Prescription: one fine passage a day

Mary Louise Parker as Henrietta Stackpole in Portrait of a Lady (1996)
Mary Louise Parker as Henrietta Stackpole in Portrait of a Lady (1996)

‘Henrietta was a literary woman, and the great advantage of being a literary woman was that you could go everywhere and do everything’

Years ago, when I was young and snooty and resentful of obligatory social engagements, I attended a work party with my then-boyfriend (his work, not mine). I found myself sipping wine in a well-appointed Ottawa living room with several wives who, to my relief, turned out to be avid readers. One of them said, “It’s weird, but nothing seems right, everything’s a little tougher, when I’m not in the middle of a good book.”

I wanted to take her by the hand and bring her home. She’d articulated something I’d always sensed but never consciously noted: That an interlude with a passage of fine writing can smooth out the edges, lessen the sting, wrench open the eyes. Forget the apple: a chapter, a poem, an essay a day, this is what is required. That Ottawa woman whose name and face I now forget got it: some of us use—some of us need—the written word as a binding force in life, offering a parallel narrative to backdrop our own, an army of company (and ideas, and even horrors) to trail us on our errands, wanderings, pursuits.

Welcome to my blog, which borrows the spirit of Henrietta Stackpole, a character—minor yet key—in Henry James’s novel The Portrait of a Lady. I read this book last winter, holed up, nursing my newborn son. I would sit in an armchair, lie baby Henry on a wide flat pillow, latch him on, and prop the book on the pillow behind him. It is a coincidence that James and the baby share a first name, I swear. And don’t worry: this is not a blog about all things Henry James. Nor is it about how reading saved me in the early days of motherhood (though, yeah, it did). And it ain’t no book review blog. More like a book report. Informal and wide-ranging. I hope to share ideas, reactions and thoughts on what I’ve been reading. Nothing fancy or grand or—what is that annoyingly popular concept?—innovative. But it seems to matter. I aim to muddle through that watery space between the lines where most good writing leaves you, paddling and spinning, trying to figure out how you got there, where the shore is, what’s lurking beneath your feet.

Back to Henrietta Stackpole, our guardian angel. A friend of Isabel’s, the protagonist, Henrietta is a journalist “in the van of progress,” first introduced as a “high example of useful activity,” Isabel’s “proof that a woman might suffice to herself and be happy.” In the social context surrounding Portrait of a Lady, Henrietta is a lady possessing a shocking, almost distasteful sense of personal freedom. She comes and goes as she pleases; can attend the opera or stay at an inn without concern over which male figure, if any, serves as escort. James explains, with that hint of comic relief that accompanies most of his passages on Miss Stackpole, “Henrietta was a literary woman, and the great advantage of being a literary woman was that you could go everywhere and do everything.”

I fell for her from the get-go.

It is out of fashion these days to describe a fictional character with the heartiness that James applied to the task. Here she is upon first appearing to Ralph, Isabel’s invalid cousin, who had hoped to disapprove of her but was forced instead into a reluctant admiration: “She resulted, she shimmered, in fresh, dove-coloured draperies, and Ralph saw at a glance that she was as crisp and new and comprehensive as a first issue before the folding. From top to toe she had probably no misprint.”

Then she fixes her eyes upon him and “there was something in their character that reminded him of large polished buttons—buttons that might have fixed the elastic loops of some tense receptacle: he seemed to see the reflection of surrounding objects on the pupil. The expression of a button is not usually deemed human, but there was something in Miss Stackpole’s gaze that made him, as a very modest man, feel vaguely embarrassed—less inviolate, more dishonoured, than he liked.”

Finally, upon further reflection by Ralph: “She was wanting in distinction, but, as Isabel had said, she was brave: she went into cages, she flourished lashes, like a spangled lion-tamer.”

James’s lush descriptions are enough to make me lament, a little, the sparsity of contemporary letters. I am currently reading, and deeply admiring, Toronto author Alayna Munce’s novel When I Was Young & In My Prime (Nightwood Editions, 2005). It’s a compassionate study of a young woman struggling through early adulthood (two jobs, faltering marriage) while, outside the city, her grandparents are declining. It’s also wonderfully natural the way it’s written and told, its diary-like passages interspersed with poem sequences that delve into issues raised during incidents that are recounted in prose. But Munce’s style is definitely of our time. We are introduced to Mom, Grandma, Grandpa, James and various other characters. We learn them through their words and actions and various talismans, through setting and implication, impression and voice, but we are not literally shown them: their size, their hair, their eyes, their noses, their hands. We writers don’t do that these days. And of course all that description was overbearing. It left no room for the power of suggestion, for the character to fit a heretofore undiscovered nook in your mind. Good for us that we’ve moved on: call it progress. Even so, when I turn a page and encounter Henrietta as Madame Merle does— “[she] surveyed her with a single glance, took her in from head to foot, and after a pang of despair determined to endure her. She determined indeed to delight in her. She mightn’t be inhaled as a rose, but she might be grasped as a nettle”—I glory in all that exposition. I pause and read the lines again, following their snaking through Madame Merle’s calculating mind. The nettle pricking. Henrietta flowering.

James clearly had a ball writing Henrietta. With apologies to James scholars, I can’t help but wonder if he was using her as a vehicle to poke fun at himself. The name is a flag, of course. And then there are her incessant efforts to report on “the inner life,” which becomes a kind of running joke throughout the novel: Henrietta’s ideas about the “inner life” are already set, we “the reader” understand, but she must pin down examples. She must poke about the English estates and the lives of their inhabitants. James plumbed his own society, the dramas (or types of dramas) played out in his own circles, for his novels: to peel back the “inner” life” for real was his literary calling. But of course at times—as for any writer—it felt ridiculous, futile, intrusive. The opportunity for gentle, though exuberant, mockery afforded by Henrietta must have been a welcome release.

(For a magnificent exploration of all that, even if you aren’t a James fan—and especially if you are a writer—read Colm Toibin’s The Master, a novel based on James’ life, a real digging down into the unsettling aspects of the author’s toil and trade. Click here for the Guardian review.)

Such is my theory. Henrietta is brilliant in that she’s both a break from all that painstaking psychic excavation—and with James as guide it can be remarkably painstaking—while at the same time a key source of revelation. The only forthright, trustworthy character in the novel, Henrietta is blunt and intrusive, at times hilariously lacking tact, and thus a caricature of a “modern woman” that I am willing to bet sets some feminist scholars teeth on edge. She exudes guts and principal; she’s without guile, and is the one person in Isabel’s life who cares about her without self-interest.

Henrietta was on the hunt. As was James. As am I. (And I daresay I can be just as awkward and cringe-worthy as she.) Nowadays, nobody I know needs the cover of being a “literary woman” to follow her nose, to explore the world. However, there are far too many women I don’t know directly, women in oppressive societies—and in restrictive circumstances right here in contemporary Canada—for whom no “literary woman” guise would help. I can’t read or write, pursue any autonomous endeavour, without my thoughts shifting the way of those women, without anger bubbling—and simmering equally on behalf of women in times past, the Isabels reduced to looking upon the bold, unusual Henriettas with admiration.

I was happy and lucky when I read Portrait of a Lady, a new mother in the throes of all that entails. I was also desperate. Desperate to engage my mind while my body was doing its work, while I was kept stationary for lengthy stretches, sating the baby’s hunger. James brought me England and Rome and Henrietta, in all her shimmering certainty. Her usefulness. The book led me out of the living room and my own ordinary dramas and duties while also bringing what was before me into sharp relief: exactly how, I don’t know, but the one effect makes the other possible. A good read leaves me both rinsed and brimming. It was important to find that hadn’t changed, though so much else had. It is no great discovery, yet it is a discovery, each time it happens: The book is a gateway. A literary woman can go anywhere.

Published by Anita Lahey

I am a journalist, poet, series editor for the Best Canadian Poetry anthology, and a former editor of Arc Poetry Magazine.

15 thoughts on “Prescription: one fine passage a day

  1. Anita — what a brilliant, stimulating, vigorous, insightful essay!

    This has left me brimming, on a dark cold morning.

    I’m very much looking forward to being rescued by further posts on this blog. And I hope you will consider publishing a book of your prose; essays like this deserve a permanent home of their own.

  2. In reference to the “hearty description” of writers in times past you say, “Good for us that we’ve moved on: call it progress.”

    Is it progress? Or is it merely a matter of style that will shift as soon as the next incarnation of Orwell or Hemingway (whose styling still dominates) appears and writers all go the lemming way along with it because that’s what drives the sale of books?

    Like you, I often “lament, a little, the sparsity of contemporary letters.” Being a society that is image rich (thanks initially to the camera and now an app for everything in the palms of our hands) we have lost a great deal in the new skinny. Once upon a time readers didn’t resent multiple syllable words or sentences that snaked along between semi-colons quite as much, and writers didn’t avoid them for fear of disengaging the mind.

  3. Brilliant, Anita. “Rinsed and brimming”; I love it! Congratulations on the blog, I will follow it avidly.

  4. Beautiful thoughts, Anita. Reminds me of the sharp fireplace crackle I felt when reading Les Miserables some years back, and the chilly hunger pangs that come on when the book ends and one is left wanting more, or at least something else just as good. This “literary man” looks forward to following more of your adventures.

  5. This takes me back to those exhausting, disorienting early months of motherhood and to the delicious intervals of reading they permitted. How the intensity of motherhood enriched the books and the intensity of the reading enriched the motherhood. Thank you for this, Anita, and for such an eloquent, nuanced reading of James and of Henrietta. Thanks to you and a few others recently, my skepticism about blogs has waned significantly. I look forward to seeing what you have to say, and what you read, next!

  6. Thank you, you’ve made me want to go back to Portrait of a Lady again! I don’t particularly think of myself as a Jamesite (although I am currently kindle-ing What Maisie Knew), but I loved the Colm Toibin, especially that utterly devastating first chapter.
    Looking forward to more from your blog.

  7. I’m so looking forward to reading more musings on reading–happy that you’ve launched this blog! Years ago a boyfriend reproached me for escaping into books. I defended myself hotly then thought for a few days about the why and how of my attachment to books. Of course, books are an escape, a welcome, wonderful, invigorating, necessary escape that keeps me sane.

  8. Reading has been an escape for me since I was eight and spent one whole day lying on my bed reading, and finishing, Heidi. Talk about lightning bolts and epiphanies. I’ve just begun my own novel. It’s so scary. Your blog is refreshing, full of writing inspiration, and I look forward to the following ones.

  9. Thanks for the essay / reflection / inspiration, Anita. It’s a pleasure to read and yes! novel reading as medicine, as balm, as stimulation and as a dip into several kinds of history. Not to mention the nursing mother’s companion. And yes, what a pleasure Alayna Munce’s fine novel is.

  10. Thank you all for the comments—and for taking the time to read my ruminations. Claudia, I loved Heidi also. I read it and re-read it, and will likely re-read it again. To Lynda: I don’t think it’s uniformly progress that we’ve streamlined our prose. It sounds like a wishy-washy thing to say, but I think it depends. On the story, on the writer, on the characters. I’m sure there was a time when readers picked up Raymond Carver, or someone equally unwordy, and were blown away by how simple it could be – that flowery prose sometimes masked a lack of depth rather than pointed toward it. I guess the answer here is that a strong writer telling a strong tale should be able to use well his or her chosen style, whichever it is.

    I am galvanized, and hope to live up to your very encouraging responses. Take two, just posted today. If you have not clicked on the “subscribe” button and wish to know when a new post is up, please do so!

  11. Such a satisfying read, Anita. I do hope I’m signed on as a regular. You bring back the joy of reading another’s thoughts and ruminations. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: