Henry James offers context around his creation of The Portrait of a Lady. He began writing the novel in 1879 in Florence, Italy, and completed it in Venice the following year. It was released in serial form from 1880-1881 in American magazine The Atlantic and the British publication Macmillan’s Magazine.
As an American writing in Europe and publishing his novel simultaneously on both continents, James’s preface sets up the way that the novel will set American New World values against European Old World codes of behavior.
James reflects on how writing in the culturally rich settings of Florence and Venice provided many distractions from his work, slowing down his writing process. However, he is grateful for the vibrant European detail that his settings provided his narrative.
Throughout the preface James builds an argument about the merit of his novel, interrogating its characters and settings. One can read his musings as referring to both the artistic and financial value of his novel. In terms of setting, James acknowledges that his exotic European locations affected his writing in both positive and unfavorable ways.
The central premise of The Portrait is pinned on the “conception of a young woman affronting her destiny,” and James thereby based the novel on “the sense of [this] single character.” James draws parallels between his work and that of Ivan Turgeneiff, a Russian novelist who similarly prioritized character rather than plot. James supposes that if he exposes his central heroine to a number of different situations, the narrative would develop from there.
James explicitly outlines the manner in which The Portrait of a Lady is wholly reliant on Isabel Archer’s unusually independent character. It was rare for authors of the time to focus their work on female experiences. Compared to James’s contemporaries, he was significantly influenced by European writers’ literary styles more than the techniques of his fellow Americans.
James admits confusion at how his strong sense of his protagonist arrived to him without any story attached. He compares her imagined character in “the back-shop of [his] mind” to a vintage object that is buried in an antiques store until a customer recognizes something special in the object and gives it new life.
The analogy comparing Isabel’s strong-willed and well-defined sense of character to a special object further reinforces James’s value of his novel as an artistic and monetary success—in fact, The Portrait was his most financially profitable work and also received critical acclaim. James also objectifies his protagonist through the analogy.
He also details his uncertainty of Isabel Archer’s merit as the protagonist of his novel. James overcomes this issue by reasoning that the narrative will hold value if he can ensure his protagonist’s development is meaningful for other characters as well as her own. He also reasons that focusing the novel on her experiences and thoughts will be a unique element distinguishing his story from others with similar heroines. However, this will also be a great challenge, with James needing to build the narrative’s structure and wider cast solely around Isabel.
James defends Isabel Archer’s value as his novel’s protagonist by commenting on his unique focus on female consciousness and Isabel’s significant influence over other key characters’ narratives. James thereby adds ethical validation to his previous arguments regarding her artistic and financial values.
Overall, when James considers his completed novel for revisions in 1901, he is largely satisfied with it. However, he does acknowledge that critics’ levies that he mistreated the character of Henrietta Stackpole hold some weight; he perhaps exaggerated her personality, but his reasoning was to strongly contrast Stackpole’s vigorous resolution with the introspective Isabel. Stackpole is a character whose purpose is to move the plot forward, while Isabel’s many reflections on her situation are the body of the novel’s thematic drive.
James makes few major changes during his edits, as he is likely thrilled at his novel’s critical and financial success; The Portrait remains one of his most lucrative works. He addresses one of his novel’s shortcomings in acknowledging Henrietta Stackpole’s excessive character traits. In the story readers will come to see that James has painted Stackpole with total self-confidence to wholly associate her with American New World values of candor and enterprise.