In any case, the book, which in turn is about The Portrait of a Lady, is not really the point. The point here is that Henry James created the character of Isabel Archer (she is the protagonist of The Portrait of a Lady, though the word “protagonist” sounds silly in this context – better to say that it is her book and leave it at that). James created her and then he asked himself, when starting to write her book, “Well, what will she do?”
That is the question, and the sensation of reading the book is indeed that Isabel is doing all the things she does. There is never a sense of the author moving her around, even when she does things that seem to make no sense.
In James’ introduction to the 1906 version of the novel he talked about the secondary characters:
I seem to myself to have waked up one morning in possession of them—of Ralph Touchett and his parents, of Madame Merle, of Gilbert Osmond and his daughter and his sister, of Lord Warburton, Caspar Goodwood and Miss Stackpole, the definite array of contributions to Isabel Archer’s history. I recognised them, I knew them, they were the numbered pieces of my puzzle, the concrete terms of my “plot.” It was as if they had simply, by an impulse of their own, floated into my ken, and all in response to my primary question: “Well, what will she do?” Their answer seemed to be that if I would trust them they would show me; on which, with an urgent appeal to them to make it at least as interesting as they could, I trusted them.
This was somewhat how I approached Stevie One. This was somewhat of a new experience for me, since I’ve never written a story which was centered around a brand new character.
With Jan Sleet I never sit around wondering what she’ll do. After forty years, I know her pretty well. Not that she can’t surprise me – it still surprises me that she has a husband and a daughter, for example. But I usually have the feeling that I know where she’s going, even if I sometimes turn out to be wrong.
With Stevie, though, I had no idea what she would do. I gave her a nudge out the door of her parents’ house, and then she ran the show from that point on (with an urgent appeal to her to make it at least as interesting as she could – which I think she did). There is a major subplot in the book that I wanted to include, but I had no idea when I started whether those characters would even make it into the story.
So, here’s a question. Do you ever wonder what your characters will do? Or do you think you know (even if sometimes you’re wrong)?
[Later: The NYRB review is now available on their webesite: “Why Did Isabel Go Back?“]