Book Therapy

How to Cure Your Anxiety? Read Henry James’s ‘The Portrait of a Lady,’ Of Course.

Always feeling anxious? There’s a cure, and it doesn’t involve drugs, medicinal herbs, or shock therapy. Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, the authors of the new book The Novel Cure, recommend simply reading Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady.

09.26.13 9:00 PM ET

To live with anxiety is to live with a leech that saps you of your energy, confidence, and chutzpah. A constant feeling of unease or fearfulness—as opposed to the sense of frustration that characterizes stress—anxiety is both a response to external circumstances and an approach to life. While the external circumstances cannot be controlled, the internal response can. Laughter, or a big intake of oxygen (the former leading to the latter), usually relieves systems at least temporarily, as well as offering an encouragement to relax. The cause of the anxiety, however, determines whether laughter or breathing and relaxing is the appropriate cure. Luckily, our cure offers all three.

Of the 14 causes of anxiety that we have identified,* the first chapter of The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James can be expected to ameliorate 10. Opening as it does with a description of the civilized and serene institution of afternoon tea in an English country garden—complete with “mellow” late-afternoon light, long shadows, teacups held “for a long time close to [the] chin,” rugs, cushions, and books strewn on the lawn in the shade of the trees—its indirect invitation to slow down and have a cup yourself (helpful for causes 2, 3, 4, 7, 10, 11, 12, and certain elements of 13) is reinforced by James’s unhurried, elegant prose, a balm for anxiety arising from all of the preceding causes, and also serves to begin the complete eradication of anxiety arising from cause number 8.

To say that James’s prose spreads itself thickly, like butter, is not intended to suggest turgidness, but rather creaminess—and let us make that salted butter. For the pleasures of both prose and afternoon tea are made complete by James’s dialogue, which contains both frankness and sharpness of wit (a curative for causes 1 through 4, and also excellent for cause 7). For the banter between the three men—the elderly chair-bound American banker Mr. Touchett, his “ugly, sickly” but charming son Ralph, and the “noticeably handsome” Lord Warburton with his quintessentially English face—is always aiming to trigger a chuckle, and the characters are not afraid of teasing (note Lord Warburton’s markedly un-English reference to Mr. Touchett’s wealth). Freed of the chains of propriety and form that had been shackling dialogue on similar lawns three quarters of a century earlier, it is the sort of conversation that puts you at your ease (again, addressing causes 1 through 4 and 7, while also ameliorating causes 6 and 9 through 12).

‘The Novel Cure: From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You’ by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. 432 pp. Penguin Press. $27.

Once the little party is joined by Ralph’s American cousin Isabel Archer, recently “taken on” by Mrs. Touchett, the conversation loses some of its ease, but gains in spirit—for Isabel, at this stage in her life, has a lightness, a boldness, and a confidence both in herself and in others that cannot fail to rub off on the reader. Those suffering anxiety from cause 9 will find her presence in the story especially curative.

Indeed, we recommend this novel for all sufferers of anxiety except those made anxious by causes 5 and 14 (for the latter, in particular, a novel of any sort is unhelpful, except perhaps to use as a weapon), though readers suffering anxiety from causes 1 and 2 should be warned that the ending may backfire and prompt their symptoms to get worse. In which case, they should immediately turn back to the beginning for another dose of afternoon tea.

* (1) Trauma, including abuse, or death of a loved one; (2) relationship problems, either at home or work; (3) work/school; (4) finances; (5) natural disaster; (6) lack of oxygen at high altitude; (7) taking life too seriously; (8) gnawing feeling that you should have read more of the classics; (9) negative self-talk; (10) poor health/hypochondria; (11) taking too many drugs; (12) being late/too busy; (13) inadequate food, water, heat, or comfort; (14) threat of attack by wild animal/person.

From The Novel Cure: From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. Reprinted by arrangement of The Penguin Press. A Division of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2013 by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin.