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The Surrogate-Author Function in The Portrait of a Lady: A Theory of Influence

From: Criticism
Volume 55, Number 2, Spring 2013
pp. 203-231 | 10.1353/crt.2013.0010

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Madame Merle of Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady (1880-81) represents the paradox of authorship: she functions at once as the most prolific creator in the novel and the character most aggressively rendered invisible by the social relations she helps produce. When Madame Merle

was neither writing, nor painting, nor touching the piano, she was usually employed upon wonderful tasks of rich embroidery, cushions, curtains, decorations for the chimney-piece; an art in which her bold, free invention was as noted as the agility of her needle. She was never idle . . .

James devotes nearly the entire chapter 19 of The Portrait of a Lady to elaborating her "fecund" artistry, the "multiplicity" of her aesthetic interests, and her "loquacious and confidential" discourses with Isabel, the consummate object of her artfulness. The performativity, range, nature, and effect of Madame Merle's artistry—from her piano playing to her "innumerable letters" to her wildly effective orchestration of Isabel Archer's marriage to Gilbert Osmond—correspond to James's portrait of one of his favorite authors: French novelist George Sand. According to James, Madame Sand exhibits "a greater fecundity, considering the quality of her work, than any writer of our day." What's more, her "great quality from the first was the multiplicity of her interests." Imbedded in the richly metaphorical accretion of Madame Merle's character are signs of James's perspective on female authorship, the gender of artistic creation, and nearly everything he had to say about the controversial, cross-dressing George Sand.

How can we pursue connections such as these without reductively equating Madame Merle with George Sand? Reaching beyond the simple gesture of equivalence requires exploring the dynamics among James, his critical conception of Sand, and his characterization of Madame Merle. It means addressing how the elements of fiction emerge out of a critical act. As James's implicit analysis of Sand's literature and lifestyle, Madame Merle becomes a rhetorical proxy through which he works out his fascination with Sand and his evolving definition of literary mastery. Madame Merle functions as a surrogate author. Through her characterization, James tries on the experience of a nineteenth-century woman writer at the same time as he novelizes a theory of mastery that circumscribes the female artist. The result is an implicit act of literary criticism that suggests new methods of studying both authorship and influence.

For twenty-first-century critics, the term "influence" seems tarnished and outdated. Viewed as a practice akin to biographical criticism, influence analysis connotes patriarchal traditionalism and the dusty obsolescence of a topic in vogue over thirty years ago. And yet, new work in transnational literary studies demands a theoretical vocabulary for analyzing precisely the kinds of cross-cultural exchanges that constitute influence. Studying, for example, transatlantic genres, immigrant fictions, or global cultural exchanges is a form of influence analysis. Critics today do not embrace theories of influence or intertextuality largely, I think, because these warring terms are mired in debates that diminished the use-value of both while failing to unite their different methodological benefits. This essay asks, how can we revitalize influence and intertextuality for twenty-first-century scholarship that so clearly treads the same interpretive ground? I propose a concept called the surrogate-author function, which argues for the intrinsic function of literary criticism in fiction. Beginning with a sketch of the antagonistic critical history of influence and intertextuality, I construct this model by engaging recent debates about critique and revising the hermeneutical strategies of Michel Foucault, Nancy K. Miller, and Harold Bloom. In the essay's final section, I offer a reading of The Portrait of a Lady that illustrates the possibilities of this theory for scholars today.

The Surrogate-Author Function

In 1966, Julia Kristeva proposed the term "intertextualité" through a reading of Mikhail Bakhtin, whose Russian Formalism she was introducing to a French audience. Every text, she writes in "Word, Dialogue, and Novel" (1966), "is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another." Every "literary word" is "an intersection of textual surfaces rather than a point (a fixed meaning)." The troublesome aspect of this philosophy of textuality crystallized two years later...

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