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Friday, February 11, 2011

Henry James' "The Portrait of a Lady"

It is believed that William James (the other half of the American genius brothers) told his brother that his novel "The Europeans" was, as I quote here from literary article included in my edition of the novel, too "thin."  Henry James did not leave a written reply to his brother, but literary minds speculate what the response might have been (a very not pleasant one).

I am re-reading this novel for the first time since my junior year of undergrad (quite a few years ago).  It reminds me of another novel, "Anna Karenina" by virtue that the title doesn't fully describe what the reader will find inside the covers.  "The Portrait of a Lady" is certainly about Isabel Archer; the narrator explains this early on.  Yet, as the novel becomes more and more dense with female characters establishing their will and freedom, the title of heroine could fit any number of them.  With "Anna Karenina" the same thing happens.  The novels is not simply about a heroine, but about every single connection to characters and their motivations.  In "The Portrait of a Lady," the portrait could very well be (besides Isabel Archer) Mrs. Touchett, Madame Merle, Henrietta Stackpole, Pansy Osmond, etc.  I would even go as far as pointing out that the portrait could very well be about Lord Warburton's sisters, their "cameo" appearance in Chapter 9 notwithstanding.  The portrait could exalt or criticize the new liberation of female roles, as well as push several of these characters into "pigeon holes" of Victorian standards.  But sticking to the theory that the portrait is all Isabel Archer, the narrator pushes the character through a plethora of extreme changes, efficient in terms of the plot and realism of the character but perhaps disappointing to some for the large jumps between the same changes.  The reader meets Isabel as she arrives in England; she is portrayed as an independent, hungry for freedom young lady that is full of idealism and itches to exercise her power.  Yet, as the novel turns back the clock and relates Isabel of yore, the reader begins to discover a very different Isabel.  She is the youngest of the Archer sisters, not yet married.  Isabel, a voracious reader of literature, is full of vistas of a life of adventure.  When her aunt, Mrs. Touchett, "rescues" her from her life in America, Isabel takes that as a "sign" to exercise her freedom and power.  The problem the reader is left with here is that of whether or not Isabel knows what she is doing.  In turning down Lord Warburton's proposal, Isabel is not simply turning down the English nobleman because of the precipitous offer, but rather because it is a new experience for her--the opportunity to say "no," for "no's sake."  It is with this in mind that the reader later sees Isabel confront Caspar Goodwood, her original beau who's come all the way from America to try and see if he cannot convince her of the sincerity of his marriage proposal.  Apparently, as we learn from Henrietta's conversation with Isabel, Caspar had been "told" to wait a few years and "see."  Caspar and Isabel meet in Chapter 16 and their conversation doesn't simply remind the reader of her refusal of Lord Warburton, but it takes into a severe form of language all its own:
"Are you enjoying your visit to your uncle?"
"Very much indeed," She dropped, but then she broke out. "What good do you expect to get by insisting?"
"The good of not losing you."
"You've no right to talk of losing what is not yours. And even from your own point of view," Isabel added, "you ought to know when to let one alone."
Yet, in saying this, the reader sees Isabel commit a blunder of intentions by telling Caspar Goodwood:
"Until when?" [Caspar asks Isabel how long will she take to make up her mind].
"Well, for a year or two."
"Which do you mean? Between one year and two there's all the difference in the world."
"Call it two then," said Isabel with a studied effect of eagerness. [bold mine].
"And what shall I gain by that?" her friend asked with not sign of wincing.
"You'll have obliged me greatly."
"And what will be my reward?"
"Do you need a reward for an act of generosity?"
"Yes, when it involves great sacrifice."
"There's no generosity without some sacrifice.  Men don't understand such things. If you make the sacrifice you'll have all my admiration."
The issue here is not simple.  Isabel is not suffering from "having her cake and eating it too," but the reader is somewhat sympathetic of Caspar.  It is only later, when Isabel succumbs so quickly to Gerald Osmond's proposal that her conversation with Caspar Goodwood becomes problematic inasmuch as Isabel's real sense of freedom and power.  Yet, the reader understands that there are forces beyond Isabel's control here--the same way that there were powers behind her acceptance of Osmond, as Madame Merle orchestrate the union based simply on the benefit to Osmond of Isabel's inheritance.  Lord Warburton also comes to mind, but the reader is not yet to the point of disappointment; Isabel is still calling the proverbial shots.  Her inheritance offers so much freedom that poor Isabel is blinded by its intense shine.  It's not immediate freedom, but freedom in the future, just beyond the Italian horizon.

What strikes me in this re-reading of the novel is that of the sincerity of the language.  What I mean by this is that James at 30-something (when he wrote "The Portrait of a Lady") had already mastered the many variables of language spoken by his characters.  That is to say, he wrote in the "proper" American English of the 1800s for Isabel Archer, Ralph Touchett, Pa' and Ma' Touchett, Caspar Goodwood, and Henrietta Stackpole, at the same time mastering the language system of the Victorian English and the American Expatriates (including the Touchetts); all of these share a single sphere of beautiful dialouge and to add to that, the masterful descriptive passages by the narrator.

There's a great deal of sincerity being offered in the novel, particularly in the dialouge.  There are several clashes between characters that border on the insulting, or at least it does to a 21st Century reader.  The truth is that there's no insulting intended whatsoever, just absolute radical honesty.  Of particular importance is the point-counterpoint of Mrs. Touchett and Henrietta Stackpole:

"We judge from different points of view, evidently," said Mrs. Touchett. "I like to be treated as an individual; you like to be treated as a 'party.'"
"I don't know what you mean," Henrietta replied.  "I like to be treated as an American lady."
"Poor Americans ladies! cried Mrs. Touchett with a laugh.  "They're the slaves of slaves."
"They're the companions of freemen," Henrietta retorted.
"They're the companions of their servants--the Irish chambermaid and the negro waiter.  They share their work."

A couple of things become evident here besides the fact that the women do not like each other very much.  The reader has to theorize how people could talk to each other like that and not come to blows.  The answer, while not evident, can be assessed by the reader as the story enters its Italy chapters: the European Victorians had a penchant for the brutally honest, even if it drove people to feuds or suicide--our American Victorians, while mastering the language, seem to the reader to lack the certain "ring" of it.  Yet, all Victorians retained their civility quite remarkably.  Henry James captures this so well, it is really a testament of his genius.

In the next entry, I will write about Isabel's succumbing to Gerald Osmond, Madame Merle's cruel dealings, Lord Warburton and Pansy Osmond (and particularly Isabel's role as step mother to Pansy and what it all means), and Isabel's final resolution.

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At 11:55 AM, Blogger JaneGS said...

Wonderful post--you have definitely made me want to read James more. I've only read Wings of the Dove, Asperen Papers, and Turn of the Screw, but I really liked your review and analysis. I particularly liked the notion of AK and Portrait of a Lady being about all the connections to the lady in question, thereby providing a complete portrait...and not just a profile?

I also like the idea of the sincerity of the dialogue--dialogue is so tough to get right for each character. Again, this description makes me want to read James and this book in particular.

Well done!


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