The Dangers of Reading Henry James and Jane Austen at the Same Time

264I have ended up really disliking “Portrait of a Lady.” I am listening to it, and although Flo Gibson is an excellent narrator (narratoress? should we collectively agree that that should be a word? Or would that be stupid?), I’ve ended up really getting annoyed with Mr James.

What I have shouted at my headphones, again and again, is “will you please get on with it!” Every single time two characters interact with each other, it’s like he has to spend half an hour explaining their opinions of each other, their worldly success, their perceptions of wealth, power, freedom, democracy, and cheese, and their relative weights and thoughts on the rise of the printing press in the middle ages. Seriously, James spends so much bloody time in asides and explanations that there were moments when I genuinely lost track of who exactly was talking to whom. And there would only be 2 people in the scene.

18619998This may have been more palatable, if I had not been re-reading “Pride and Prejudice” at the same time. And also George Eliot’s “Adam Bede.” As an aside, Eliot does the “explaining the mind at work behind the action” much better than James, faster, more directly, and with more humor and sympathy. But the important thing is the fact that Austen’s magic is to put characters in a room together and show their souls through conversation and occasional brief authorial commentary.

In fairness, I’m near the end of “Portrait” and James is finally starting to let people actually talk to each other. But I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to overcome comparing him to Austen and finding him verywanting.


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