I hear from the University of Chicago’s website that renowned Man Booker prize winner, John Banville, is writing a sequel to Henry James’s The Portrait Of A Lady which is due to be published at the end of this year.
I look forward to how he approaches the subject. It will certainly be written as a literary work whereas my sequel, A Kind Of Justice, is more like one of John Banville’s Benjamin Black novels. In the UofC article Banville describes his endeavour as maybe ‘arrogant, foolhardy and stupid’. When I was considering writing the sequel to James’s acclaimed but ambiguously-ending novel I dismissed attempting to write in the great author’s voice as clearly being arrogant and totally beyond me. Therefore, I thought, to take a style diametrically opposed and produce my solution to the enigmatic end of Portrait as a Victorian ‘sensation’ novel and who better to write it than Henrietta Stackpole. Henrietta is a support character in Portrait, an unused rôle model for Isabel Archer and a ‘celebrated authoress’. I cannot describe better Mr James’s notion of ‘me’ better than by re-quoting what my ‘agent’ has written about the relationship.
Henry James seems ambivalent about Henrietta. In his preface to his amended version he refers to her as ‘ so broken a reed (from her slightness of cohesion)’ and as a wheel or body to the coach, ‘or is for a moment accommodated with a seat inside’. He says she is ‘of the light ficelle‘ – a thin string perhaps – rather than a trivial stage trick. Contradicting himself he continues this theme by noting that she can run beside the coach until she is visibly out of breath and will never board it; she will always ‘…tread the dusty road’ and be a fishwife accompanying the royal coach into Paris at the start of the French Revolution. He conceded that he will be asked to explain why he has allowed Henrietta ‘…so almost inexplicably to pervade’. Eventually he resolves the paradox by explaining that she is ‘…only an excess of my zeal’ and that to avoid ‘thinness’ in his work he cultivates the lively. ‘Henrietta must have been at that time part of my wonderful notion of the lively.’
In the book itself he has this light ficelle, looking after her widowed sister and family from her own income; he has her as a rôle model for the undirected Isabel (a rôle Isabel never lives up to during The Portrait I might say); he has her showing more great humanity when she offers and proceeds to nurse the dying Ralph Touchett on his way back to England and as well as referring to her as a ‘celebrated authoress’ Mr James has Ralph Touchett bequeathing to her his valuable library ‘for services to literature’, thus making her a wealthy woman. All along he has Henrietta as a very modern woman with strength of mind and purpose. Undoubtedly Isabel is the subject of the book – the portrait, but Henrietta is no mere carriage wheel, no chaser on a dusty road, no fishwife, no weak twine – not even a stage trick; she is the glue which binds several flaky characters and situations together. James says his novel has no plot – no story – it is an ‘ado’ – an ado about Isabel Archer. Without Henrietta I suspect it would vie with Shakespeare for the use of his title ‘about nothing’.
I think Mr James was as fascinated as I by Henrietta Stackpole and found it impossible to control her thoughts and actions whenever she stole into his book. He betrays his secret love for her by the amount of preface space he grants her and the excuse he makes for her pervasiveness and super-abundance in his writing. I wonder he never wrote a novel about the gritty, determined and utilitarian Miss Stackpole – perhaps she was just a little too energetic and interesting for his taste.
The University of Chicago article can be found at http://www.uchicago.edu/features/irish_novelist_channels_henry_james/
and my sequel, A Kind of Justice can be purchased at