"Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea." Thus begins Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. When I was a junior at St Olaf College, decades ago, I took a course called "The American Novel" in which we read a book and wrote a paper about a specified book each week. This didn't pose too much of a problem for an English major until the assigned book was Portrait of a Lady. 591 pages, small print, long sentences, and even longer paragraphs. A major book for a week, especially when homework needed to be done for my other courses, but somehow, if I recall, I did well in the class.
Now here we are in 2013, and I have started rereading Portrait of a Lady. No papers are required, however, for this University of Wisconsin continuing education class, Booktalks, a combination book discussion and lecture group that attracts 50 or so people each week. I have attended sessions in the past, but recently have taken a break. The line-up for the new session attracted me: Pride and Prejudice; Death Comes to Pemberly by P.D. James, a mystery set on Mr Darcy's estate after he and Elizabeth are married; Rabbit Run by John Updike; The Living is Easy by Dorothy West, which I have never read; and Portrait of a Lady. A line-up too good to ignore.
I was surprised to discover that I still have my college copy of the James tome. A Modern Library College Edition priced at $1.15! I was even more surprised to open the book and see written on the inside cover "Nan Jensen." That's me--or that was me. Jensen is my maiden name and Nan was what I was called in high school and college, but not as often after I married. Nan Agneberg blended into "nanagneberg." Nancy has worked better for this married lady. I paged through the book and judging by the underlining, I only made it through the first 300 pages or so. I have no idea what my paper topic was and if I faked it enough to get a good grade on that paper, but all of a sudden I could see myself in my dorm room reading and reading and reading. The book went everywhere with me that week, trying my best to get through it in time to write the paper and to participate in that week's class. In an instance I was transported to Rolvaag Memorial Library where most of the English classes were held, but also where I studied much of the time, buried behind a pile of books at one of the stately tables in the reference room. Yes, books, and not a laptop where I easily could have "Googled" to discover the ending and to learn key plot developments in the last 300 pages.
In spite of the late hours to complete course work and the stress to get good grades and the feelings of not being smart enough, good enough, I loved my college years. At least I think I did. I choose to remember that I did.
Over the years I have created my own "portrait of a lady," a portrait of myself, Nan Jensen and Nancy Agneberg. I'm not sure it is worthy of 591 pages and I am certain my own portrait is not Henry James calibre. However, now at 64, almost 65, much of the background for a portrait on the staircase has been painted. Much of who I am can be seen on my face and has been written in my heart. This is a time of re-examining the portrait I have created and to be aware of how I want the last pages to be written.
In the meantime I have lots left to read in Portrait of a Lady before the class meets this month. I carry the book wherever I go on the chance there will be a few moments to read. I am grateful, however, no paper is required, unless it is one for my personal portrait.
What does your portrait look like? What needs to be finished on your portrait? Let me know.