On Beauty, and Losing a Friend

(or How Grief May Ignite an ‘Incipient Forest Fire’ of Insight Within a Person Wandering the Streets of Venice)

V0034456 Tobias and the angel stroll through a classical landscape. M

The trio who ignite Miss Garnet’s imagination: Tobias, the Angel Rafael, and the dog. (Source and credit: Wellcome Library, London Tobias and the angel stroll through a classical landscape. Mezzotint by B. Lens.)

The hat had belonged to Harriet and although Miss Garnet, when she had seen it on Harriet, had considered it overdramatic, she had found herself reluctant to relegate it to the Oxfam box. The hat represented, she recognized, a side to Harriet which she had disregarded when her friend was alive.


I first read Salley Vickers’ Miss Garnet’s Angel several months ago, and its atmosphere persists, despite the many stories, poems and essays (some of them undeniably wonderful) that I’ve consumed in the interim. I feel, lingering around me, the musty air within ancient churches; I sense the kind gaze of an angel beaming straight out from the flat plane of a lost panel; I picture and re-picture an unfashionable, timid, yet determined woman traipsing the streets of Venice, driven by some curiosity and need she can’t articulate. I’m revisiting this book to try to understand why its aura is so persistent—why it has stuck.

Factor one: surprises carry extra punch, and this was an unexpected find, on several fronts. One, I had no prior knowledge of Vickers, and what a joy it was to encounter her no-nonsense style, her refusal to resort to obliqueness, her gentle humour and her absolute conviction in the validity of her characters’ experiences and ideas. Two, the Book of Tobit, the apocryphal tale about a righteous blind man, his son, the Angel Rafael and a dog, that Vickers embeds so beautifully and affectingly within her own, was a haunting revelation. Three, I had little prior interest in Venice, the novel’s setting. The place had, for me, taken on the aura of superficiality, nothing more than a tourist must-see. But after spending several fictional months roaming Miss Garnet’s Campo Angelo Raffaele and the wonders of Venice beyond it, I saw how snobbish and stupid my dismissal of the historic city’s seductive powers had been.

That comeuppance aside, it definitely wasn’t Venice that lured me. I plucked the novel, published in 2000 but set several decades prior, off the shelf at the local church’s thrift shop one Friday morning and read this on the back: “When a friend dies, Julia Garnet goes to stay in Venice, where a lifetime of caution is challenged.” As it happens, I was embroiled in revisions on a manuscript inspired by my own lost friend. I’d been lamenting how seldom one encounters this particular loss in literature, how we routinely parse the grief of lovers, spouses, parents, children, siblings, though so many of us would count our dearest friends among the greatest loves of our lives. I turned the book in my hand, looking it over, flipping its soft pages, claiming it. I paid a toonie to the volunteer behind the folding table, and allowed my son, who’d been yanking on my arm, to pull me toward the next room, where the toys are displayed.

I’ve been remembering this as a book about a politically strident, straitjacketed, judgmental woman’s awakening to beauty, mystery and the power of love. In essence, in a kind of trial-by-fire, loss offers life to a dried-out soul. What’s remarkable, coming back to the book, is to realize that Julia Garnet’s transformation begins to take shape so very early in the story. This isn’t a story culminating in a character’s evolution so much as one about what happens to her (and within her) throughout and on the other side of that changing. Though quiet, borne chiefly of seemingly innocuous moments, the initial changes in Miss Garnet are quick and profound. To compare it to your old-fashioned “happily ever after,” if this were a love story, it would be one that begins, as opposed to ends, on the wedding day.


When Julia Garnet first arrived in Venice, she removed an image like this one from the wall in her apartment. Giovanni Bellini, Madonna and Child (Source: Wikimedia Commons, from the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts)

On page 20, shortly after arriving in Venice armed with her steely sense of irony, Miss Garnet encounters Santa Maria della Salute, “like a vast soap bubble formed out of the circling, dove-coloured mists.” She is overcome. “‘Oh!’ cried Miss Garnet. She caught at her throat and then at Harriet’s veil, scrabbling it back from her eyes to see more clearly. And oh, the light! ‘Lord, Lord,’ sighed Julia Garnet. She did not know why she had used those words as she moved off, frightened to stay longer lest the unfamiliar beauty so captivate her that she turn to stone, as she later amusingly phrased it to herself.”

Eight pages later, after a glass cutter refuses payment for repair work on a Bellini portrait of the Virgin and Christ Child, there’s this: “But Miss Garnet, in whom insight, like an incipient forest fire, was beginning to catch and creep, sensed suddenly that there was more to it than that. The glass-cutter, she guessed, also liked the subject of Bellini’s painting and his love of Mary, and the bambino in her arms, was stronger than his love of money. How would Marx or even Lenin have explained that, she wondered…”

A few pages after this, after the opening of a perfunctory letter from a friend back home: “For a moment Julia Garnet remembered the impoverished little ceremony with which she had bidden Harriet a final farewell, and the utilitarian stone with the severely practical information carved upon its stony face, with which she had chosen to mark the passing of her closest friend’s life.”

Jabs of insight, memory and awe are laid like stepping stones throughout the book. Miss Garnet dutifully hops from one to the next, learning as she goes a talent for self-awareness, an openness she’d heretofore never imagined, and a tolerance for ambiguities: a humility before the mysteries of life and death. What’s puzzling is Vickers’ ability to keep us invested in Miss Garnet’s fate while revealing, so early on, that she’s facing and conquering her grief with aplomb. There’s no sense of pending disaster: we don’t fear for her safety or that she’ll be damaged by her new boldness. We do see her suffer for having put herself “out there”—in fact it’s her first broken heart, poignantly late in life—but this suffering, too, becomes part of her changing: it makes her less afraid, and only pushes her further in her reclamation of herself.

On some level it doesn’t matter what happens after Julia has begun to change: She’s finally living, yes? So who cares about the details? But oh, we do care. Vickers makes sure of that. We care about the twin restorers she befriends, and the odd tensions between them. We care about young Nicco who wants to learn English, and Carlos the art historian who pines after him. We care about the wealthy American couple who force Julia to confront her prejudices against the rich, and about the ageing Monsignore, who embodies all the excesses of the Catholic church as well as its redemptive spirit. We care about the intrigue Julia finally becomes embroiled in. But mostly we care how her own journey and her perception of its meaning becomes so elegantly interwoven with the Book of Tobit. Brilliantly, Vickers gives Julia splendid agency here: intrigued by its plot and by the artistic representations around her—especially those of the Angel Rafael and the dog—Julia conducts her own investigation into Tobit’s story. We discover it alongside her. She jots brief, sudden insights into a little notebook that had been intended for history notes on Venice. “Dogs lead the blind. Old Tobit is ‘blind’ because he doesn’t see the limitations of his own values. (Look how he treats his wife when she is working her fingers to the bone for him. He doesn’t ‘see’ her!)” As Julia had failed to see Harriet, an insight into her own ‘blindness’ that she has already begun to grasp. This is the character taking charge of her own evolution, through study of the human heart.

So, why does this book stay with me? When my own friend died, many years ago, I remember the world around me shimmering in a kind of unreal clarity. I felt able to see and understand things that had previously lain beyond perception. The surprise of each day and how much it might contain. My grief gave me an unasked for vitality and power—and even on the worst days, all around me was vivid, translucent. Porch railings, leaves, the faces of strangers. Once, jogging in my Toronto neighbourhood, I paused for a long time to watch a caterpillar cross the sidewalk. Its laborious journey from one grass edge to the next appeared epic. I was grateful, though confused by the fact that the reason for all this intense awareness was a reality I would wish reversed. Bring me back my friend, give her back her life, but don’t take what I’ve gained by her loss. Now there’s an emotional and psychological paradox, one mined to its core by Vickers.


This scene and others by Guardi feature in the novel’s intrigue. Giovanni Antonio Guardi “The Healing of Tobias’s Father” circa 1750, Chiesa dell’Angelo Raffaele, Venice

Miss Garnet’s Angel is a story of redemption, one that admits the impossible, that allows for human frailty and the beauty embedded even in that. Some might call this story soft, or “easy,” because of its optimism and its essential kindness toward its characters. We are so afraid, we skeptics, of anything that hints at reverence. But Vickers’ generosity is profoundly political. In her matter-of-fact yet loving telling of Miss Vickers’ journey through gradual enlightenment, Vickers reminds us why we require beauty every bit as much as food, and how because of this, if we allow ourselves, we’re able to find it in the most unlikely, even the most apparently ugly, of circumstances. Imagine being granted permission to simply live, to take in what is placed before you, through all your senses, in all the imperfection of your own humanity. Imagine that.

  • Insights on beauty from Canadian poet Shawna Lemay



Difficult men, part 1

Feodor Rojankovsky, Frog Went A-Courtin, winner of 1955 Caldecott Medal for Best Children's Picture Book. Source: animationresources.org

Feodor Rojankovsky, Frog Went A-Courtin, winner of 1955 Caldecott Medal for Best Children’s Picture Book. Source: animationresources.org

Often these days the novels we pick up tell of people we would wish to be, or at least spend time with. They might have flaws and failings, they may not rise to the potential we are induced to see in them, they may have the odds stacked against them, but at heart they are good, well-meaning. We relate to them. We feel their pain.

Allow me to introduce you to Leo Krauss, one of the main characters in Jacqueline Baker’s engrossing novel The Horseman’s Graves (HarperCollins, 2007). As a boy in 1909, Leo journeys with his family from Odessa to the Saskatchewan-Alberta border, where his father sets up a homestead on “a hundred and sixty pitiable acres tucked right up against the Sand Hills,” in “the worst possible corner of that parched, sifting region.” Old Krauss, Leo’s father—a nasty specimen who makes Leo’s mother run to catch up with the wagon if she needs to go to town—is known to one and all as the embodiment of meanness: “Mean in the old country, mean over here.” “Mean as crossed rattlers, those Krausses.” “Can’t shake that kind of thing out of the blood.”

Eventually young Leo, thusly cursed and all grown up, is the only Krauss left on that desolate property. He ventures forth in search of a wife. I am reminded of the folk song “Froggy Went A-Courting,” though even that ill-fated frog, “with his pistol and sword by his side,” seems better suited to the task. For one thing, in Miss Mousy, Froggy has an object in mind. Leo Krauss, on the other hand, rides systematically from one farm to the next, knocking on the door, sitting at the kitchen table, eyeing the resident daughters with a “greasy kind of look,” and getting up to leave without saying a word. He does this week after week until he starts turning up drunk, and then just shouting from his wagon in the yard at whatever girl he’s come to ogle.

When he finally gives up, there is widespread relief. But that’s not all there is, and herein lies the hard beauty of this novel. Baker writes: “But soon his absence became more of an outrage than his presence had ever been, as if he stayed away just so they would notice, and wonder about it, in spite of themselves . . . So after months of suffering bitterly his presence, they found themselves having to suffer his absence.”

The local people tell themselves they should be happy. “‘Ach,’ some said, ‘Be glad he is out of our hair.’” But no one can rest easy knowing Leo is in their midst. Is he OK out there, on that godforsaken piece of land? They’re Christians, they ought to care whether Leo has drunk himself to death, no? Surely someone should ride out and check on him. They gallantly elect the priest, for “what is the church for if not to look to the low and the fallen?”

I love this: how all that concern is deep-fried in plain old curiosity. There is so much about human nature that Baker captures in her portrayal of the community’s relationship with Leo Krauss—a relationship at times harrowing, at times hilarious—that I hardly know where to begin. The people of this isolated German community revile Leo: his behaviour is offensive, unfriendly, appalling. Yet how is it he dares put himself beyond requiring their approval or even their participation in his life? What is he capable of, this man who seems to have no sense of social mores or norms? What might he do next? And how might it affect them? Leo is a puzzle, and a potential threat, both. Because he follows none of the ordinary rules of engagement, people are confused by him, thrown off course. They also feel guilty about their own judgement of him. At the end of the Valentine’s Day social, after watching Leo suffer ridicule and rejection from the local girls, widower Mike Weiser thinks to himself that perhaps “Leo did have a heart there after all. Even if it was fed and pumped by Krauss blood, it was still a heart and he was still a man, not?”

Despite the evident hardship of their lives you get the distinct impression that without Leo and the small struggles he ignites in their minds and in their souls, the people here might grow bored; they might ease into a dangerous complacency. There is no comfort allowed when it comes to Leo. His existence stirs and ruffles the air.

The tale of Leo Krauss—not the whole or even the central tale here, though it is tied to everyone’s fate—makes me wonder about the true impact of an apparently negative presence. Do the Leos in our midst, much like a devastating storm, temporarily (or intermittently) create common cause? Does the instinct to work out the “problem” of Leo bring people together in a tense but unified (and sometimes comical) front? Does Leo simply give everyone a story around which to gather and reflect? “Leo” has so affected me that I feel a twinge of my own guilt writing this: am I suggesting we use the Leos of this world for our own betterment? What I can say for sure is that, unpleasant and confounding as he is, he matters. Like Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita—who I found so repulsive I nearly gave up on that book in the first chapter—he is the stuff of real literature (and life).

This is a novel about the immigration experience, after the fact. The people in The Horseman’s Graves have left much behind, most of it willingly: there’s a “good riddance” vibe to their survival ethic. What choice do they have? But some things can’t be shed. The Krausses and what they represent are eternal, and add layers (and perhaps generations) of difficulty to breaking in a new life, in a new place: the taint of bloodlines, the lingering power of old grudges, that whiff of the old country and its dark secrets, the day-to-day ups and downs of simply getting along with the people who live next door.

In the real world I’m lucky to know many people I’d be happy to have as neighbours (including my actual neighbours!). But I also know people who leave me at a complete loss, who remind me of Leo Krauss. I am almost always uneasy about my interactions with them. I think of Baker shaping the fictional world of The Horseman’s Graves, and all the time she spent in the company of Leo Krauss. I think of Baker holding the idea of Leo Krauss in her mind—of the building, scene by awkward scene, moment by uncomfortable moment, of Leo Krauss and all the people whose lives and consciences he infiltrates. Am I glad she’s created this ornery, disagreeable character, and stuck him in my mind? Glad is not the word. But Baker has done some hard labour here, some heavy lifting, the kind required for meaningful art to emerge. Leo is not the guy most of us want to hang out with over beers; but he’s among us. His presence, and our reaction to it, is impossible to ignore.


Here is a profile of Jacqueline Baker from Quill and Quire magazine.

And here’s a blog entry by Kerry Clare on Horseman’s Graves from back when the book was released.

Smell the cabbage

by Alina Zienowicz, 2008 (from wikimedia commons)

I can’t stop thinking about the sauerkraut.

I’ll give you the scene. A young woman in her Toronto apartment. Some workers arrive to fix the plumbing downstairs, and one comes up to turn on the water. Our heroine is wary: her pantry contains a crock of “out-of-control” sauerkraut. Once the plumber is back downstairs, she overhears, through the floorboards, “there’s definitely something rotting up there,” and wants to run down to explain: “how I hate the stink too, how I wish I could just dump the whole fucking crock into the compost…but that I can’t, because, you see, because of my grandfather.” And then there are two increasingly desperate pages of “because.” “Because his house is up for sale.” “Because the man poured pickle juice on his fried rice…” “Because I don’t speak Low German or German or Ukrainian or Russian or Dutch.”

In the closing moment, she’s “kneeling in front of the sauerkraut scooping the scum into a blue plastic cup… holding my breath in the stink and my nose is running and I’m wiping it on my sleeve and trying not to sob too loudly as the plumbers gather their tools below.”

In last week’s entry I mentioned Alayna Munce’s novel When I Was Young & In My Prime (Nightwood Editions, 2005). Though I have been reading some poetry I keenly want to write about (specifically pieces in The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2012), I can’t yet shake When I Was Young. It lingers—I hesitate to say “like the smell from a crock of fermenting cabbage,” but that is kind of what I mean. In a good way.


To recap, Munce’s book follows the narrator’s life in the city, where she works two jobs and struggles in her marriage. Meanwhile, her grandmother, Mary Friesen, recedes into an Alzheimer’s-fogged existence. Grandfather Peter also begins to decline. So, one narrative tracks the wobbly launch of a life, the other tracks the recession of two other lives, and the place where the novel finds its richness is where the two meet, in our narrator’s heart and mind.

We are dealing with a narrator who is determined to not let her grandparents’ lives—or their suffering—slip away unstudied. Not unnoticed, but unstudied. She writes poem sequences based on fragments of their history. She extrapolates from old diary entries of her grandmother’s and slips into her mind, her voice, in a time before the narrator’s life began. She does the same with her grandfather. I’m not sure how Munce pulls this off. It might have come across as false, or too cute. Instead, we sink into the voices, while also remaining aware that this is only the narrator’s clumsy attempt to glimpse her grandparents’ secret lives. The tension between these two states of awareness, for the reader, is quietly effective.

I suspect we’ve all looked at a close relation from a previous generation and thought, with a mixture of fascination and dismay: their life is a mystery to me. Because their tale is the precursor to our own, it’s also ours, and we yearn to know it. Munce gently steers her narrator into that usually impenetrable universe: someone else’s existence. It does not feel like invasion so much as homage, a rare empathy. Story being applied to one of its chief purposes, I daresay one of its chief obligations.


The narrator’s effort to learn from her grandfather how to make sauerkraut—before it’s too late remains unspoken—calls forth vivid associations. Once, my cousins asked my maternal grandmother, Babci (our informal version of the Polish babcia), to teach them how to make pierogies. They arrived at her house on the appointed Saturday afternoon. They found the kitchen table laid out with rows of meticulously trimmed ovals of dough. They found bowls brimming with fillings: potato-and-cheese, sauerkraut-mushroom, meat. Their job: to place a dollop of filling into the centre of each round of dough, fold the dough over and pinch it closed. Pierogy assembly.

We still laugh about this, but the incident also troubles me. Did Babci not believe they truly wanted to learn? Did she not want to give up her secrets?

In my thirties, I told this same grandmother that I’d begun to study Polish—a language none of my 16 cousins spoke either, so which, in a single generation, had disappeared. She said, “Why you want speak Polish?” She waved a hand dismissively. “Polish difficult language. You soon forget.” I wanted to say, so I can ask you more questions, better questions, and understand the answers. So I can get a glimpse of how a Polish mind, trained by a whole other system of grammar, works. How it feels to use my mouth in a Polish way, to make Polish sounds. Because I’m half-Polish, I wanted to say, and since you and I talk in broken English, since Polish—which I’ve heard spoken around me my entire life—sounds to me like garbled mutterings, I hardly know what being half-Polish means.

I started too late: my Polish (it is a difficult language) did not progress quickly enough. Babci died in 2006. (I wrote a Lives Lived piece about her for the Globe and Mail. You can read it here.) Now her thoughts about so many things—as well as her particular technique for pierogy preparation—exist somewhere out of time, out of my reach.

There are days when I’m as skeptical as my grandmother was about all this hanging on, cluttering ourselves up with the past. Are we just being sentimental? Trapping people inside our greedy imaginations? Then I read a book like Munce’s, her narrator’s loving, painful itemization of the changes in her grandparents’ lives, their belongings, fragments of history, minor facts. The mason jars, stepladder, hat boxes and butter forms hauled up from the basement for a garage sale. Grandma’s ruminations on the saying it’s all downhill from here: “I couldn’t for the life of me remember whether the phrase is meant to be uplifting or melancholy.” Grandpa’s five languages, “if you included whistling.”

I read this and feel a resurgence of a kind of faith. I ask myself where it’s been. What has happened in my life—and in my craft as a writer—to make me forget that the main thing is to take note? That behind everything we do, this one imperative: pay attention. Maybe I lose faith sometimes because the impulse to “pay attention” is often followed in my mind by: Okay, then what? Is it possible that in choosing to observe—meticulously, unsparingly—we avoid a duty to act? We shy away from a meaningful, useful response?

I finished reading When I Was Young a few days before the 19th anniversary of my Polish grandfather’s death. He died November 5, 1993. Various hospital stays punctuated his later years. Once my sister and I went to visit him in the Henderson, the hospital on the Hamilton mountain, an old building that back then had narrow, stuffy, yellow hallways. (It may still; I have not been back.) When we were saying goodbye, he sat up in bed, watery eyes wide and bright, and said, “I’m go with you. I’m no stay.” He pointed to a knapsack one of us held. “I’m fit in bag.” He grinned. He was joking, but he wasn’t. We held back tears, kissed him—three times each, cheek after cheek, the Polish way—and squeezed his mottled hand and walked out of the room, down the suffocating hallways, back outdoors, squinting into the daylight.

Sometimes action is beside the point. We couldn’t rescue our grandfather from his hospital bed or from his failing body. We could note his struggle, and carry it with us, along with all the other things about him that we remembered and knew. This is what we mean by paying attention. It’s what I mean. And then what? I don’t know. But we have to let the sauerkraut ferment, let the stench work its way into our noses.

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.