Vol. 9 No. 2 (2020): ‘A style which defies convention, tradition, homogeneity, prudence, and sometimes even syntax’: Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady and Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence

Lisa Nais (University of Aberdeen)

Combining the methods of linguistics and literary criticism, this article takes a fresh look at two texts that have been analysed ad nauseam: Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady and Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. I use James’s late style as a touchstone to compare and contrast the two texts. Analysing syntax by means of close textual analysis of the novels’ opening paragraphs as well as their metaphorical language, and employing the corpus analysis programme AntConc to survey the entire texts, I aim to show that James’s 1880 text anticipates his late style and Wharton’s 1920 text appropriates it to suit her own agenda. However, in respectively anticipating and appropriating this style, James and Wharton create different effects. James intensifies his female protagonist’s ‘world of thought and feeling’ (Eliot 1963: 56), creating a fictional world with literary equality for both genders, while Wharton subverts gender roles in a scathing critique of Gilded Age society, which did not allow for this other ‘world of thought and feeling’. In addition to positioning both novels as feminist, this article compares Wharton’s writing to James’s, but without presupposing the latter’s influence on the former. Instead, acknowledging the fluidity of style, I aim to put forward a convincing case that there are subtle differences that make these authors’ styles Jamesian and Whartonian, respectively.

Published: 2020-04-27