Henry James was foul about Far from the Madding Crowd when it appeared in 1874. He was a young writer, ambitious, seething, silkily aggressive. There was ground to be cleared, and residents had to be deported. Thomas Hardy, with his knobbly rusticities and merry peasants, would not do. In the Nation, James complained that the novel had a ‘fatal lack of magic’, and was written in a ‘verbose and redundant style … Everything human in the book strikes us as factious and insubstantial; the only things we believe in are the sheep and the dogs.’ James got almost everything wrong about the novel (how could he have missed, say, the ‘scarlet handful of fire’ in the grate of Gabriel Oak’s hut?) but one thing perhaps lingered. Far from the Madding Crowd tells the story of a beautiful woman, Bathsheba Everdene, who is pursued by three suitors: the dashing and unreliable Sergeant Troy; the solid yeoman, Gabriel Oak; and the relentless, even fanatical gentleman farmer, Mr Boldwood. Six years later, James would begin work onThe Portrait of a Lady. The repressed similarity of plot is immediately striking. A beautiful young woman, Isabel Archer, is pursued by three suitors: the dashing, reliable Lord Warburton; the dashing, demonic Gilbert Osmond; and a relentless, even fanatical American industrialist who is called not Boldwood, but Caspar Goodwood.
James accused Hardy of having ‘little sense of proportion and almost none of composition’, but it can be hard, at first, to divine much sense of form in The Portrait of a Lady. The novel opens with provoking languor, and an air of leisured surplus. It is an English summer afternoon (James once said that ‘summer afternoon’ were the two most beautiful words in the language). Three men are taking tea on the lawn at Gardencourt, a country house overlooking the Thames, about forty miles from London. Daniel Touchett, the old American banker who owns the house, is nearing the end of his life – ‘taking the rest that precedes the great rest’.
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