In reading Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, I’ve been struck by his dismissal of Paris. It seems almost egregious that an American should not be fascinated by Paris, and yet, he constantly turns to Northern Italy to shed light on the glory of Europe. I felt like I was walking the streets of Florence as the characters mapped out the streets and with each knock upon some heavy wooden door, I could picture it, unchanged, from the time of his writing to my own visit a few years ago.
Italy is eternal, in both its majesty and its ruins. When Isabel runs into Lord Warburton in the middle of ancient Rome and they end up sitting upon a ruined column to talk, it is completely believable. Both the isolation and the strange image of the Victorian pair captures that visceral longing the reader has in its beauty and its impossibility. That is exactly what literature is supposed to do–create the juxtaposition between reality and fancy. That is why we keep coming back.
I have a love of Victorian novels because of their strange proximity to modernity. There are those moments I can see myself in the same exact situation and yet, they seem so foreign and antiquated.
However, that is not what fascinates me about James’ physical landscape. It’s hard to imagine the American sans Paris and that continual longing for that bohemian lifestyle. James dismisses Paris in a chapter, strange to think for someone who once spent so much time there. I had forgotten something key: there were no Parisian Bohemians for James. That Bohemian artistic life would not work for the whole point of the American girl becoming a European lady and when we think of Americans in Paris, it belongs to the Lost Generation, which was just getting a foothold when James died. As much as I might hate Hemingway, he is one of the reasons us Americans see ourselves carving out a nook of Paris and planting down our flag. Somehow we can convince ourselves that we are, in fact, Parisian. But any ex-pat of any place knows deep down that they will never truly belong.
For the sake of this novel, Italy offers two things that Paris does not. It allows Isabel to remain an American lady. She does not wish to become a “national” nor does she try to cast off her American identity (which is what we often try to do when we replant somewhere–but in reality when you live abroad, every gesture is a sign of your nationality, even if you are the only one to notice). Italy, unlike Paris, offers a greatness, however faded. Something to strive to become, just like that Roman column. It stands, centuries later, reminding both the characters and us readers (or tourists), that the past has something to offer.
In writing that, the question of why I read Victorian literature could be reduced to the statement: “It has something to offer.” But taste, or aesthetics, is not structured like an algebraic equation. Otherwise philosophy would be mathematics, or worse engineering, and that would make us all rather dull (and possible less insane). For James, it could have simply been aesthetics that he set the majority of the novel in Italy rather than France. In my Penguin edition of the novel (in their introductory biography), he is quoted as saying that Paris is forever “holding one at arm’s length, and condemning one to a meagre scraping of the surface.”