Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Comment: Portrait of a Lady Far from the Madding Crowd

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Comment: Portrait of a Lady Far from the Madding Crowd

Article excerpt

The apparently irrelevant is often illuminative. You must never be afraid of remote connection.

-Joseph Conrad to Helen Sanderson

NIGHTTIME MOVIES ON PLANES INDUCE DROWSINESS and slumber, no matter how full of sound and fury. They are not meant to excite thought or stir intellectual considerations; with the buzz of the engines, they lull you to sleep. No mental exertion is expected or foreseeable. On rare occasions, however, it does happen. As I was recendy half-watching the latest film rendition of Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd (2015, directed by Thomas Vinterberg), I started thinking of Jane Campion's film version (trans-codification, experts now call it) of Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady (1996) and was startled by a series of unexpected similarities.

Admittedly, no two novels could be more different; their admirers form two distinct, diverging, and warring coteries on almost any point of the art of fiction. James was almost savage in his youthful review of Hardy's novel in The Nation, December 24, 1874 (Christmas Eve!). He thought it an imitation of George Eliot-a George Eliot of the alehouse and kitchen, of the fireside conversation of rustics, endowed by a "cleverness which is only cleverness" and by a "fatal lack of magic," hard to read, with a "large amount of. . . descriptive padding," "diffuse . . . and singularly inartistic," with "little sense of proportion, and almost none of composition"; a simple tale pulled and stretched for three volumes, far too long, while no novel should be more than two hundred pages. (This is obviouslyjames in his youth: we know to what lengths his own novels would run.)

Nature descriptions were all right, but James had little patience or relish for them, being primarily an urban novelist-just as Baudelaire was primarily an urban poet. Hardy's protagonist, Bathsheba, seemed to him a flirt, "of the inconsequential, wilful, mettlesome type," indeed the type of a young lady's "womanishness," "alternatively vague and coarse, and . . . always artificial"; her lifetime protector and devoted suitor, Gabriel, a bit dumb in his passion, was far too good for her. James's conclusion was devastating: "Everything human in the book strikes us as factitious and insubstantial; the only things we believe in are the sheep and the dogs. But, as we say, Hardy has gone astray very cleverly, and his superficial novel is a really curious imitation of something better." A brilliant conceit, which leaves no room for second thoughts; and James's judgment of Hardy's subsequent novels would not change much with time.

How can one then dream of finding, let alone establishing, connections between Bathsheba, a "rural heiress," as James called her, and "the heiress of all the ages," his lovely Isabel Archer, the flower of womanhood or rather ladyship, certainly not of "womanishness," and between the two sets of characters revolving around them? Out of the question-night thoughts during a troubled flight. If Bathsheba was as James wrote, what can she have to do with Isabel as we know her? And Gabriel-Bathsheba's first suitor and eventually, after endless complications of plot, her second husband, so devoid of passion, "static," in Hardy's own definition-how can he compare with any of Isabel's choice suitors? Out of the question, again.

And yet, why did I have such a strong sense of possible similarities? Owing perhaps to the nature of the film medium, so different from that of the novel, a medium that must strip characters of their psychological background and depth, or make them perceivable mainly through outside behavior and action? Movies primarily make actions visible, must make people and things stand out, in their outer impulses and exterior essence, with little of the tortuous meanderings of psychological investigation. How to represent on the screen, for instance, the soul searching of Isabel's vigil in chapter 42 of The Portrait of a Lady? By monologues and soliloquies, mute musings, as one used to do with Shakespeare's characters? …

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