Even for Henry James, there was a certain “extravagance” in it: focalizing one ordinary person's experience, singling out such a “slight ‘personality’” as his Isabel Archer from millions and endowing her with “the high attributes of a Subject” (James xii–xiii). Why this thin piece of unremarkable human material and not so many others? Truly, why anyone? But that was “the charm of the problem”: to make a protagonist, to write fiction at all, for just this reason, was to discover “how absolutely, how inordinately, the Isabel Archers, and even much smaller female fry, insist on mattering” (James xiii). Thanks to the novelistic promise that anyone might matter given sufficient scope, characters granted less complexity—or less space and attention—are liable to seem reduced or distorted. “‘I will never desert Mr. Micawber.’ There is Mrs. Micawber,” observes E. M. Forster by...

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