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I’m starting an Open University course on the 19th century novel in October, and they advise reading all of the texts in advance, as there’s a lot of material to cover, especially in the first half of the course. As I’ve read pretty much all of them already that’s not a problem – except for two authors that I’ve never really managed to get along with. One of these is Thomas Hardy, but the second is Henry James. I did finally manage to read The Turn of the Screw earlier this year, in which I think the gripping storyline helped me along, but I’ve never had any success with several of his others. At various times I have started The Ambassadors and have eventually regretfully laid it aside, just unable to get into it.

And I know all of this is my fault. I’m aware that Henry James is perceived as a great writer, exploring the meeting of the new and the old world with careful exploration of character. Yet, my heart sunk when I saw him on the list. So, I have done my best, and over the past few weeks on my commute I have given daily battle with A Portrait of a Lady. And no, I haven’t changed my mind and I still can’t get along with Henry James. 

The novel explores the ramifications of Isabel Archer’s meeting with her aunt, and subsequent voyage to England and tour of the old world. Isabel is a young, vibrant, American, with ideas and thoughts, and the ability and wish to express herself. She wants to live and experience life and turns down marriage proposals from a bold, self-made American who has followed her across the Atlantic, and a well-meaning English Lord. She is eventually trapped by an American living in Italy, when her high ideals and purity of vision help her mistake his narrow, sordid little world for high views and pure air.

This was a carefully carved and created book, yet I never felt that James was really describing the inner life of a woman, instead I felt as if he was exploring a psychological experiment. In addition, I did not find Isabel a sympathetic character and at many points I was intensely irritated with her. This was a shame given that she, apart from her eventual husband Osmond, were the only fully developed and rounded characters in the book: many of the others, for me, seemed to verge on caricatures.

So, I may update this post once I have studied the book in detail, and it will be interesting to see if that gives me a new perspective on James. But at the moment, I don’t think I’ll be trying to explore any more his writings for a while.

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I would have liked to like this book, after all it did win the Pulitzer prize for fiction this year, but I’m afraid it didn’t really do it for me. I guess that’s it – it’s not that I didn’t like it, I just didn’t love it. The prose was magnificent, verging on poetic, but it just left me feeling slightly bewildered and not particularly moved.

The book starts with George, bedridden and surrounded by relatives and the antique clocks he loves and repairs, in the house he build, dying of cancer. And he starts to hallucinate – the house comes tumbling down around him, until the sky itself is sucked down upon him. It’s one of the most gripping and imaginative openings to a novel I’ve ever read, but it offers no real clue to the purpose of the book, and that sets the tone of the rest of this slim volume.

Interspersed with George’s dying moments is the story of his father (although whether George is remembering or whether this is just a separate thread spun through the tale isn’t clear). George’s father, Howard, is a tinker, making his living from the selling of bits and bobs to the people who live in their homesteads in the woods. Howard is close to nature and an epileptic, a curse that sends him fleeing from his family, and a blessing in what it then grants him.

These two stories are twined together, with fragments from a horologist’s book and passages on nature. Harding’s descriptive reach is breathtaking but at the end I couldn’t bring myself to feel for his characters. I didn’t know who they were or what they wanted, what their relations were to each other. George’s wife and his grandson seem more real and knowable than George and Howard themselves. Whilst I felt the rhythm and the power of the language, I came to feel the characters were a mere sideshow: and maybe that was the whole story – nature carries on in her power and beauty regardless and humans’ passing is marked by the regular ticking of the clocks.