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Number 13
August 1, 2009

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A Streak of Roman Sunlight Reveals the Real Inspiration
for The Portrait of a Lady

Boston University Academy

Abstract: Less than a decade after Henry James reviewed George Eliot's Middlemarch, finding Dorothea "too superb a heroine to be wasted," he rewrote the plot with an altered ending -- but the same characters, and identical imagery in two pivotal scenes -- to reshape it into The Portrait of a Lady. Juxtaposing these two related works better reveals the issues at stake in the heroines' characters and in the human emotions involved.

When is revising a literary classic considered artistic license, and when might it bleed into intellectual theft? The inspiration for Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady has long focused on his cousin Minny Temple and his debt to George Eliot, but for reasons that looked more often to Daniel Deronda (Endnote 1). Several scholars, such as George Levine, Richard Poirier and Q. D. Leavis, have noted connections between The Portrait of a Lady and Middlemarch, but primarily in terms of a couple of characters and a couple of scenes set in Rome. In fact, James rewrote Eliot's Middlemarch almost in its entirety in plot and characters, paralleling two crucial scenes, with an eye to curing its singular (in his estimation) defect.

James himself offers some specific clues as to the source of his early masterpiece: "'To produce some little exemplary works of art is my narrow and lowly dream,' he tells Miss Norton. 'They are to have less "brain" than Middlemarch; but (I boldly proclaim it) they are to have more form' " (Conquest 128-129). More telling, James reviewed Middlemarch in the March 1873 issue of the Galaxy, and had this to say about it:

With its abundant and massive ingredients "Middlemarch" ought somehow to have depicted a weightier drama. Dorothea was altogether too superb a heroine to be wasted; yet she plays a narrower part than the imagination of the reader demands. She is of more consequence than the action of which she is the nominal centre. She marries enthusiastically a man whom she fancies a great thinker, and who turns out to be but an arid pedant. Here, indeed, is a disappointment with much of the dignity of tragedy; but the situation seems to us never to expand to its full capacity. It is analyzed with extraordinary penetration, but one may say of it, as of most of the situations in the book, that it is treated with too much refinement and too little breadth. It revolves too constantly on the same pivot; it abounds in fine shadow, but it lacks, we think, the great dramatic chiaroscuro. (Galaxy 426)

Less than a decade later, James obviously decided to provide the "breadth" and "chiaroscuro," and to "expand to its full capacity" the plot and heroine that Eliot had conceived. Leon Edel has an inkling of the key to James' inspiration, but too quickly sets it aside: "[James like Turgenev] began with his personages: it would be a vision of an American girl confronting her destiny that would lead him to The Portrait of a Lady. But that winter in Paris he still had the feeling that in working in such a fashion he was putting the cart before the horse; plots, not people, were what he should be looking for..." (Conquest 209). Why does Edel believe that the complex James should pick between either "plots" or "people" as his sole motivation? In Middlemarch, James had obviously been deeply inspired by the interplay of both together.

So it was from Middlemarch that James took ideas for both his plot and heroine, later elaborating on his characters from the memory of Minny Temple and others, perhaps even including echoes of Daniel Deronda's heroine Gwendolen Harleth. Though Middlemarch has two overlapping plots -- one focused on Dorothea, the other focused on the doctor Lydgate (whom James found a more fully developed character) -- James took up the challenge of the under-realized potential of Dorothea's storyline that he identified in his Middlemarch review: "An ardent young girl was to have been the central figure, a young girl framed for a larger moral life than circumstance often affords, yearning for a motive for sustained spiritual effort and only wasting her ardor and soiling her wings against the meanness of opportunity" (Galaxy 425).

Quite simply, James adopted Eliot's plot of an idealistic girl who ignores two more suitable and romantic men, in order to marry -- on a theory of service -- an older, third, and much more idiosyncratic man less socially acceptable to her circle of friends and family, only later to discover her choice to be a disaster. Like Eliot, James shaped the initial two men to be first a wealthy and influential landowner, burdened by tradition (Sir James Chettam in Middlemarch; Lord Warburton in Portrait) and second an outspoken man of his time, willing to ignore social conventions (radical Ladislaw in Middlemarch; industrialist Goodwood in Portrait). But each heroine prefers the third suitor, an older, more scholarly and aloof aesthete (Casaubon in Middlemarch; Osmond in Portrait), to her ultimate dismay. As James had earlier stated in his Middlemarch review, "[Dorothea] marries enthusiastically a man whom she fancies a great thinker, and who turns out to be but an arid pedant..." (Galaxy 426); just so does he have Isabel wed.

After James has his heroine ignore two suitors for a third, all three of whom closely resemble their counterparts in Eliot's novel, he departs from Middlemarch: Where Eliot releases her heroine from a bad choice, James decides that the better plot is to keep his heroine trapped in the disastrous marriage, in order to see what she can make of it. Thus, Dorothea is widowed halfway through Middlemarch, and can finally return the love of Will Ladislaw. In his review, James deplores that, for in the second half of Eliot's story, "our interest in Dorothea is restricted to the question, will she or will not marry (sic) Will Ladislaw? The question is relatively trivial and the implied struggle slightly factitious....The impression once given that he is a dilettante is never properly removed, and there is slender poetic justice in Dorothea's marrying a dilettante" (Galaxy 426). Isabel, on the other hand, wrestles mightily through the second half of her story with her bad choice, and in the end flees from Goodwood's illicit offer of rescue (Goodwood being James' proxy for Ladislaw) in order to return to her cruel husband Osmond. What she will ultimately make of her marriage, James leaves the reader to decide, but he insists that the real test of character lies in her having to live with her choice.

In this spirit, James alters Eliot's original conception to accomplish his vision of its "full capacity," its "poetic justice." He achieves the "dignity of tragedy" and the requisite "chiaroscuro" by forcing Isabel to grow within her marriage. His "too superb a heroine" would not be "wasted." As Isabel herself admits near the end of the novel, after leaving Rome for England against her husband's express wishes, "Coming away was a complication, but what will going back be? It won't be the scene of a moment; it will be a scene of the rest of my life" (PL II: 398).

Did James consciously realize that he was rewriting and improving on Middlemarch? Perhaps he did not, as no explicit admission of this inspiration seems to have surfaced. While others have noted the parallels especially between Isabel/Dorothea and Osmond/Casaubon, little has been said more than in passing about the wider and deeper connections (Levine 244). But the numerous parallels in plot are too striking to ignore, and when one considers the textual clues, including two pairs of identical scenes, the match is almost perfect.

Both authors set their heroines in Rome for two equally crucial reflective scenes, which are too similar to be coincidental, even if they might still be subliminal on James' part. Q.D. Leavis has analyzed two Roman scenes at length in these two novels, rooting them in Dickens' earlier (1857) use of Rome in Little Dorrit. She feels that Eliot has extended Dickens' use of Rome, poetically deepening the setting with creative integrity to suit Dorothea's distress over her recent marriage, but that James has only diluted and sentimentalized Rome, following Eliot in a "parasitic" manner (Q. D. Leavis 156). Richard Poirier refers to Leavis' criticism of James in passing, with similar assumptions (Poirier 221). Leavis focuses on a much later Roman scene in Portrait, however, while ignoring the Roman scenes that are most alike between the two novels.

Here are two descriptions (a few pages apart) of Dorothea Brooke on her honeymoon in Rome:

They were just in time to see another figure standing against a pedestal near the reclining marble [of Ariadne, then called the Cleopatra, in the Vatican Museum];....She was not looking at the sculpture, probably not thinking of it: her large eyes were fixed dreamily on a streak of sunlight which fell across the floor. But she became conscious of the two strangers [one of whom is Ladislaw, unrecognized], who suddenly paused as if to contemplate the Cleopatra, and, without looking at them, immediately turned away to join a maid-servant and courier who were loitering along the hall at a little distance off. (Eliot 169-170)

She did not really see the streak of sunlight on the floor more than she saw the statues: she was inwardly seeing the light of years to come in her own home and over the English fields and elms and hedge-bordered highroads; and feeling that the way in which they might be filled with joyful devotedness was not so clear to her as it had been. (Eliot 183)

And here is Isabel Archer, also in two scenes set in Rome. In the first, she is gazing at the ground with the same sense of deep personal reflection amid the ancient statues (weighing not, as Dorothea was, a past decision to marry, but rather a future one), being interrupted in similar manner by the unexpected arrival of one of her unsuccessful suitors (it is Warburton's shadow that disturbs Isabel, just as Ladislaw's pausing nearby interrupted Dorothea), and a few pages later, in the second scene, seeing that same remarkable slant of Roman sunlight that so figured in both of Dorothea's scenes:

Keen as was her interest in the rugged relics of the Roman past that lay scattered about her [in the Forum] and in which the corrosion of centuries had still left so much of individual life, her thoughts, after resting a while on these things, had wandered, by a concatenation of stages it might require some subtlety to trace, to regions and objects charged with a more active appeal. From the Roman past to Isabel Archer's future was a long stride, but her imagination had taken it in a single flight and now hovered in slow circles over the nearer and richer field. She was so absorbed in her thoughts, as she bent her eyes upon a row of cracked but not dislocated slabs covering the ground at her feet, that she had not heard the sound of approaching footsteps before a shadow was thrown across the line of her vision. She looked up and saw a gentleman -- a gentleman who was not Ralph come back to say that the excavations were a bore. (PL I: 415)

Ralph...was apparently within [the choir of St. Peter's], where Isabel, looking beyond the dense group in front of her, saw the afternoon light, silvered by clouds of incense that seemed to mingle with the splendid chant, slope through the embossed recesses of high windows. (PL I: 425)

James is conveying the same character in a similar Roman setting, with the same sense of introspection about her life despite her ancient surroundings, and with that powerful focus on a distinctive "streak"/"slope" of Roman sunlight. Dorothea ignores the reality of Roman ruins and instead is "inwardly seeing the light of years to come in her own home and over the English fields and elms and hedge-bordered highroads; and feeling that the way in which they might be filled with joyful devotedness was not so clear to her as it had been...." Isabel's "thoughts, after resting a while on these [...rugged relics of the Roman past that lay scattered about her], had wandered, by a concatenation of stages it might require some subtlety to trace, to regions and objects charged with a more active appeal. From the Roman past to Isabel Archer's future was a long stride, but her imagination had taken it in a single flight and now hovered in slow circles over the nearer and richer field." The controlling image for both authors, as their respective heroines sit quietly surrounded by ancient relics in Rome, contemplating their distant futures, is of a rural English landscape as if seen from an aerial view, strikingly lit by the "light of years to come."

So while Leavis finds Eliot's use of the Roman setting more poetically poignant, given Dorothea's growing distress in wedlock, in fact James uses the same construct to accentuate Isabel's mythical misunderstanding of her future, before she takes the fatal step of marrying Osmond. While the emotions are different given the heroines' different stages of education in these contrasting Roman scenes, the parallel use of similar settings and metaphors underscores the similar richness of imagination each brings to her growing self-awareness, and how internal states of mind are influenced by external circumstances.

In an even more powerfully parallel fashion, both authors have their heroines endure an excruciating all-night vigil after their husbands place egregious and demeaning demands upon them: Dorothea to promise to devote the rest of her life to finishing her husband's sterile life's work after his death; and Isabel to persuade her former suitor Warburton to propose marriage to her step-daughter Pansy. The descriptions of the heroines' distress are confusingly similar, as both wives weigh their husbands' flawed characters, and vacillate about whether or not to honor such unreasonable demands.

Here is one heroine: "...her mind was carrying on a conflict in which imagination ranged its forces first on one side and then on the other....For four hours [she] lay in this conflict, till she felt ill and bewildered, unable to resolve.... Helpless as a child which has sobbed and sought too long, she fell into a late morning sleep..." (Eliot 430-432).

And here is the other, a single pivotal scene of deep reflection across 20 pages:

...and for a long time, far into the night and still further, she sat in the still drawing-room, given up to her meditation.... (PL II: 186)

For herself, she lingered in the soundless salon long after the fire had gone out. There was no danger of her feeling the cold; she was in a fever. She heard the small hours strike, and then the great ones, but her vigil took no heed of time. Her mind, assailed by visions, was in a state of extraordinary activity, and her visions might as well come to her there, where she sat up to meet them, as on her pillow, to make a mockery of rest....When the clock struck four she got up; she was going to bed at last, for the lamp had long since gone out and the candles burned down in their sockets. (PL II: 204-205)

But for the obvious difference in length and style, the same decisive anguish is being played out for each woman, the same crisis of faith in her marriage. Eliot concisely tells us the ordeal lasted "for four hours," while instead James elaborates (only specifically echoing that "four hours") at the start and end of the 20 pages that it went "for a long time, far into the night and still further"; "the small hours strike, and then the great ones" until "the clock struck four." Both heroines felt their emotional anguish physically: Dorothea "felt ill and bewildered," and Isabel "was in a fever." While Dorothea's "mind was carrying on a conflict in which imagination ranged its forces first on one side and then on the other," Isabel's "mind, assailed by visions, was in a state of extraordinary activity." But while Dorothea ends her vigil committed to obeying her husband, Isabel in fact emerges from her own vigil to begin a prolonged act of defiance of her husband's wishes, which she reveals in the very next chapter by manipulating Lord Warburton into dropping his suit of Pansy(PL II: 218-221).

Thus, in plot, secondary characters, metaphors and even pivotal scenes, The Portrait of a Lady closely aligns with Middlemarch. But how does this lineage illuminate the two heroines' character development, when they are contrasted to each other? Dorothea remains consistently idealistic and altruistic, whether married to Casaubon or later falling in love with Ladislaw, and never seems to shed her naiveté. True, when she helps to reconcile Rosamind and Lydgate, Dorothea shares her own anguish about the tensions of marriage, which helps to diffuse Rosamind's defensiveness, but this can be seen more as an extension of Dorothea's original and powerful empathy, rather than any development, supplement, or alteration of it. She remains unaware of the power her empathy exerts over Rosamond, a sign of her failed growth in self-awareness. As James intimates in his dismissive conclusion that Eliot's heroine is "wasted," Dorothea remains static throughout Middlemarch.

Isabel's character, on the other hand, clearly evolves in her marriage, the signs of which are her increasing ability to counter the traps set by Osmond and Madame Merle. In the end, she is able to foil Osmond's plan to marry Pansy to Lord Warburton, and she is even able to order Madame Merle into exile. This is a mark of maturity, although the qualities acquired tend to be selfish and manipulative. Even if Isabel were considered to have been originally selfish and manipulative, she becomes craftier as she struggles to counter Osmond and Merle -- in becoming more conscious of the power she wields, she fully sheds her naiveté. Her success reveals a level of sophistication that she lacked earlier in her life, and that bodes well for her unseen return to Osmond after Ralph's death. The enigmatic ending suggests a dynamic process far beyond the confines of the novel.

So the real inspiration for The Portrait of a Lady was neither Minny Temple nor Daniel Deronda, but Dorothea Brooke and Middlemarch. To paraphrase James, his "little exemplary work of art" certainly has less "brain" and more "form" than Middlemarch...but Middlemarch inspired it nonetheless. Had George Eliot lived long enough to read the passages of The Portrait of a Lady published in 1881, it is likely that she would have seen what James never acknowledged: Would she have felt flattered or alarmed by such a reworking of her "superb" but "wasted" heroine?

And while James scholars have noted in passing some parallels between these two novels, the full extent of Eliot's influence on James, character for character and even scene for scene, has not been appreciated. Most importantly, James' dependence on Dorothea Brooke to fashion Isabel Archer raises a new insight into the contrasts between their characters, as this juxtaposition exposes the static nature of Dorothea's qualities and the dynamic nature of Isabel's. Viewing both works together also highlights the similarity between the central human emotions at stake: the yearning to find a noble purpose; the hubris of ignoring one's family and friends; the mortification of realizing one has made a drastic error of judgment; and the spirit needed to transcend -- and live with -- one's mistakes. Whether in the anguish of a dark all-night vigil or during a reflection of the future from an imaginative flight above the gentle English landscape, framed by a sloping ray of Roman sunlight, these emotions are more clearly seen in the light of Isabel's true lineage.


(Endnote 1) Leon Edel, in his five-volume biography of Henry James, has much to say about the inspiration for The Portrait of a Lady, including the importance of James' cousin Minny Temple and the influence of George Eliot, especially through her novel Daniel Deronda. Edel states without ambiguity the powerful connection between Henry James' cousin Minny Temple, who died young, and Isabel Archer: "[Minny Temple] became, nine years after her death, the heroine of The Portrait of a Lady" (Untried Years 331). Edel elaborates elsewhere: "The allusion to her 'flame-like spirit' suggests that Isabel images Henry's long-dead cousin Minny Temple, for he was to describe her in the same way. He was to confess that he had actually thought of Minny, in creating the eager imagination and the intellectual shortcomings of his heroine" (Conquest 422).

While Edel begins by asserting that Isabel is based on Minny, he also acknowledges that the heroine had other sources of inspiration, such as James' own background, and even one of James' former works: "The Portrait [of a Lady] was envisaged as a kind of feminine version of The American, and James began with the thought that his Isabel Archer would be a female Christopher Newman" (Ibid. 421).

In addition, Edel emphasizes the significant influence George Eliot had on James: "George Eliot became a prime influence during [James'] young manhood,...[After reading] the newly-published Felix Holt he contributed his first signed critical article, 'The Novels of George Eliot,' to the Atlantic....He was to admire Daniel Deronda and Middlemarch even more enthusiastically" (Untried Years 261). Nor does Edel stop there. He asserts that Eliot was a particular Muse for James' concept of The Portrait of a Lady: "[As James] shed his early traces of romanticism, the last strong example of which was The American, George Eliot became an increasingly significant source of inspiration and by the writing of The Portrait of a Lady she had quite surpassed her French confrere [George Sand]" (Ibid. 262). Edel restates his point elsewhere even more definitively: "To [George Eliot's] genius, at its best, [James] paid and continued to pay homage -- and his greatest tribute was to be paid in his writing The Portrait of a Lady, which, in a certain sense, can be called a 'George Eliot novel' written by James in the way he believed she should have written" (Conquest 371). Similarly, F. R. Leavis claims in his introduction to Daniel Deronda that James so admired Eliot, "testifying to his admiration with The Portrait of a Lady..." (xxii).

Edel has a specific Eliot novel in mind: "A great deal has been made of the resemblance of The Portrait of a Lady to Daniel Deronda. As Roderick had been Henry's conception of the novel Hawthorne might have written about Rome, so The Portrait [of a Lady] was Henry's way of making of Isabel Archer the personality he felt George Eliot should have made of Gwendolen Harleth. His description of Gwendolen, in his dialogue on the Eliot novel, can be applied to Isabel" (Conquest 432).

Edel also asserts that Osmond is related to Grandcourt in Daniel Deronda (Conquest 432), and certainly the two have similarly manipulative and cruel means of controlling the heroines once married. The public persona of each is radically different, however, contrasted to the strikingly similar facades of Osmond and Causabon, which triggers the identically naive and ultimately keen motive for Isabel and Dorothea to marry as a way to assist their husbands' life goals. Their altruistic and hopeful motives to marry differ markedly from Gwendolen's more mercenary and reluctant acceptance of the proposal of marriage from Grandcourt, whose circumstances on the surface appear more like Warburton's to Isabel (even including these two suitors' socially grand and burdened names, as well as the fact that Gwendolen's and Isabel's friends and family approve such upper-class matches).

Edel does eventually relate Isabel Archer to Dorothea Brooke, but only in a general remark about the vividness of literary heroines: "[Isabel's] portrait hangs in the great gallery of the world's fiction...The gallery in which Henry placed her was remarkable. On its walls were the paintings of many other women who, like Isabel, had never literally 'lived.' All of them were tissued out of the minds of their authors, mere figments of the literary imagination, creatures of the printed word. And yet they all had taken on a life of their own -- Becky Sharp, or Dorothea Brooke, the Lady of the Camellias or Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary. It was if they had really lived" (Conquest 433).

Edel has the right author, but the wrong novel and heroine. In contrast, F. R. Leavis feels "pretty sure, in fact, that James found in Daniel Deronda the subject and the background of The Tragic Muse" (xxi). Without doubt, there are some similarities between Gwendolen Harleth and Isabel Archer, but the thrust of Gwendolen's tragedy is quite different from Isabel's, and their characters and motives diverge. On the other hand, the development of James' plot and heroine in The Portrait of a Lady is so closely aligned with Dorothea Brooke's drama in Middlemarch that it is curious these Jamesian scholars have missed that Isabel is Dorothea, rewritten and improved.


Edel, Leon. Henry James: The Conquest of London: 1870-1881. Philadelphia and New York: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1962.

Edel, Leon. Henry James: The Untried Years: 1843-1870. Philadelphia and New York: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1953.

Eliot, George. Middlemarch. New York and Boston: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1899.

James, Henry. The Portrait of a Lady. New York Edition, 1908.

[James, Henry. Attributed]. "Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life." Galaxy (March 1873): 424-428.

Leavis, F. R. "Introduction" to George Eliot's Daniel Deronda. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1961.

Leavis, Q. D. Collected Essays Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985. "A Note on Literary Indebtedness: Dickens, George Eliot, Henry James." 151-157 (originally appearing in Hudson Review, VIII, 3: 1955, pp. 423-428)).

Levine, George. "Isabel, Gwendolen, and Dorothea." ELH Vol. 30, No. 3 (Sept. 1963): 244-257.

Poirier, Richard. The Comic Sense of Henry James: A Study of Early Novels. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Thanks to Professors Rosanna Warren of Boston University and Paul Fisher of Wellesley College for constructive criticism and helpful advice on earlier drafts of this article.

James S. Berkman
Boston University Academy
One University Road
Boston, MA 02215

Biography: James S. Berkman holds his B.A. (magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa) from Harvard College, his M.Phil. from Oxford University, and his J.D. (cum laude) from Harvard Law School. He is Head of School at Boston University Academy, the independent high school run by Boston University, whose students cross-register for university courses.