When Jill and I planned out the AP English challenge last spring, The Portrait of a Lady was supposed to be one of its toughest hurdles. Jill says that she dreaded Lord Jim more, and she was probably right to do so, but I think for me this is the book I remember as the dreariest on our AP English syllabus. I’ve been thinking ahead to these pre-reading notes for months, planning all kinds of sarcastic and nasty things I could say about how the Mayans really let me down by miscalculating the end of the world and thereby not putting an end to my Henry James-induced misery.
But then something happened. I pulled my old high school copy of The Portrait of a Lady off the shelf and looked at it, and I noticed a few very strange things. First of all, this book is battered. Now, the creases on the front and back cover could have come from being tossed around in a backpack for a few weeks, and there’s no real honor in that. But just LOOK at the spine:
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, may I present Exhibit A. Contrary to all expectations, including mine, it appears as if I actually read this book in high school. And with only a few exceptions, I rarely did that. I do think I stopped before actually reaching the end (as indicated by a scratch-off sweepstakes ticket from the House of Video on 25th and Noriega, which is placed between pages 543 and 544), but still, it appears that I read much more of this novel than I read of most books in AP English.
But there’s more. Folks, I annotated this book, and this astounds me. I mean, when you’re seventeen, you don’t just annotate a book. When you’re seventeen, annotating a book is like going on CNN during prime time and announcing to the entire world that you are not a precocious literary savant genius with a photographic memory whose native brilliance is always enough to pull her through class discussions and essays – and for God’s sake, you just don’t walk around admitting things like that. But then some time passes and things happen and you realize that the rest of the world has actually known for a long time that you are not a precocious literary savant genius and that you were the last one to get the memo – and then you start annotating your books because you figure out that as time goes on you’re just going to get less and less brilliant, and you might as well have some record on hand of all those ideas you had back when your brain was all elasticized and versatile.
And for the most part, that’s how I operated when I was seventeen. But I did annotate this book – not consistently and not excessively, but every so often I did mark something, and then I also circled the page numbers so I would could find my markings easily. There doesn’t seem to be any overarching pattern to the markings. I think – and I know how far-fetched this sounds – I think I was actually, like, moved by certain passages in this book. And I wanted to, like, remember them. And, maybe, like think about them some more later. Weird.
Here are a few samples:
On page 215: Speaker A: “I shall not be an easy victim!” Speaker B: “You’ll get very sick of your independence.”
On page 217: “It appeared to her she had done something; she had tasted of the delight, if not of battle, at least of victory.”
On page 219: “A swift carriage, on a dark night, rattling with four horses over roads that one cannot see – that’s my idea of happiness.”
On page 274: “Live as you like best, and your character will take care of itself.”
On page 314: “A woman’s natural mission is to be where she’s most appreciated.”
On page 336: “She had always been fond of history, and here was history in the stones of the street and in the atoms of the sunshine.”
On page 385: “Others, at their wildest moments, never wanted to marry him. There’s nothing of him.” And then, from the same speaker a few lines down: “People usually marry as they go into partnership – to set up a house. But in your partnership you’ll bring everything.”
On page 392, three sentences in a dialogue are underlined. First, there’s “Because you’re going to be put in a cage.” Then, a few lines down, there’s “A year ago you valued your liberty above everything. You only wanted to see life.” And then, again a few lines down: “One must choose a corner and cultivate that.” Sounds like something Voltaire would say, says my thirty-six year-old self.
And on page 117 I underlined the word “desultory” and wrote in the margin, “H.J. likes this word.” That made me laugh. At least I hadn’t sent my snarky seventeen year-old self on a permanent vacation.
On the inside back cover of the book, four unusual words are penciled. In my handwriting are gestalt and piqued, and in someone else’s handwriting are porphynoge and womyn. Yes, womyn: I was a senior in high school in 1993, back in the days of Anita Hill and the heyday of politically-correct language. People actually took words like that seriously (although secretly I never did, and I’m beginning to think that secretly no one really did. But they seemed to at the time. Remember herstory?). I do remember how these words got there: they were from a knock-down-drag-out game of Hangman that we played one night in Olema. Olema is a little tiny town north of San Francisco, and for the last two years of high school I spent one weekend a month there with a group from my school doing community service for a few hours and engaging in various other antics the rest of the time. I remember that this Hangman game was very competitive and that porphynoge ended up being the winning word. It came not from The Portrait of a Lady but from a different Henry James novel, one that Fr. Murphy’s junior class was reading. Fr. Murphy really, really liked Henry James.
So what else? In spite of the evidence that I read it, I actually don’t remember much about this book, except some character names. The protagonist is Isabel Archer, and she has a variety of suitors to choose from – but I know that not because I remember it but because this book was written in the nineteenth century and that’s what all nineteenth-century novels are about, except for the ones that are about the French Revolution. There are characters named Gilbert Osmond and Casper Goodwood, and I remember Fr. Murphy saying, “Casper Goodwood – you know, like Dudley Do-Right,” and we laughed. And there’s someone named Madame Merle who has an epiphany while playing the piano, and that was a very big deal.
Oh, and also – Pat Conroy likes this book! He writes about it in My Reading Life and in Beach Music and even in his cookbook. But then again, Pat Conroy also likes mayonnaise, so maybe his judgment is not always to be trusted.
Long story short, I am intrigued. I am much more excited to read this book than I was a month ago. I’m still hedging my bets, though, and I sat down with the book and divided its 637-page heft into twelve easily-managed portions of 50-60 pages each. I’m not going to start reading right away, but when I do start, those will be my daily assignments – because the last thing I want to do is end up with five hundred pages of Henry James to read on January 31. There’s reliving your lost youth, and then there’s being ridiculous. And I have no desire to be ridiculous.