Tea Time with the Master

Wenham Tea House, March 2014

Wenham Tea House, March 2014 (iPhone 5s, edited in PicMonkey)

“Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” With this qualified statement, Henry James welcomes us to The Portrait of a Lady, an arena in which Old World and New World meet. His first sentence is masterful: to borrow a line from Jerry Maguire, Mr. James had me at “afternoon tea”  (and “agreeable” didn’t hurt). Mr. James lays the groundwork for his plot as he describes the three men sipping tea on the lawn of an English country house — tea drinkers “not of the sex which is supposed to furnish the regular votaries of the occasion,” as Mr. James notes wryly.

Isabel Archer, the lady of the title, does not make an entrance until the second chapter, but the young American is enamored of the Tudor house and its trappings from the moment that she walks onto the lawn: “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful as this.” Mr. James’ naively independent heroine does not find European society as agreeable by the end of the book, but that is a spoiler. At this point, the reader is mentally settling into a cushioned wicker chair and — if the reader is an Anglophile — reveling in a scene that includes not only tea but an eligible English aristocrat. By the time we realize that Isabel, like many nineteenth-century heroines, is a victim of her own illusions, Mr. James has caught us in his novel.

Although I glanced at Leon Edel’s introduction and Mr. James’ lengthy preface recently, I haven’t read The Portrait of a Lady in decades. Mr. James began writing the novel in Venice, where the beautiful view from his rooms was so distracting that he complained about it in the preface. It might be interesting to read his carefully crafted novel now as I would read any book, not because I was assigned to read it (which is how I experienced it). Would I read on to the end, or would I put down the book in exasperation as Isabel refuses one good man after another? I tend to finish books, unless I cannot sympathize with any of the characters, and Isabel, caught between her desire for culture and her wish to remain independent, still compels our sympathy, despite her failings.

I re-read enough of the first chapter to renew my appreciation of Mr. James’ abilities as a writer. His novel first appeared in serial form in two magazines, and he had not completed the novel before the first installments were published in 1880. The opening chapters have the crucial job of getting the reader interested enough to buy future magazines. Clearly, Mr. James is skilled in the art of drawing in a certain kind of reader — a reader who, like Isabel herself, is enchanted with the ceremony of afternoon tea.


writers-quote-wednesday (2)

My choice of this famous first line for Writer’s Quote Wednesday was inspired by Lucile’s photograph of a glass teapot. I took my photograph of a glass teapot in March, when I had tea with family members at the Wenham Tea House in Wenham, Massachusetts. To his credit, my brother, who is not much of a tea drinker, suggested that we eat there because he thought his sisters would enjoy it. (He was right. Our one sadness was that another sister and my mother were not there to share the experience.)

As always, thanks to Colleen of Silver Threading for hosting this event. To read other submissions, click here and look for the pingbacks at the end of Colleen’s post. Leon Edel’s introduction appears in Riverside Editions’ The Portrait of a Lady (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963). Text of the post and photo copyrighted © 2014 by Sandra Fleming.

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16 thoughts on “Tea Time with the Master

  1. I used to imagine that I could write a book if I did it the way James did this his. The Portrait of a Lady was first published as a serial in The Atlantic Monthly and Macmillan’s Magazine in 1880–81 and then as a book in 1881–probably late that year. True, he wrote what we know as a long novel but he did it in increments–small bites. James was a deep thinker and his deeper thoughts are well reflected in his works. I used to dream I would do that one day, but my days are running out now. I have made choices, which I can’t say I am sorry for, in the “road less travelled.”

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    • I think I could write a book if I got to live in Venice for a few months 🙂 Just kidding, but writing was his profession — not a hobby, as it is for me. If writing were your job, Beth, I’m sure you could do it!

      I’m not sure that he wrote P of a Lady in small bites: a lot of it was completed before the serial was published — just not the whole book.

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        • Our conversation makes me want to learn more about him, Beth: as I get older, I find I am more interested in the lives of authors and composers. Of course, sometimes what you find out is sad or depressing: greatness doesn’t always go hand-in-hand with happiness.

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        • Hemingway was a good author, but a very unhappy human being. Other biographies I have read reveal deep seated mental problems in such authors as Stephen Crain, Jack London, Kurt Vonnegut, Sylvia Plath and Edgar A. Poe. Poe’s life was the main point my daddy made to my mother when he refused to allow her to continue her writing. See my article about that here: http://pilgrimstranger.com/2014/07/31/lifes-harsh-lessons/

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  2. Pingback: Writer’s Quote Wednesday Weekly Wrap-up for 12/10/14 | Silver Threading

  3. Really nice tie in with the tea image and the book. The photo looks great, professional looking. I have a bit of a conflict with English aristocracy. I like all the dreamy settings like in some films by Merchant Ivory and the like, and Downton Abbey but then hate all the snobbery, rigidity and class prejudice. I think that is one reason I like Jane Austen and Dickens is that they can poke fun at hold a mirror up to the bad stuff.

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    • Thanks, Deborah! I’m starting to like adding text to the photos almost as much as taking the photos.

      I agree (at the risk of offending any British readers): in the book, poor Isabel gets taken advantage of because she inherits money, although the English lord isn’t the bad guy here. She doesn’t want to marry the aristocrat because she’s worried about losing her freedom, but . . . . Well, I’m giving away too much; wikipedia has a good plot summary. A movie was made of this book with Nicole Kidman in the last 90s, but I found it very confusing.

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      • Well every culture has its faults. You remind me of another practice which was marrying rich American heiresses to keep the old English estates afloat. That might be ok if the lord respects his wife. But what irks me is that some of them would still turn their nose up at an American. Just a tad hypocritical wouldn’t you say. Sounds like this may have been what Isabel was up against but I haven’t read the book.

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      • Are you free to share the directions or a link to the software for adding text to photos? I found out that Windows has a tutorial for making a logo and that has been a good discovery. I hope to find time to do a logo or two soon.

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        • This is a crazy week for me, Beth (my daughter is the Sugar Plum fairy in The Nutcracker, and we have a lot of family coming into town). PicMonkey is the free online site I’ve been using. You click on the T in the menu (I think — I probably won’t do a writer’s quote this week b/c I am so busy and shouldn’t be online right now 🙂 ), choose a font, put the box where you want it in the photo, and then adjust size.

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