple, for the
writer's lap, straight from the wind-stirred tree. The artist may
of course, in wanton moods, dream of some Paradise (for art) where
the direct appeal to the intelligence might be legalised; for to
such extravagances as these his yearning mind can scarce hope
ever completely to close itself. The most he can do is to
remember they ARE extravagances.

All of which is perhaps but a gracefully devious way of saying that
Henrietta Stackpole was a good example, in "The Portrait," of the
truth to which I just adverted--as good an example as I could name
were it not that Maria Gostrey, in "The Ambassadors," then in the
bosom of time, may be mentioned as a better. Each of these persons
is but wheels to the coach; neither belongs to the body of that
vehicle, or is for a moment accommodated with a seat inside. There
the subject alone is ensconced, in the form of its "hero and
heroine," and of the privileged high officials, say, who ride with
the king and queen. There are reasons why one would have liked
this to be felt, as in general one would like almost anything to
be felt, in one's work, that one has one's self contributively felt.
We have seen, however, how idle is that pretension, which I should
be sorry to make too much of. Maria Gostrey and Miss Stackpole
then are cases, each, of the light ficelle, not of the true
agent; they may run beside the coach "for all they are worth,"
they may cling to it till they are out of breath (as poor Miss
Stackpole all so visibly does), but neither, all the while, so
much as gets her foot on the step, neither ceases for a moment
to tread the dusty road. Put it even that they are like the
fishwives who helped to bring back to Paris from Versailles, on
that most ominous day of the first half of the French Revolution,
the carriage of the royal family. The only thing is that I may
well be asked, I acknowledge, why then, in the present fiction,
I have suffered Henrietta (of whom we have indubitably too much)
so officiously, so strangely, so almost inexplicably, to pervade.
I will presently say what I can for that anomaly--and in the most
conciliatory fashion.

A point I wish still more to make is that if my relation of
confidence with the actors in my drama who WERE, unlike Miss
Stackpole, true agents, was an excellent one to have arrived at,
there still remained my relation with the reader, which was
another affair altogether and as to which I felt no one to be
trusted but myself. That solicitude was to be accordingly
expressed in the artful patience with which, as I have said, I
piled brick upon brick. The bricks, for the whole counting-over--
putting for bricks little touches and inventions and enhancements
by the way--affect me in truth as well-nigh innumerable and as
ever so scrupulously fitted together and packed-in. It is an
effect of detail, of the minutest; though, if one were in this
connexion to say all, one would express the hope that the
general, the ampler air of the modest monument still survives. I
do at least seem to catch the key to a part of this abundance of
small anxious, ingenious illustration as I recollect putting my
finger, in my young woman's interest, on the most obvious of her
predicates. "What will she 'do'? Why, the first thing she'll
do will be to come to Europe; which in fact will form, and all
inevitably, no small part of her principal adventure. Coming to
Europe is even for the 'frail vessels,' in this wonderful age, a
mild adventure; but what is truer than that on one side--the side
of their independence of flood and field, of the moving accident,
of battle and murder and sudden death--her adventures are to be
mild? Without her sense of them, her sense FOR them, as one may
say, they are next to nothing at all; but isn't the beauty and
the difficulty just in showing their mystic conversion by that
sense, conversion into the stuff of drama or, even more
delightful word still, of 'story'?" It was all as clear, my
contention, as a silver bell. Two very good instances, I think,
of this effect of conversion, two cases of the rare chemistry,
are the pages in which Isabel, coming into the drawing-room at
Gardencourt, coming in from a wet walk or whatever, that rainy
afternoon, finds Madame Merle in possession of the place, Madame
Merle seated, all absorbed but all serene, at the piano, and
deeply recognises, in the striking of such an hour, in the
presence there, among the gathering shades, of this personage, of
whom a moment before she had never so much as heard, a
turning-point in her life. It is dreadful to have too much, for
any artistic demonstration, to dot one's i's and insist on one's
intentions, and I am not eager to do it now; but the question
here was that of producing the maximum of intensity with the
minimum of strain.

The interest was to be raised to its pitch and yet the elements
to be kept in their key; so that, should the whole thing duly
impress, I might show what an "exciting" inward life may do for
the person leading it even while it remains perfectly normal. And
I cannot think of a more consistent application of that ideal
unless it be in the long statement, just beyond the middle of the
book, of my young woman's extraordinary meditative vigil on the
occasion that was to become for her such a landmark. Reduced to
its essence, it is but the vigil of searching criticism; but it
throws the action further forward that twenty "incidents" might
have done. It was designed to have all the vivacity of incidents
and all the economy of picture. She sits up, by her dying fire,
far into the night, under the spell of recognitions on which she
finds the last sharpness suddenly wait. It is a representation
simply of her motionlessly SEEING, and an attempt withal to make
the mere still lucidity of her act as "interesting" as the
surprise of a caravan or the identification of a pirate. It
represents, for that matter, one of the identifications dear to
the novelist, and even indispensable to him; but it all goes on
without her being approached by another person and without her
leaving her chair. It is obviously the best thing in the book,
but it is only a supreme illustration of the general plan. As to
Henrietta, my apology for whom I just left incomplete, she
exemplifies, I fear, in her superabundance, not an element of my
plan, but only an excess of my zeal. So early was to begin my
tendency to OVERTREAT, rather than undertreat (when there was
choice or danger) my subject. (Many members of my craft, I
gather, are far from agreeing with me, but I have always held
overtreating the minor disservice.) "Treating" that of "The
Portrait" amounted to never forgetting, by any lapse, that the
thing was under a special obligation to be amusing. There was the
danger of the noted "thinness"--which was to be averted, tooth
and nail, by cultivation of the lively. That is at least how I
see it to-day. Henrietta must have been at that time a part of my
wonderful notion of the lively. And then there was another
matter. I had, within the few preceding years, come to live in
London, and the "international" light lay, in those days, to my
sense, thick and rich upon the scene. It was the light in which
so much of the picture hung. But that IS another matter. There is
really too much to say.


Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily
In the 1600s, Balthasar Gracian, a jesuit priest wrote 300 aphorisms on living life called "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." Join our newsletter below and read them all, one at a time.
Sonnet-a-Day Newsletter
Shakespeare wrote over 150 sonnets! Join our Sonnet-A-Day Newsletter and read them all, one at a time.