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ames’s experiences in England, Paris, and Italy will carry much of this narrative, in its later chapters especially. We will watch as he learns, in the 1870s and early 1880s, to define the terms of a life that is both American and European at once. So rather than chronicle his movements here, I’ll instead offer a series of vignettes as a way to evoke his early years abroad. There are three of them—three sketches, three cities, and three encounters with minds as large as his own.

Henry and William in Florence, November 1873.
James had been in Tuscany for a month when his older brother came to join him; William had begun to teach physiology at Harvard that spring, but almost immediately asked for a leave. They stayed at the Hôtel d’Europe, a few steps away from the river at the foot of the via Tornabuoni—then as now the home of the city’s most fashionable shops—and bombarded Quincy Street with reports on each other’s well-being. Henry wrote that on some days his brother had
“the appearance, the manner, and almost the activity of perfect health.”
William was not so encouraging—he thought Henry seemed liverish. Their hotel was full of people they knew, but William found Florence itself rather dusky and small. He couldn’t quite shed the spirit of Cambridge, and admitted that the city’s dirt and slime filled him with horror. Still, he did recognize that Henry was very much at home—perhaps, indeed, too much so—and
“could do more work than at any previous time.”

They visited Fiesole, they walked through the galleries of the Palazzo Pitti, and one morning William sat over a letter to their sister Alice and wrote sadly about the
“set of desultory years behind”
him. He wanted some solid practical task, some work he might make his own, but he didn’t yet know just what it might be; and meanwhile his younger brother was across the room, driving his quill through the last pages of an article on Turgenev. William knew that Henry now lived for his work, but he was so impatient with his own inability to settle that he leaned on his brother to come home and take some job of editorial drudgery, telling him that a novelist’s life was abnormal
“as a matter of mental hygiene.”
He liked to impose his own uncertainties on everyone around him, and reveled in evoking the dreariness he saw as his brother’s necessary American fate. But his words, as always, had their power. Henry did come home, as we have seen. He tried New York—and left.

With Ivan Turgenev in Paris, 1875–76.
James’s article in praise of the Russian novelist appeared in the
North American Review
for April 1874, and the older man responded by inviting the American to call on him; they met in the late fall of 1875, soon after James had arrived in Paris. Turgenev was in his late fifties, and by now visited Russia only briefly each summer, splitting the rest of his time between France and Baden-Baden. He was tall and bearded and had once been a figure of enormous physical vigor, though now both his strength and his best work were behind him. The lyrical country scenes of
A Nest of Gentlefolk
had appeared in 1859, and
Fathers and Sons
in 1862, with its picture of the nihilist physician Bazarov; while the apparently artless
Sportsman’s Sketches
lay even further back. Still, that 1852 volume had done two great things. Its seemingly documentary account of the hardships of peasant life had established a new aesthetic for the short story, and it had played an important role in the change of hearts and minds that led to the 1861 emancipation of Russia’s serfs.

To the young James, however, what mattered wasn’t Turgenev’s liberalism so much as the delicacy and finish of his work. They met in the house Turgenev shared with the opera singer Pauline Viardot and her husband in the rue de Douai, just below the Place Pigalle. At that first meeting they talked for two hours, and before the year was out the Russian gave the young man a rare mark of his esteem: he introduced him to the circle of French writers with whom he gathered on Sundays at the flat of Gustave Flaubert. There James met Émile Zola, flush with the success and the suppression alike of
, his frank, unsparing novel about the family of a Paris laundress; there too he met the then-unknown Guy de Maupassant. It wasn’t a world in which he felt entirely at home, and though he wasn’t shocked by the sexual license of their talk, he was by the fierceness of French literary quarrels. Nevertheless, the influence of Flaubert’s
proved decisive, and James was moreover the only important writer in English to see it from within.

In his essay James noted that Turgenev’s characters all seemed to be portraits, and one rainy afternoon in the rue de Douai the Russian told him that everything in his stories was indeed drawn from some particular person he had seen or known. He never consciously added anything to them, but instead tried only to offer a faithful picture, for he distrusted invention and believed that there was beauty and strangeness enough in the real. Thirty years later James put that conversation into his preface to the
, remembering Turgenev’s inspiriting claim that his characters seemed to hover
“before him, soliciting him . . . interesting him and appealing to him just as they were and by what they were.”
Plot was to him an irrelevance—it got in the way of the truth, of the emotional logic that governed his people. The business of writing lay not in making his characters “do” anything, but rather in discovering a situation that would allow them to reveal themselves. For him, that was story enough; but as he ruefully told the younger writer, it might not be for one’s readers.

The Two Henrys: London, February 1880.
Henry Adams came over to London that winter, renewing his acquaintance with the city where his father had been the American minister during the Civil War, a diplomat charged with keeping Britain from recognizing the Confederacy. The young Adams had spent that war as his father’s private secretary and in the intervening years had split his time between Washington and Boston, where he both edited the
North American Review
and taught medieval history at Harvard. By now, however, he had given up on teaching, and in the summer of 1879 he crossed the Atlantic to gather materials for what would become his masterly nine-volume history of the United States in the early years of the nineteenth century. He went to France and to Spain; he hired copyists to transcribe state papers in Paris and Madrid. For Adams was a rich man, made so not only through inheritance but also by his marriage to the razor-tongued Clover Hooper.

The two men had known each other for a decade, and in 1870, James had described his slightly older counterpart as a
“youth of genius and enthusiasm—or at least of talent and energy.”
Adams’s temperament was as dry as gin, and James did not at first like him. But he soon grew fond of the couple, and even in a London where he had known an enormous social success, he enjoyed having some American confidants. They saw each other regularly in Paris throughout the fall of 1879, and in that London winter Clover noted that the novelist came
“in every day at dusk and sits chattering by our fire.”
Sometimes he went so far as to invite himself to dinner. That season he was finishing his work on
Washington Square
, a short novel about a father’s thwarting of his daughter’s hopes. In February he sent off a review of Zola’s
“unutterably filthy”
novel about prostitution,
—a review in which he never quite names the source of that filth—and on the twenty-second he went to spend his Sunday afternoon at the Adamses’. They had taken a house just off St. James’s Park, on a little street halfway between Buckingham Palace and Parliament, and the novelist sat talking with Clover while his host wrote a letter to his former student Henry Cabot Lodge. Adams’s words are full of happy spleen on the subject of Paris, a city he thought
“a fraud and a snare,”
but he moved on to speculate about the coming presidential race, and then closed the page by looking up and noticing the other man in the room. “Harry James,” he told Lodge, “is standing on the hearth-rug, with his hands under his coat-tails. . . . I am going out in five minutes to make some calls on perfectly uninteresting people.”

Later that day James wrote to their mutual friend Lizzie Boott about his plans to take a working vacation in Italy; he expected to see her in Florence, where she lived with her father in a villa just outside the city gates. The Adamses, he reported, were
“not at all crazy”
about London, and yet thought him unnatural in wanting to leave it so soon after their own arrival; James thought they were a bit homesick. But he then switched subjects to note the fury with which the American press had greeted his book about Hawthorne. The reviews admired its handling of the fiction; they execrated its account of America. Probably he should have anticipated that reaction. He had argued in the book itself that his countrymen believed that every other nation was part of a
“conspiracy to undervalue them,”
and now it must have seemed to them as if an American had joined in that pact. Inaccurate, narrow, crude, sneering, and above all unpatriotic, a book that could only feed the English incomprehension of America—so it was described, and even Howells had had some reservations about it.

It wasn’t the first controversy James’s work had caused, however, and probably
wouldn’t have been so harshly received without the example of
Daisy Miller
the year before. That story of a New York girl’s indiscretions in Europe had also gotten its first publication in Britain. A Philadelphia monthly had earlier rejected it, finding it a libel on American femininity; for Daisy dies, in Rome, of malaria and a compromised reputation alike, after she is seen out walking with an Italian. Most readers loved it, though, and the behavior of the title character was discussed as though she were real. People took sides at the dinner table, either for or against her, and with her open pleasure in what she called
“gentlemen’s society,”
Daisy became a flashpoint for all that the
bien élevé
didn’t like about their own country. Yet how far should one go in criticizing her?
argued that Daisy wasn’t “fast,” but only ignorant. Any genuine reprobate would have known not to speak so frankly, and those who recognized the accuracy with which James had captured a particular American type should also recognize that their repudiation of her was unjust; they were indulging in the same kind of innuendo as the characters whose gossip had destroyed her good name.

James himself eventually dismissed the tale as slight, and in a later story, “Pandora,” he even joked about making a German diplomat read it as a guide to American manners. Nevertheless, it gave him his first real taste of fame. What it didn’t provide was money, not directly. In those days before international copyright the tale was pirated in America, and James got almost nothing from its quickly sold 20,000 copies. Every reader of the major British and American magazines now knew his name, however, and he quickly established his brand by following
Daisy Miller
with such briskly written comedies about the social relations of America and Europe as “An International Episode” and “The Pension Beaurepas.” Still, that success brought its troubles. James might be too brilliant to ignore, but his strictures on the provinciality of American life made him suspect to a public that remained anxious about their country’s place in the world. In April 1880, Clover Adams wrote to her father that it was
“high time Harry James was ordered home by his family. . . . He had better go to Cheyenne and run a hog ranch.”
She knew the criticism of him was silly, but still he must have seemed in danger of losing the American tone. By that time, however, James himself was no longer in London. He had crossed the Channel at Folkestone, waiting five days for a calm sea, and then passed through Paris and Turin on his way to Florence, where he thought to rest for a few weeks before settling down to work on what he called a

f the 1875 publication of his first books represented an end to his apprenticeship, then James’s plans for the novel he had decided to call
The Portrait of a Lady
were something else—a frank bid for mastery. We first hear of the project in an October 1876 letter to Howells. James was busy with
The American
, whose protagonist was the emblematically named Christopher Newman, but he recognized the financial necessity of always having a serial running somewhere, and he didn’t believe the
could handle them all. He was negotiating instead with
, a magazine he did not like, to write a novel about what he called an
, whose adventures in Europe would be a counterpart to Newman’s. The
plan fell through, however, and James then offered the book to Howells, noting early the next year that he was willing to wait until the
could give him the space he wanted. The project would be
“the portrait of the character and recital of the adventures of a woman—a great swell, psychologically; a
grand nature
—accompanied with many developments.”

James’s tone is ironic but the ambition is real, even if it would be another three years before he felt entirely free to pursue it. He did begin the story, that much is sure, and in April 1878 offered to show some of it to Macmillan. But nobody today knows just how far he then got, or just how closely this lost ur-
resembles the opening moments of the book we now read. Those notes to Howells aside, his letters give no details of its narrative, but in May 1877 he wrote to his mother that he planned a novel
“to which the American shall be as water unto wine.”
Later he had to add that
The Europeans
, which William found thin, was not the book he meant. William was always his most formidable critic, though often his least accurate one. He had an uncanny ability to find the flaws in his brother’s earliest and most conventional stories, but his own belief that novels were no more than an amusement meant that he objected to what was most original about James’s later work. Still, the novelist recognized the logic of William’s demand for something larger, and with a clear sense of his own development, he now felt ready to work on a greater scale.

BOOK: Portrait of A Novel
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