PN Review Print and Online Poetry Magazine
Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
Mark FordLetters And So It Goes
Letters from Young Mr Grace
(aka John Ashbery)

(PN Review 239)
Henry Kingon Toby Martinez de las Rivas
(PN Review 244)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
Next Issue Alberto Manguel Selbstgefühl New poems by Fleur Adcock, Claudine Toutoungi and Tuesday Shannon James Campbell A Walk through the Times Literary Supplement
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
PNR 250 Poetry Archive Banner
PN Review New Issue
Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to

This article is taken from PN Review 265, Volume 48 Number 5, May - June 2022.

How Does This Look? Kirsty Gunn
I watch my daughters getting ready to go out and it occurs to me how – though we don’t talk about them much, in ordinary life, I mean – adjectives make up a huge part of who we are. ‘Lovely,’ I say to the girls, as they pile on some glamorous top or other, change their shoes for the third time. ‘Gorgeous.’ These kinds of words spring out of my mouth on a pretty regular basis – the perfects, the wonderfuls – but are they really even descriptions? Adumbrations? Ornamentation, even? ‘Beautiful.’ I say, just like everyone does in The Awkward Age, that novel by Henry James which is about the kind of society that is not beautiful at all. I may only mean ‘beautiful’ to be beautiful when I say it but by contrast Henry James is acutely aware in each of his books how a description can operate to bring about pretty much any kind of outcome. James knows about adjectives, alright. He’s alert not only to the sheer joy of putting them to use – setting a ‘canicular’ here, a delicately ‘precipitate’ or thumping great ‘superimcumbent’ there, to fill sentence after sentence with the kinds of multisyllabics that so coil and rumble as to set each off on a charged path towards high drama or comedy. But he also has the fun of employing them in the more usual sense of acting as a one word description, to light up the most ordinary thing. For why say basement flat in The Ambassadors when you could describe it as ‘entresol’ and ‘innermost nook’? Or, in that same novel, attend to a gentleman’s regular morning’s shave when the blade, instead, can be made to come in contact with a ‘matitutinal chin’? On top of all that, he also understands, this master of the metonym, how adjectives can be turned inside out to elevate or debase, applied in quite specific and pointed ways so that a lovely term re­arranged around its subject may come to have a quite different effect. I use an adjective and it means no more than a maternal thumbs up before the two lassies waft out the door. James takes on the same word and it becomes the most devastating way to sum up venality and selfishness and a form of socially sanctioned sex trafficking and prostitution.

Whew! Who would have thought an adjective could be so... well, adjectival?

In The Awkward Age, entire situations and scenarios are ‘beautiful’, ideas and plots working out to nefarious ends, but, on the whole, what I’m coming to see is that it’s the women in James’ novels who are in receipt of most of the adjectives in them, the really good ones I mean. Julia walks in the door in The Tragic Muse in an amazing hat – ‘Julia had come’ – and, my goodness, there she is. Women take adjectives in the way James has them take them, to wear them, to show them off, in order to let themselves be seen. They need to be so accessorised – as well as wearing extraordinary hats, something she might touch lightly to adjust here and there, Julia has ‘hair of so dark a brown… and so abundant that a plain arrangement was required to keep it in natural relation to the rest of her person’ – in order to fit them for playing their large and important roles; their descriptions must dominate. More than is the case for the male protagonists in most of the novels, adjectives are applied to women and girls in such a way that place them firmly and correctively in a moral and social universe. Right from the outset the details we are given about Julia Dallow establish the kind of powerhouse she is, with her ‘off hand cursory manner’ and ‘mouth like a rare pink flower’. We get her, her ‘resolution and temper’ and her beauty – and all in one go. The adjectives have hit the spot. Mrs Gereth slides up on to bench next to Fleda Vetch at the beginning of The Spoils of Poynton and it’s the same sort of thing applied to a very different type. So much packed in. So much judgment and thought. Fearing her son’s taste in women, ‘that Owen would, in spite of all her spells, marry a frump’, someone just ‘tiresomely lovely’ (for, as far as she is concerned, both terms are interchangeable) she sees by contrast in Fleda, ‘one, slim, pale and black haired’, ‘dressed in thought’. In a couple of sentences the two women’s characters are fixed: ‘their eyes met and and sent out mutual soundings’ in a world that seems vulgar and uncertain. Both matron and girl join forces in being mean about ‘the abnormal nature of the Brigstocks’, the family at whose home they are staying and ‘from whose composition the principle of taste had been extravagantly omitted’. Fleda observes that the older woman ‘was one of those who impose themselves as an influence’ and that she has ‘large, masterful white hands’. Descriptions of men do also show in various kinds of fashion, in James’s pages, of course they do, but on the whole don’t quite tell as much. Here’s Mrs Gereth again, whose taste has been achieved with ‘a patience, an almost infernal cunning’. She talks about her expensive furnishings all the time because she has accumulated them with ‘a limited command of money’.  It’s why we see her principally in terms of those hands of hers and the stuff they handle – her tapestries and cups and bibelots and brocades. These things are who she is; they’re all she is. ‘There wouldn’t have been money enough for anyone else, she said with pride.’ Yes, her son Owen is important enough in this story, but all we really know of him, by contrast, is that he’s ‘handsome’. Fleda even thinks for a while he may be a bit dim. Men get to play the full spectrum in the books, ranging from creep to sweetheart, from Osmond Gilbert to Rowland Mallett, but while it may take a while to get to know what, say, Basil Ransom is up to in The Bostonians – despite his introductory description of someone ‘dark, deep and glowing’ – don’t we just understand from the outset what his cousin is all about! Adjectives turn on the women in James’ books, they are as a kind of lighting upon them, a special effect. We see right from the beginning of The Bostonians how description makes these people who they are. Olive comes into the room to meet Basil and she is all ‘plain dark dress, without any ornament, and her smooth colourless hair was constrained’ – and how she commands our attention, this ‘pale girl with her light green eyes’ who sits upon the sofa with her beautiful posture and long straight back as though for a sitting. She’s a Sargeant portrait for a Boston drawing room, every bit as beautiful though stuck nevertheless in that painted pose within some heavy gilded frame. Basil by contrast, despite being told of his stature and height, is hard for us to see. A dark haired Mississippian who speaks with a Southern drawl, he’s all slip and lounge. James lingers on Ransom’s speaking – ‘It is not in my power to reproduce by any combination of characters this charming dialect’ he writes – because speaking turns out to be what Basil’s all about. There’s little in him of Olive’s painted-in solidity, he lacks matter, and he can’t understand her ‘morbid’ upright stance. There she is, a picture of probity and righteousness – and who is he? This person who speaks so much and only seems to come in and out of rooms? He’s a man, with all his fancy talk – but what does he represent? What’s his composition? It’s going to take some time to discover how he’ll work the plot to his advantage; it’s going to take a lot of conversation and dialogue.

So it is that while men, on the whole, may do most of the talking in novels by Henry James, still it’s the women, fully shown and presented to them, who hit the green button that says ‘Go’! Olive walking into the room is when that novel begins. Isabel Archer, seen standing in the doorway in The Portrait of the Lady, is painted right there before us, a ‘a tall girl in a black dress, bareheaded, as if she were staying in the house...’ James writes. Of course these kinds of ideas are all developed and complicated as the novels go on – and of course, too, a female character may be given, from the get-go as an American reader might say, as much spirited dialogue as her male counterpart – Olive’s testy responses to her cousin’s drawl are a good example, and I’ve always happened to love the way Isabel Archer makes her first impression on a potential suitor by talking intimately and, some might say, at length with a little dog. But more than anything it’s how she looks – Olive’s shock stillness, Julia’s feathery touch to her hat, Isabel’s bare-headed height – key details kicking in before any tracts of dialogue are laid down, that put a woman in the centre of our attention and set the tone for the tale ahead. In fact, you might say, James’ female characters begin with their adjectives. They start life as a synecdoche.

So Milly Theale and Miriam Rooth and Fernanda Brookenham enter upon the scene and everything follows from there – volition and action, the eventual set of a moral compass, final outcome and consequence all unspooling from that first glimpse. There’s ‘little Nanda’, encountered first in The Awkward Age through her portrait ‘in glazed white wood’, the very image of her grandmother who was a great beauty and social figurehead, and nothing ‘little’ about her at all, of course, as even the men will come to see, for this is a novel full of inversion and if beautiful is not beautiful then little can only mean large. Eventually and naturally, according to James’s unhurried rhythmic prose, how a woman looks will be overtaken by what she’s doing, what she’s done, and what she really wants to do – indeed these forces will come to be understood as working at the very centre of most of the novels. I’ve learned to see, through the prism of this author’s attention, that while his plots turn around what people want or think they want, still, each starts with a someone who is captured precisely in a viewfinder made – for a writer who used so many of them – of just a few words.

Here’s a lady, at the start of  The Europeans, who ‘gave a pinch to her waist with her two hands, or raised these members – they were very plump and pretty – to the multifold braids of her hair...’ So does the author introduce us to the Baroness Munster, that socially mobile representative of a certain impoverished type whom James describes in another novel as being like ‘velvet stretched too thin’. At the mirror her face ‘forgot its melancholy’ but, when she is not looked upon, how that same face ‘began to proclaim that she was a very ill-pleased woman’. Is there something about adjective placement – here, that sinister ‘multifold’ hairdo – which might influence plot? The way a reduced and concentrated description will have consequence for the rest of the story? And might there be something presciently Jamesian going on here, educating us in point of view and presentation, that has a significance that reaches far beyond the novels’ stage walls? For my part, I’m starting to realise that for all the talk of male gaze that rages around the subject of female characters in canonical fiction, and around the subject of women in general in the world, I’ve barely given thought until reading and re-reading Henry James novels as to how very much an author’s key siting of a word might have to do with moral outcome. How that word ‘characterisation’ – so beloved of prose writers, an entire approach to writing a person on the page that bundles up descriptions and summaries and is added to and adjusted as the story goes on – may not be nearly as significant as the particular pinning of one quite specific broad brimmed hat – or set of plaits – to a head. I am even wondering if the idea of the thoughtfully condensed description of a female subject in a novel might come to figure as powerfully (for me at least!) as all my rudimentary understanding of feminist history and narrative when it comes to thinking about – to borrow a phrase from Adrienne Rich – the politics of what happens when a woman walks into a room.

For how what is described – as detail, as colour, as accessory – becomes what is! It’s something to think about as I send my daughters out the door. How the fact of the sentence ‘Charlotte Stant, the next minute, was with them’ in the opening section of The Golden Bowl combines with the impression she makes in that minute, ‘in all her person, in motion and gesture, in free, vivid, yet happy altogether indications of dress’, ‘of not being afraid.’ Those words, ‘free’, ‘vivid’, will come to describe, more than any amount of long form ‘characterisation’, that woman’s ranging ambition and concupiscence. Charlotte’s person takes off, of course, and goes from strength to strength, her knowing and getting (nearly) exactly what she wants. But how can she not be anyone other than who she is when we first meet her as having about her ‘exactly the look of her adventurous situation’? In the same way, Maggie Verver, her lover’s quiet wife who is described by him in the simple terms of apparent praise that only mark indifference – ‘young, good, generous’ – will show that very quality of her quietness to have a mighty strength. There’s a hint of it early on when Charlotte appears with a parasol and hat which announces, in James’s words, a most ‘definite intention’. Both words, ‘definite’ and ‘adventurous’… They have been fixed in our minds from the start and will have outcomes to match. There are consequences for such adjectives; they lead the way. So what exactly might be parsed, then, I find myself wondering, from my sort of response to a young girl’s turn of shoe or colour of coat? Is a ‘lovely’ really quite enough? Responsible, even? What might be my alternative first thought/best thought that would carry within it the kind of complicated and nuanced meaning James’s adjectives carry, for my daughters to take out into society and to all their friends and then use? How might an adjective – I guess I am asking – help them be?

That from the very beginning of an interaction a description might be fixed in the heart and head, used to sound a base note, as it were, lay out the ground upon which to stand… This is a compelling idea to arise from a back-to-back reading of Henry James. Yes, there are occasions when it may take a while for his lens to finally focus upon its central subject – and just think about the number of pages until we finally get to clap eyes on the reason for Chad Newsome’s delay in Paris, for example, in The Ambassadors – but when it does… Well Goodness!, as the plainly dressed and plain speaking Sarah Pocock in that novel might say. Haven’t we realised now why that young man has so tarried? It’s precisely because Madame de Vionnet couldn’t be seen properly up until then, was not described, that poor Lambert Strether didn’t know what he was up against. We only meet her, through him, finally, just over a third of the way through The Ambassadors – page 135 of 393 in my old Penguin edition – and even then we still can’t really get a good look at her. ‘She was dressed in black but in a black that struck him as light and transparent.’ What? What kind of black dress? It’s near impossible to visualise and only flashes light. And then a follow up impression is formed where the same woman is now ‘showy and uncovered’… So altogether she’s a shape shifter, this one, ‘muffled one day… uncovered the next’. Fifty pages later, in the shadowy interior of Notre Dame, we meet her again – but again, there’s something receding about her, hard to catch. This is James working his inversion of description again: ‘he suddenly measured the suggestive effect of a lady’ he writes, who ‘wasn’t prostrate – not in any degree bowed’, who seems in the shadowy distance but then he ‘happened to feel that someone, unnoticed, had approached him and paused.’ How in our not seeing here, we also come to see. Someone barely present; and there’s something awful  going on here – though we can’t put our finger on why exactly we think so. We can’t encompass Madame de Vionnet by our seeing, anymore than Strether can. He realises ‘She was the lurking figure of the dim chapel’, is conscious of the way her impression has been made upon him, ‘the way her slightly thicker veil was drawn… the composed gravity of her dress… the quiet of her folded, grey gloved hands.’ But this shade, this ‘lurking’ creature enclosed in the habit of ‘one of the old women’ of Notre Dame, is a thing in camouflage, placed away over there in a dark corner of the stone cathedral. In a rustle of ‘subdued’ dress, like the movement of air, she eludes Strether’s physical vision and takes up place, like the devil, within his soul, Who could have guessed a veiled supplicant in such nondescript dress could be the blazing centre of a novel about female power? Yet James’s adjectives have been working away counter-intuitively – quietly and modestly – towards exactly that conflagration. ‘Veiled’, ‘old’, ‘grey’… The very words which have seemed to efface Madame de Vionnet set her alight.

The irresistible charm of certain women – and James is interested in the type, for sure, good and bad, his books are full of Princess Casamassimas and Mrs Assinghams and Kate Croy and Madame Merle, all creatures around or for whose ends the world and the people in it, rotate and fall – is lost only on another kind of woman who also features large, a formidable opponent to them. Sarah Pocock, in The Ambassadors, is like Mrs Touchett and Doctor Prance in other novels, bracingly opinionated, clear thinking and sensible, taking no nonsense from anything satin or veiled, grey or otherwise. They see through disguises, these women who wear mackintoshes and trousers, and have no truck with parasol points such as those artfully employed by people like Maisie’s mother and Gertrude’s cousin. Doctor Prance, in The Bostonians, always sensibly dressed, sums up in an instant the cod feminism that’s been touted by Verena Tarrant’s entourage. ‘She’s practising her speech’ is the way she describes Verena’s preparations for that character’s great spiritual outpouring of female truth and vision. And Doctor Prance herself, though she does show a ‘Mephistophelean gleam of a smile’, really needs only her pair of trousers to indicate how clever she is. How she does stand apart – excepting for a residual loyalty to an old suffragette stalwart who goes by the highly descriptive name of Miss Birdseye – from the uncertainty and dilly dallying of the other characters who fill up the rest of this book. Who wants to be described anyway? such a character may be suggesting. Who wants to have their sensibility and emotional landscape writ large in words that are only about seeing and looking? ‘I have that within which passeth show’ says Hamlet, and I like to remind my daughters of that idea from time to time. You look lovely as you are, I say – but also it really doesn’t matter. It’s only a dress. Life need not be about what is seen in the mirror, I might remind them – though the mirror draws young girls towards it, I know, and is there for all of us, whether we like it or not.

Because, as James and Shakespeare both tell us, appearance does count – as a ‘show’ of who we are, and who we want to be. And that ‘passeth’ has multiple meanings, of course. Hamlet may be more complex than he seems, but he also wants to pass as a regular guy; and that no one will know what he’s really thinking is what he’s after, too. He wants to pass off as being someone else in that way, or pass altogether, so nobody will notice him even, that he might be lucky enough to be totally ignored. Showing, telling. Letting the one turn into the other, and back again… James’s adjectives work the same alchemy. From the ‘light’ that shines from Fleda in The Spoils to the ‘so little superstitiously in the fashion’ black silk that shrouds Milly in The Wings of the Dove, from the ‘frazzled’ to the ‘gleaming’. This one, ‘presumptive’, that one, ‘effaced’, invisible, nearly. Placed just so, a word, at an exact point in the sentence, or here, right here, at another… Each simile, each metaphor and detail has made me consider the precise role this part of speech plays in our social, communal life. Out the door and onto the stage of the world swish my two girls and my poor reaction has operated as no kind of description of how they may seem in that production. Yet description matters; it can help us as clearly as it can distract, and Henry James has made me think about how adjectives are a way of thinking about others – people we know and love, along with strangers – as well as a literary term applied to our writing and reading of books. For what does it mean to describe someone, and describe them exactly? In life and in a novel? Though poets might think about adjectives all the time, what do novelists need to consider when bringing a person (or a place, for that matter, but place is not my subject here) into the world of our pages? I am thinking, I guess, as much about a poetics of prosopography as to the ethics of description, here – the terrible and wonderful power we have when we describe one person to another. How secretly and cleverly and cunningly and also lovingly and generously we might elevate or debase.

As I’ve written before in these pages,* Henry James’s prose can lead the mind towards this kind of – what we prose writers might call – poetry thinking: How one sees his crafting of a sentence bearing all the marks of a piece of language that is as ornately articulated as a sonnet. And now that I’ve been looking in the way I have at the women in these novels of his, and how they are presented, I’ve come to be more aware, not only of what adjectives can do, but what they might do to us – how they contain within them effect and affect, both, giving us an awareness of the heightened thing and the thing itself in the raw that stands behind it. So there’s the glazed and lovely finish of paint that is the portrait of Miriam Rooth in The Tragic Muse, and there too, the vulgar, rough voiced ingenue who is still contained somewhere within the body of the actress who sat for it. We meet her first, as one of an odd pair of ‘strange women’; James writes of an old character in ‘an ancient, well used shawl’ and someone else. ‘The other person was very much younger’, we read, ‘and had a pale face, a low forehead and thick dark hair...’ How that low forehead does come forward, and stays with us – despite the ‘largely gazing eyes’ also present in our line of vision. This one, that one, indeed.

So, in the end, they might do a double job, these adjectives of ours. Lie as well as tell the truth. Represent desire as well as its dissolve. They show the shine on a thing that, the moment it is highlighted, fades. They describe the expectation that comes with talking up a noun, and the end of expectation once that job’s been done – the awful realisation that there’s no more of an experience to come. So they might be, these ‘describing words’ as we teach children to call them, both attempt at and limitation of expression – for even when they come off (and a perfectly placed adjective can come off, in life, as in a Henry James novel, in very wonderful ways indeed) still, don’t they leave us curiously… wanting? I see it in my daughters’ faces in the mirror: Yes, that will do very nicely but is that all? The outfit? The jacket? No ornament, no addition, no word, ends up being quite good enough. Or, in another scenario, the description has taken over completely. So there’s the dress, say, but where’s the girl? Henry James has made me pay attention to all this… And more. Who or what exactly is being looked at in that mirror? There’s Julia again ‘lifting her hands for some re-arrangement of her hat’, ‘her fine head poised’ and reflected back at us. And we start reading in order to learn to see.

* See PNR 258, recommending a thorough, immersive reading of the novels of Henry James as a literary practice not unlike learning to play the piano.

This article is taken from PN Review 265, Volume 48 Number 5, May - June 2022.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to
Further Reading: - Kirsty Gunn More Articles by... (5) Report by... (1) Review by... (1) Review of... (1)
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image