- Intimate CitiesThe Portrait of a Lady and the Poetics of Metropolitan Space
Gaston Bachelard, in The Poetics of Space, speaks of being “lulled by the noise of Paris.” “In fact,” he continues, “everything corroborates my view that the image of the city’s ocean roar is in the very ‘nature of things,’ and that it is a true image” (28). Bachelard’s study of spatial ‘poetics’ suggests, here, that some fantasies align better with their surroundings than others, that hearing Paris’s noise as an ocean roar is more true to the ‘nature of things’ than imagining that city’s sounds as, say, the noise of a teeming forest. By imagining an art of the indubitable, the apt, Bachelard’s work offers a useful entrance for thinking about Henry James’s city fiction: metaphors or fictions that seem to emanate from the descriptive energy of the imagination might in fact be profoundly participating, at the same time, in the ‘nature’ of a specific location.
In James’s fiction, we often see a city come intimately to rest deep in the workings of a character’s mental life, something that happens over and again in the crucial urban scenes that structure The Portrait of a Lady. However, in reading The Portrait of a Lady, with all its peripatetic transit through the urban space of London or Rome, we can neither be satisfied with the historical account of what those cities were like as James wrote of them, nor can we discard a city’s material history, render it all Jamesian breath and no stones.1 Instead, we must be sensitive to precisely what Bachelard is calling our attention to: the participation between imagination and city, the interplay between abstract space and space transformed by an experience of it.
James famously observed that while relationships between things in the world are without end, the novel must fight, in its form, to make those [End Page 161] relationships appear contained. In the preface to Roderick Hudson, he writes: “really, universally, relations stop nowhere and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so” (Art of the Novel 5). A ‘geometry’ of one’s own is a curious idea, but it is a claim that dovetails nicely with Bachelard’s phenomenological discussion of space. James’s suggestion that the novel organizes its own ‘geometry’ is felicitous in directing us to look at how the mental lives of his characters intersect with the city spaces in which those novels take place.
Of course, if a city novel’s task is to create a geometry of its own, it must create that space out of an urban geometry that is itself, as David Harvey says, “space in motion”: the “real historical geography of a living city” (105) is always changing beneath one’s feet. To this end, examining the supple, intimate world of James’s characters thinking also necessitates attention to the charged interaction of those minds with changing urban space.
Three urban spaces crucial to The Portrait of a Lady—Venice, London, and Rome—will show us in microcosm the urban imagination of Henry James, the intimate connection between real and unreal, the material reality of the city, and its impact on the constitution of James’s fiction. The qualities of metropolitan spaces are transfigured, in both The Portrait of a Lady and James’s later preface to the novel, within the intimate space of the self. Attention to these moments demonstrates that James himself can be reconfigured—with the aid of urban and spatial theorists—as a writer immersed not just in the processes of the mind, but also attuned to the processes whereby the city is internalized in the mind. To see Henry James write of his own disconsolation and fascination in Venice in Portrait’s preface; to examine Isabel’s feeling of liberty and danger on London’s streets, her attempt at flânerie and her gendered exclusion from it; and then to see Isabel’s immense consolation, in her grief, amid the ruins of Rome—all of...