N.L. Blandford: On Writing

Writing a story, of any length, can be scary. It can be particularly scary when the subject matter may be considered “dark” or “sensitive.” Questions arise: “Will people appreciate what I am trying to say?” and “Will I accurately portray the real world through my fictional characters?” and, of course, the one all authors ask themselves: “Will people like it?”

I had all of these questions, and more running through my mind as I wrote The Perilous Road to Her. The story is set within the world of human trafficking and follows Olivia in her search for her missing sister, as she becomes a victim herself. 

I cannot recall exactly how human trafficking came into play, however, I knew that was the world in which the story would take place. Honestly, I was scared to write it. However, I was passionate about the story and hoped my fictional story would bring awareness to a prevalent issue. Human trafficking doesn’t just occur “somewhere else.” It occurs in all of our backyards, and I hope the more we read and hear about it, the more likely we are to recognize and help prevent it. 

N.L. Blandford‘s debut novel: The Perilous Road To Her

From the outset, I knew that I did not want to glamourize or hide what happens to people—in this case women—who are trafficked. 

Real World Portrayal and Sensitivity

As much as I wanted my fictional account to stay true to the real world of human trafficking, I did stray from how people usually become victims. During my research phase, I learned that the number one human trafficking myth is that people are kidnapped and forced into prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation. I acknowledge that myth in my book, however to keep the story moving at a rapid pace, and to get characters from Point A to Point B, I used that myth as a transportation vehicle. To balance that, I tried hard to give all of the women Olivia meets in Los Angeles a backstory which represents actual victim experiences I had read or heard.  

I also worked hard to make some of the “bad guys” be represented as humans with their own problems. Characters you love to hate and hate to love. I have not met or read the stories of traffickers, thus, these characters are my own creation. However, criminals are humans and I can only imagine what could be going through their heads. 

Setting my story in a devastating world meant that dreadful experiences would occur. I wanted to ensure I was sensitive when I articulated the violence that the characters experienced. For me, removing that aspect of the seedy underbelly of human trafficking would not do the subject matter justice. On the flip side, I also had the question in my mind about how the story would be received by actual victims or those who worked closely with them. A story like this had the potential to be a trigger and affect people’s mental health. As such, I advised readers about the nature of the story in a Letter From The Author at the start of the book. Additionally, I included Human Trafficking Resources at the back to support readers if they found that they wanted to learn more or needed help.

The good news is that I have received amazing feedback on my ability to portray a gruesome world with sensitivity. In particular, someone who works with victims of sexual exploitation said, “I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to read it, as a significant part of my job has been…to develop programs for children who are being sexually exploited. Your book was real for me for sure. It was a great read. I will be recommending it to my colleagues.”

Dark Subject Matter 

Human trafficking is only starting to become a talked about social issue, and, often, when I describe my book, a common reaction has been: “Wow, that’s dark!” It could be considered that; It is not a light-hearted read, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

When I was talking to W. Alexander about guest blogging, I loved that he defined ‘dark’ as ‘truth’. It is very relatable. People can shy away from topics because they are hard, and it can be easier to call them dark, rather than truth, or an aspect thereof. I believe that it is in the dark that we can really start to understand the true nature of our world and its people. 

The story is not for everyone and I respect that. There are books out there that aren’t for me. In the end, I wanted to create a great story that people couldn’t put down, while bringing awareness to a social issue, and maybe giving a voice to those who may not be ready to speak their truth yet. 

Based on the feedback I have received, I believe I have done just that. Which means: bucket list item number one for writing is complete! 

What’s Next for N.L. Blandford?

The Perilous Road To Her was released on May 4, 2021, and with that I am in full swing to get the word out. If you, or anyone you know, is interested in a riveting story that can’t be put down please check it out on Amazon! Part of a book club? Contact me via my website if you are interested in a virtual Q&A, after the group has finished reading the book.

Future writing projects for me will continue to be fictional accounts of real issues. I have many ideas that include Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), prejudice/judgement and the equity of persons. 

As I continue to write, whether it be in Olivia’s world or not, I want to create compelling stories that pull readers in. I hope by doing so those same readers, whether they realize it or not, learn about a topic they may not necessarily explore outside a fictional world. 

—N.L. Blandford

If you would like to learn more about me and my writing you can find me at www.nlblandford.com; on Twitter/Instagram @nlblandford; on Facebook at N.L. Blandford and LinkedIn at nlblandford

Bio

N.L. Blandford’s poetry was first published when she was thirteen, and, recently, her drabble titled “Love of a Lifetime” won the Arlene Duane Hemingway Unconditional Love Drabble Challenge. She loves to travel and has enjoyed exploring Canada, however her favourite spot is a tie between Hawaii and Jersey, Channel Islands. N.L. Blandford resides in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where she has built a life of dream exploration with her husband, mild mannered dog, Watson, and stubborn but lovable cat, Sebastian. 

I am Published!

I am published, well soon-to-be anyway. My poem Escape Second Death, will be added to PoetsChoice’s new anthology book It’s Not Easy. I admit, I did not consider that my first published work would be poetry—I am a prose guy. However, I am excited, thrilled, and intoxicated from seeing that Accepted on my Submittable; I feel validated. Details are still coming.

Writing everyday is the dream. Writing is my pulse. I am excited to finally be able to answer the dreaded question, “Are you actually published?” with a, “Yes!” I pray this poem is the first among many, of my works, to find itself in front of readers. I am blessed and humbled, and, perhaps, way too excited over a minor publication, but, to me, it is the first points-on-the-board; I shot a three from deep.

I am not sure what I can post about the poem, so, I won’t be providing a copy of it here, until I know more about what I can do. Of course, once it goes into print, I will shout-out to everyone.

Life:

My wife and I have been buried in renovations—we don’t know why we decided to do so much at once—and the last two weeks has been filled with family and other strains on my time—volunteering, Church, favors and commitments, etcetera. My writing has really dropped off. Hoping for the routine to spark again soon.

Some Updates:

Next week, I will be in Acadia for the week. N.L., Blandford will be taking over my blog. She is a great author, with a debut release, and will share her insight and wisdom with you in the upcoming post.

Masters of The Craft: Stephen Crane, The Herald of Naturalism

Stephen Crane, The Herald of Naturalism

Stephen Crane

            Few writers achieve the distinction of master, herald, or avant garde of entire genres, but Stephen Crane, the crown jewel of naturalism, rests in the pantheon of literary history among the  immortal few, near divine, writers whose works will outlast time itself.  Crane wrote with, at the time, a unique, not seen before, style and voice, and he compounded his mastery over language with exceptional attention to detail; thus, allowing him to microscope the human condition—the plight of living and dying according to one’s circumstances.

            Stephen Crane’s, 1871-1900, career was replete with flare, ingenuity, and influence but, unfortunately, brief; He died at only twenty-eight. A few of his notable works are Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893)his debut, considered the first complete work of naturalism, novel, The Red Badge of Courage (1895), War is King (1899), and, of course, the infamous short story The Open Boat (1898). Crane can be considered, without stretch, to be the American version of Victor Hugo. Crane, a student of European naturalists, was committed to write the truth, “He was convinced that if a story is transcribed in its actuality, as it appeared to occur in life, it will convey its own emotional weight without sentimental heightening, moralizing, or even interpretive comment” (Perkins, Perkins 815). This idea of creating characters and putting them in the path of realistic circumstances and observing how they worked themselves through their plights, without conveying an author’s opinion, was, at the time, revolutionary.

            There is more, here, than Crane’s infatuation with writing the truth—naturalism; One, artists can only write well what they know; and two, life, truly experienced, is not filled with moral themes and positive character arcs; sometimes, as in life, characters have negative arcs and, without much choice, compromise their ethical positions. People are a product of their circumstances; they are, in a sense, unable to control the evolution of mankind’s predicament. The world, no matter how much one may wish it untrue, is chaotic, dark, selfish, and competitive; a life-lesson everyone learns, some too young, but all will eventually. Consider this, “he was initially in agreement with the naturalistic belief that the destiny of human beings, like the biological fate of other creatures [referring to natural selection], is so much determined by factors beyond the control of individual will or choice that ethical judgement or moral comment by the author is irrelevant or impertinent” (Perkins, Perkins 815). This truth is the defining characteristic of naturalistic literature.

            Crane knew struggle; he knew, all too well, the cards life hands out, and how unromantic existence is for most people. His life began in Newark, New Jersey, and he was the youngest of fourteen children to a Methodist Minister. His father died when he was still a young boy. Crane wrestled early the pain which life, for no rational reason, dealt him. His troubled upbringing did not bring him intimate with faith, in fact it did the opposite. Crane once joked his family were, “the old ambling-nag, saddle-bag, exhorting kind [of ministers]” (Crain par. III). Without his father, the family struggled financially, “as a teenager Crane worked for an older brother’s news agency and later left college to work as a reporter in New York City” (Gioia, Gwynn 195). One grows up early when one grows up poor. One can, easily, even to some degree confidently, assume within this context and his exposure to the calamity of other’s struggle—through being a newspaper reporter—Crane did not find life rosy. There is nothing romantic in suffering. Perhaps, it was these circumstances that Crane decided for himself, as an artist, as a writer, as a storyteller, that he would rip off the band aid and write the truth—naturalism.

            He proved himself the master, the herald, the avant garde of a new style of craft, and the apex naturalist author. There are laws one must follow in every art, and fiction is no different. These laws, rules, are what, when followed, breathes life into an author’s prose. However, in Crane’s case, like all other geniuses from all other mediums of art and academics and sciences etcetera, he was a pioneer, “he [Crane] pioneered free verse and plainspoken idiom—techniques that seemed radically innovative at the end of the nineteenth century…” (Gioa, Gwynn 195). As a consequence, the next generation, the masters of existentialism in particular, would turn his style into common practice. The most famous of all the writers he inspired was the legend Ernest Hemingway—considered, the inventor of modern fiction and its discipline of tight and active prose. In laymen terms, Crane wasted no time inserting his own thoughts; he simply revealed, through his craft, the plight of the human condition, without opinion and without judgement. His only footprint in his work is his belief in determinism.

            The Red Badge of Courage is considered the pinnacle of his achievement. It is a panoramic view on the psychological struggle one finds themselves wrestling in war. There is no doubt, and no contesting, that this novel is a great work of literature. However, it is the opinion of this author [me] that The Open Boat is his masterpiece. The Open Boat (1898)is short fiction, otherwise, and perhaps more popularly, known as a short story. Unlike The Red Badge of Courage, Crane wrote from firsthand experience.

Book Review: The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

“Throughout these pages, the reader finds the brushwork of the master, and like all great artists, James can not only paint a story by the prowess of his craft, but, simultaneously, he hangs a mirror of enigmas and human complexity. Every reader can relate to the figurative handcuff’s persons’ finds themselves confined to.” —W. Alexander

            On New Year’s Eve, 1896, Stephen Crane, aboard the Commodore experienced a shipwreck, “Working as an ordinary seaman, Crane helped bail the flooding water [the ship had sprung a leak] until the order came to abandon ship. Crane and other survivors spent thirty hours on the open sea before reaching land” (Gioa, Gwynn 213). Crane wrote a newspaper account himself on the wreck, “Now the whistle of the Commodore had been turned loose, and if there ever was a voice of despair and death, it was in the voice of this whistle…it was as if its [the ship] throat was already choked by the water, and this cry on the sea at night, with a wind blowing the spray over the ship, and the waves roaring over the bow, and swirling white along the decks, was to each of us probably a song of man’s end” (Crane par. I). Even in his own factual account, Crane’s style fills his readers with despair; every verb he uses themes chaos and fear—choked, cry, blowing, roaring, and swirling.

            The Open Boat may have easily been a best-selling nonfictional account which would have dazzled readers across the globe, but Crane had a different idea: he wanted to tell the truth, the whole truth. Such truth can only be told in fiction. One excerpt from his short story, which reminds readers there is more than men riding together in a dingy hoping for rescue, there is a bond formed, “It would be difficult to describe the subtle brotherhood of men that was here established on the seas. No one said it was so. No one mentioned it. But it dwelt in the boat, and each man felt it warm him” (Crane 10). Anyone that has ever been in the unfortunate position of complete despair, a battlefield, a stranded boat, or lost in the forest will swear this is true: a bond is fused, which will last a lifetime, between them and those that shared in the experience. The fears experienced in life tattoos the heart far easier than the joys.

            So, Crane told his truth; he shared the plight of surviving on the high seas; he wrote with vivid imagery, to provide his readers with the exactness of the experience—only fiction can do this well, “Crane’s characteristic use of vivid imagery is demonstrated throughout this story to underscore both the beauty and terror of natural forces” (Poetry Foundation par. VII). His syntax, his weaving of prose, highlights more than just the natural truth of-a-thing, he explores ethical questions too.

            Ethical compromises seem to have a place in all his works. Caleb Crain, in The New Yorker captures naturalism in a nutshell, “In narratives of the hopeless and the near-hopeless, of human beings experiencing powerlessness and self-delusion, he [Stephen Crane] managed to record a new kind of consciousness, giving the reader glimpses of the self as an opaque and somewhat mechanistic thing” (Crain par. III). This revealing of a mechanistic approach is no doubt why Stephen Crane is considered the herald of naturalism.

            Crane’s mastery of craft and passion for elaborating on naturalistic themes lays the seed for the later literary movement of existentialism, albeit, in Crane’s day, the world still held the illusion of its institutions and their reliance. The façade of civilization’s reliability was only beginning to crack—new ideas emanated across the globe, and the world then, much like today, seemed to be near boiling over—which it did in WW1. This is why Crane is considered the avant garde of plain-spoken and direct writing—no higher themes, no moralizing, only the truth of the matter. A true idea, a portrait of reality, can and should stand on its own without embellishing it with higher purpose. The story must reflect life’s very real, very raw, realities and her uglies.

            There is little doubt Stephen Crane is one of the most, if not the most, innovative writer of his day. He, like the European naturalists he loved and studied, was obsessed with showing that life is largely deterministic in nature and is indifferent to mankind’s suffering. He looked at life with sober indifference; there was nothing anyone could do, but what they did, in certain circumstances. There are no martyrs of the poor and helpless. People live miserable lives and are treated like miserable wretches by those of privilege. The latter is as true today as it was in his day, and every generation since the first generation of mankind.

            Crane is the crown jewel of naturalism. He was inspired by the plight of the human condition—that one’s choices are according to circumstances; he committed to writing this truth without embellishing it with higher moralism or themes. He simply painted, with words, portraits of the inner machinations of one’s life; he microscoped and copied what he observed, and wrote, for all the world to see, a portrait of the human psyche. He was a heartbeat away from existentialism, which his legacy, no doubt, influenced the style of the modernist and the literary generations to follow. Determinism, a major influence on the naturalistic style, has spread its roots ten-fold in the modern world, and as a result, one can easily surmise that Crane was the avant garde of an entire worldview being manifested in prose. Civilization and art have come full circle: mankind has returned to the mythological psychology of accepting that they cannot escape fate; their actions are products of their place in the world.

            The Open Boat is a work of genius. Here, without research, without study, he wrote a story from which he had personally experienced. He, like all the great masters, turns his sentences on strong verbs, and as he used consistency, plain—spoken language, radical close attention to detail, to capture the truth—the exactness—of what it is like to be stranded at sea. He added no color to his work other than what would realistically be seen. His story is even more impressive when one realizes, despite escaping death, death stalked him, and he died two years later of tuberculosis.

Fiction is the vehicle which truth is revealed, and Crane, perhaps, more than any other author of his generation proved this to be true. His writing style compares to the artistic movement of impressionism—he paints, with words, what is before him and without judgement. All great writers master the craft, but Crane—like Whitman, like Dickinson, like Hemingway, like Hugo, like Pope, like Voltaire, like Homer, like Kafka, like Woolf—had a touch of the divine; that unteachable it factor, and it is among the company of these writers where he lives forever in the pantheon of literary immortality.

Crane’s work can be identified in regard to the ethical compromises one faces in specific, negative, circumstances. One’s pursuit of virtue is largely affected by one’s place in the world, and, similar to the natural world, one’s ecosystem—community—and their position and predicament in life is largely out of their control. His legacy is far more than the herald of naturalism, he was among the first to shine a light on the plight of humanity, without comment or opinion, and show the world the very real mental gymnastics characters, like people in real life, must navigate according to their circumstances.

Works Cited

Crain, Caleb. “The Red and The Scarlet: The Hectic career of Stephen Crane, the chronicler of the undermined self.” The New Yorker, June 30, 2014 Iss., 2014, New York, NY., par. III). Accessed May 2021. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/06/30/the-red-and-the-scarlet

Crane, Stephen. “The Sinking of The Commodore, New York Press, 7 Jan 1897: Author’s Perspective.” The Art of The Short Story: 52 Great Authors, Their Best Short Fiction, and Their Insights on Writing, Pearson Longman Publishing, Boston, MA, 2006, pp. 213-216. Print.

Crane, Stephen. The Open Boat. E-artnow publishing, Apple Books, MacReader, 2013, pp. 10. E-book.

Gioa, Dana & Gwynn, R.S., “Stephen Crane.” The Art of The Short Story: 52 Great Authors, Their Best Short Fiction, and Their Insights on Writing, Pearson Longman Publishing, Boston, MA, 2006, pp. 195. Print.

Gioa, Dana & Gwynn, R.S., “The Open Boat.” The Art of The Short Story: 52 Great Authors, Their Best Short Fiction, and Their Insights on Writing, Pearson Longman Publishing, Boston, MA, 2006, pp. 196-213. Print.

Perkins, Perkins. “Stephen Crane: Author Bio.” The American Tradition in Literature, Volume 2, edition 12, McGraw-Hill, Inc., 2021, pp. 814-815. E-Textbook Liberty University English 341.

Poetry Foundation. “Stephen Crane, 1871-1900.” Poetry Foundation, Poets, par. VII. Accessed May 2021. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/stephen-crane

Beat the Boy; Destroy the Man 

W. Alexander Dunford  I will never forget the television’s blue light that night fifteen years ago. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Blood Diamond played. Outside, beneath black skies, rain pelted our windows and the house’s bones braced against high winds. Thunder shook the walls.  It was Father’s idea to watch the movie. He loved violence, and I loved…

The Day God Died: Chapters 1 &2

“…in that moment my fear retreated. I discovered I hated him and his kind. I hated his affluence, his expensive clothes, his chiseled looks, and the arrogance he was born to. But most of all, I hated the power he held over me, his assumption of authority, and the truth of his superiority.”

Miniver Cheevy, by Edwin Arlington Robinson

This week’s post is short, but not without your consideration. So, I have shared with you a poem that I adore; a poem that I very much identify with, and, I confess, is remarkably as close, as any poem ever has been before, to a portrait of my personality. To read this poem is to know who I am. I only wish I wrote it, lol.

Photo: imgur.com
Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn, Grew lean while he assailed the seasons; He wept that he was ever born, And he had reasons.
Miniver loved the days of old
When swords were bright and steeds were prancing; The vision of a warrior bold Would set him dancing.
Miniver sighed for what was not, And dreamed, and rested from his labors;
He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot, And Priam’s neighbors.
Miniver mourned the ripe renown That made so many a name so fragrant; He mourned Romance, now on the town, And Art, a vagrant.
Miniver loved the Medici, Albeit he had never seen one; He would have sinned incessantly Could he have been one.
Miniver cursed the commonplace And eyed a khaki suit with loathing; He missed the medieval grace Of iron clothing.
Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
But sore annoyed was he without it; Miniver thought, and thought, and thought, And thought about it.
Miniver Cheevy, born too late, Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate, And kept on drinking.
                                                                                                                                                         1910

Side note: Minutes ago, I submitted my last paper for finals. I calculated that I have written, in the past two weeks, fourteen-thousand words. Of course, that is what I kept in revision, and I am not counting anything written outside of academia.

One of my poems:

Crosses & Scribbles: Writing As Christian

My faith defines who I am and how I see and interact with the world. Yet, most people I meet are surprised to learn that I, a Christian, don’t line up with the evangelical right on matters of theology—the stereotypical American believer. I don’t accept, as they do, the Bible as a defacto, clearcut instruction manual without error. I read God’s word like poetry and understand that books like, for example, Genesis are allegory—beautiful, replete with enriching wisdom, but not to be taken literally. So, am I an outlier? No, there are millions like me, who appreciate science, who believe in evolution (God-guided), who believe the nature of how mankind has considered and understood God has changed throughout time, and who delight in His grace and redemption.

However, I am weary of people lumping myself in with the young-earth-creationists and intelligent design theorists types. When I meet new people, especially those I want to make a good impression with, I tend to conceal my faith. I don’t know about you, but I sort of wish I had, jokingly, a business card with a QR code for people to scan, linking them to an online page explaining all the nuances of my personality. Basically, it would say, “look I’m not like those crazy other people and here is why.” I get tired of answering the questions, people are apt to ask, as they explore whether or not I am going to be a problem to them. They are weary of judgement. This is particularly true in the artistic and academic communities—places I hang my hat.

Recently, I joined a writer’s group. Everyone shares what they are writing and offer snips of advice. I was so nervous to attend, and my head was filled with all the worries one can expect when one opens their heart to complete strangers. I wrestled with what I should bring, I thought of reading a current project, or a previous—finished—one; I chose the latter. The problem? It was a Christian piece and, by far, my best writing. If I read this one, these strangers, these artists, might worry if they could be open with their own work around me. People can be rightly skeptical of how judgmental Christians can be. I, of course, am not like those believers. But they didn’t know that.

When the day came, and it was my turn to read the story, I did what I always do: I started with a disclaimer. I sat there, my eyes darting back-and-forth between the others, my bottom lip quivered, and my speech turned to blubber. I managed to say, somewhat cohesively, something like, “You don’t know me, but you will think, after I am finished, that I am reading a Christian story. It is, however, religious themed, but not specifically Christian.” I had practiced that last line on the drive over a dozen times. I did not want to make anyone uncomfortable, and so I stretched the truth to get them to like me. When I was done, my heart bleated in the open, and I counted the microseconds before, I feared, their disapproval would come slashing. However, I was shocked.

They loved my story, they complimented my sentences’ rhythm and its arc, but, more importantly, they loved my story’s theme and idea. I was filled with light, and, then I remembered, I screwed up: I projected my fear onto them. I should not have disclaimed that my work was something different than it was because I feared they would mistake me for some stereotype. To share what one is writing is to share something equivalent to sex. Writing is your intellect naked. I have never been so happy to have worried over nothing.

Perhaps, it is a sign of our times that I would worry that people would not like me if they found out how religious I am. It is easy, for us Episcopalians, to get lumped together with the more vocal, more represented, more controversial and larger evangelical community. Of course, I pass no judgement on them. I have in the past been one myself. We truly believe the same core doctrines, but we have different approaches to reasoning out what Jesus teaches. Sometimes, I refer to myself at school as a Two Great Commandments Christian—see Matthew 22:36-40. I attend a Christian university, and, well, everyone gets my reference. They joke, “ah, you’re a democrat then, lol.” The weight of attaching political ideology to one’s religious perspective is one way, I believe, the American church has gotten it wrong, but that is a discussion for a different time and on a different kind of blog. My point is this: I found this group of artists, painters of words, did not hold any animosity toward the religious, and that I was projecting onto them what I thought they wanted to hear. It turned out a few of them are pretty serious about their faith, too. I should learn to just be myself and let the cards fall where they may—one day, maybe I will be like that, but probably not. The hilarious part of all this is that all of it was in my head; to them, I was just a new guy reading a story. That is it. I think too much.

The next week I shared a darker piece, another, in my opinion, well written piece, but one full of grotesque language, horrific scenes, and themes of rape and abuse. Which brings me to another concern: Have I really, truly, decided if I am a Christian author or not?

I want to say yes. I want to yell from the mountaintops, “I write for God;” I want stand loud and proud. I want to tug the hearts of the faithful, and share God’s truth with the curious. I want to entertain and nourish, teach and entreat my readers. Except, can I be a religious author and tell the truth? As an artist, the most important thing to write is the truth. That truth, for me, is that life isn’t sanitized; in fact, life is often a horror story; if you live long enough, you begin to see this complexity and all its colors—philosophically, the one truth about life is: it is not black and white.

This question, right now, sings by the hour in my head: Can I write as a Christian and not hold back? Am I allowed the freedom to share life as it is—full of sex, lies, triumphs, excuses, noble ambitions, petty revenges, destructions, hypocrisies, coveting, etcetera? If I was to write a Christian novel, I would have to write, like all writers do, a human canvas navigating and experiencing life as it is lived; I would have to write the truth. Think Victor Hugo and Les Miserable! At least, this is what I want to do.

Thank you for reading this piece. I would love to hear your thoughts. In fact, it would be a comfort for me talk these things out with you. Please share your thoughts, and share this post with others. It is no easy thing to be so honest, so naked online, but I do it because I believe writing the truth is the highest virtue in the art of writing. Help me grow my blog by sharing my posts with others and subscribing. God bless.—W. Alexander

More From Me

The Miraculous Rise of Phillis Wheatley

Wheatley achieved the miraculous, the impossible, the unthought of: she a black-African-born-woman did not peel at the edges of prejudice, she slashed it, and all were forced to recognize her gift and confront their misplaced assumptions on the place of women and slavery.  

Book Review: The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

“Throughout these pages, the reader finds the brushwork of the master, and like all great artists, James can not only paint a story by the prowess of his craft, but, simultaneously, he hangs a mirror of enigmas and human complexity. Every reader can relate to the figurative handcuff’s persons’ finds themselves confined to.” —W. Alexander

Book Review: The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

Henry James authored one of American literature’s prized realist masterpieces: The Portrait of a Lady. Considered a psychological novel, because of James’s microscopic emphasis into the innermost characterizations—internal action, circumstances, and how these forces develop external, plot moving actions—regarding his characters; he creates tantalizing themes of freedom versus oppression, and the progression, or degression, of self-knowledge through psychological and moral decisions—The Portrait of a Lady is a painting, lavishly brushed by words, which tells the truth of the human psyche.

            James’s psychological novel attaches significant emphasis on his characters innermost motives, and how they contemplate their external and internal circumstances, therefore, ultimately, weaving these inner tensions into external action—physical plot progression. James will time-and-time-again provide his readers with intimate, microscopic views into a character’s inner conflict. For example, consider Isabel Archer, the novel’s protagonist, “…I’m absorbed in myself—I look at life too much as a doctor’s prescription…Why should I be so afraid of not doing right? As if it mattered to the world whether I do right or wrong” (James 196). The psychological novel is, although prose fiction, a close study of humanity.

            In addition to the riches found within a character’s innermost motivations, another example of James’s prowess in developing his psychological novel is his unique use of theme. The masterpiece The Portrait of a Lady, although replete with sub-themes, is most recognized by Isabel Archer’s arcing struggles between oppression and freedom and independence versus destiny. Ezra Pound wrote, “What he [James] fights is ‘influence,’ the impinging of family pressure, the impinging of one personality upon another” (Quoted by Lane par. xvi). James detested tyranny and the petty personal oppressions he witnessed everyday persons inflict upon each other. His, literary, voice reflects this contempt throughout The Portrait of a Lady. It is the unique frequent indecisions of his protagonist Isabel Archer’s, her inner conflicts with external consequences, need to stand on one’s own self-sufficiency, and her culture’s desire to rein her into the larger world’s conformity of marriage and obedience, that makes this psychological novel worthy of its home in the pantheon of literary masterpieces.

            However, despite James’s impressive weave of great emphasis regarding inner character, and his larger theme of oppression versus freedom, there is yet another, stronger, undebatable footprint of the perfect psychological novel: James writes the truth. This truth is the selfish self-interest of other person’s desire for psychological domination (control) or, more common, the extent of scheming and ambitious lies some persons will steep to subdue and extinguish another’s light—a person’s innocence. For example, Osmond, Isabel Archer’s eventual husband and the novel’s chief antagonist, never fell in love with Isabel; he fooled her in order to subdue her; he wanted her as a trophy, “That is what monsters do, especially the polite and patient ones: they harvest souls. Hand them a human in full bloom, and what they give back to you, after a few seasons, is a pressed flower” (Lane par. xvi). Humanity is often a horror story, and happy endings are not realistic stories.

This point of realism, life is often a horror story, is very much the eternal truth of James’s psychological novel; a genre devoted to the analytic study of the human condition; and, in his, the plight of self-degeneration through psychological manipulation. In laymen terms, the hell one finds themselves in once they realize they have altered their entire life for someone based upon a lie. And like, Isabel, it is often that everyone else can see the truth, but the one under their oppressor’s influence. In Isabel’s case, she becomes a victim of her own designs, “Isabel proceeds to marry Osmond, who she believes loves her and with whom she thinks she can relinquish the pressure to perform. She unfortunately rather quickly discovers the ruse and realizes he is the suitor most desirous of wiping her clean of any interiority” (Krzeminski 279). Perhaps, it could be argued her remark a third of the way through the novel was spoken from complete naivety (innocence) and foreshadowed the suffering that later came, “…to judge wrong, I think, is more honorable than not to judge at all” (James 143). By the end of the novel, and by a stroke of writing genius on James’s part, these words were no longer her truth.

            Henry James painted his theme of oppression versus freedom with microscopic emphasis on his characters innermost conflicts. The Portrait of a Lady is a masterpiece, not because of good versus evil, or anecdotes of adventures and trials; the novel is a masterpiece because it captures, like none before and few after, the human psyche down to the finest detail. James’s work reflects the progression and digression of his protagonist’s self-knowledge. By the end, the reader is left hanging. Isabel Osmond, as she is now, refuses to satisfy us with any epiphanic change; she does not, after confessing her plight to Ralph and kissing Casper, break for freedom, but in James’s fashion, she is handcuffed by her situation, which she blames herself for allowing, and, thus, she goes on, like so many women did and still do, without freedom, and with every reader questioning why, back to her prison of a marriage.

            Together, the theme and Isabel’s, surprising, negative character arc creates arguably the best psychological novel ever to be written, per its genre. As the reader travels its pages, they are confronted with a mirror, a work replete with accusing self-examinations, and, therefore, the reader is left, not watching, but considering the raw complexity of the human psyche, their own psyche.

  The footprint of realism has always been to write the truth; the common man or woman’s plight, and the mental gymnastics all persons, from all classes, perform are what makes this novel a psychological masterpiece. Throughout these pages, the reader finds the brushwork of the master, and like all great artists, James can not only paint a story by the prowess of his craft, but, simultaneously, he hangs a mirror of enigmas and human complexity. Every reader can relate to the figurative handcuff’s persons’ finds themselves confined to.

References

James, Henry. The Portrait of a Lady. Seedbox Press, LLC. Apple Books, 2015, pp. 143-196. e—book.

Krzeminski, Jessica. “The discovery was tremendous: Sex, Secrets, and Selfhood in The Portrait of a Lady.” The Henry James Review, article, Vol. 40., Iss. 3, 2019,pp. 279. Accessed 2021. https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/docview/2315565534/fulltextPDF/5B39C5728E734785PQ/1?accountid=12085

Lane, Anthony. “Out of The Frame, A New Portrait of Henry James’s ‘The Portrait of a Lady.’” The New Yorker, article, Books, Iss. September 2012., par. XVI. Accessed 2021. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/09/03/out-of-the-frame

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