I always found Henry James difficult. I was certain that I should like his books but somehow I started Portrait of a Lady at least three times before I finally got involved after ploughing through several what seemed to me confusing chapters. At this point I was hooked, I began to care about the heroines happiness. There are scenes in Italy that remain in my memory, an attachment therefore formed for me with the writer himself but it was not until I read Colm Toibin’ s book The Master that I began to really understand why.
The way he had been brought up had left him uncertain, Toibin explains. Their fathers rootlessness, by constantly moving, his restlessness. ‘The finding of a haven only to be uprooted, an unfortunate lodging. Not knowing how long it would take him to announce they would soon have to depart.’
This so mirrors my own childhood, my own father that I began to see the writer in a different light. The way this affected his brother and sister differently, the way it affected him.
In later life he chose Rye to settle, the place of his fondest childhood memories of being with his father. In The Master Toibin writes that it took him a while to understand the cause of his unease when he found the house he wanted to be his home after wandering uneasily throughout his life. He realized he had travelled without hesitation to meet the place of his death, although he would also live there and he dreamed of having continuity and certainty in his days. The house in Rye is where he returned to in the end and lived until his death.
So I go back now myself to read him, aware the similarities of this could well continue to parallel my own as my own longings are mirrored in those he felt and memories of my own father draw me similarly back to the remembered places I walked with him in childhood.
The further irony of this is that I found the ending to The Portrait of a Lady devastating. I myself have always longed for happy endings, never doubting for one moment, that is until now.