The Portrait of a Lady HTML version

"The Portrait of a Lady" was, like "Roderick Hudson," begun in Florence, during
three months spent there in the spring of 1879. Like "Roderick" and like "The
American," it had been designed for publication in "The Atlantic Monthly," where
it began to appear in 1880. It differed from its two predecessors, however, in
finding a course also open to it, from month to month, in "Macmillan's Magazine";
which was to be for me one of the last occasions of simultaneous "serialisation"
in the two countries that the changing conditions of literary intercourse between
England and the United States had up to then left unaltered. It is a long novel,
and I was long in writing it; I remember being again much occupied with it, the
following year, during a stay of several weeks made in Venice. I had rooms on
Riva Schiavoni, at the top of a house near the passage leading off to San
Zaccaria; the waterside life, the wondrous lagoon spread before me, and the
ceaseless human chatter of Venice came in at my windows, to which I seem to
myself to have been constantly driven, in the fruitless fidget of composition, as if
to see whether, out in the blue channel, the ship of some right suggestion, of
some better phrase, of the next happy twist of my subject, the next true touch for
my canvas, mightn't come into sight. But I recall vividly enough that the response
most elicited, in general, to these restless appeals was the rather grim
admonition that romantic and historic sites, such as the land of Italy abounds in,
offer the artist a questionable aid to concentration when they themselves are not
to be the subject of it. They are too rich in their own life and too charged with
their own meanings merely to help him out with a lame phrase; they draw him
away from his small question to their own greater ones; so that, after a little, he
feels, while thus yearning toward them in his difficulty, as if he were asking an
army of glorious veterans to help him to arrest a peddler who has given him the
wrong change.
There are pages of the book which, in the reading over, have seemed to make
me see again the bristling curve of the wide Riva, the large colour-spots of the
balconied houses and the repeated undulation of the little hunchbacked bridges,
marked by the rise and drop again, with the wave, of foreshortened clicking
pedestrians. The Venetian footfall and the Venetian cry--all talk there, wherever
uttered, having the pitch of a call across the water--come in once more at the
window, renewing one's old impression of the delighted senses and the divided,
frustrated mind. How can places that speak IN GENERAL so to the imagination
not give it, at the moment, the particular thing it wants? I recollect again and
again, in beautiful places, dropping into that wonderment. The real truth is, I
think, that they express, under this appeal, only too much--more than, in the
given case, one has use for; so that one finds one's self working less
congruously, after all, so far as the surrounding picture is concerned, than in
presence of the moderate and the neutral, to which we may lend something of
the light of our vision. Such a place as Venice is too proud for such charities;