Portrait of a Lady book cover

Week 64: The Portrait of a Lady book review

Having posted a review of The Master last week, it seems fitting to go to the source this week, and take a look at the classic novel that gave rise to Henry James’s reputation as “the master”. The Portrait of a Lady, first published in 1881, was his first in-depth exploration of a theme that would occupy him for decades: the impact of the Old World, i.e. Europe, on the character of the New – that is, America. In this case, the New World is represented by Isabel Archer, a free-spirited, intelligent young woman who lives with her widowed father in Albany, New York. As James wrote in his notebook, “The idea of the whole thing is that the poor girl, who has dreamed of freedom and nobleness, who has done, as she believes, a generous, natural, clear-sighted thing, finds herself in reality ground in the very mill of the conventional.” This is the tragedy of Portrait; it is also, in its treatment of the psychological conflict she experiences, what makes it a very modern novel.

As the book opens, Isabel’s father has died, leaving her, if not penniless, then close to it. Her maternal aunt, Lydia Touchett, arrives on the scene, determined to “do something” for the girl. She invites her to come back with her to England, where they will stay for a time before going on to the continent. The idea appeals to Isabel; she has a desire to leave the past behind her – to begin afresh. She agrees to accompany her aunt who is as unconventional in her way as her niece. Aunt Lydia lives apart from her husband, Daniel, who is very rich and owns Gardencourt, a large estate not far from London. On arrival, Isabel meets her elderly uncle, her cousin, Ralph, and Ralph’s friend, the wealthy Lord Warburton, all of whom are immediately taken with the striking young woman. Warburton is so taken, in fact, that within a few weeks he proposes marriage. Isabel turns him down – she wants to see the world for herself . . . marriage to Warburton would make her feel like “some wild, caught creature in a vast cage”.

Warburton is not the first man she’s rejected: Caspar Goodwood (and who wouldn’t reject a man with such a hapless name?) is the son of a wealthy American mill owner. At one point Isabel gave him reason to believe she might marry him, but by the time she left America she had changed her mind. She likes Caspar, but has no desire to marry him. Or anyone else. Her journalist friend, Harriet Stackpole, thinks she’s making a mistake. She follows Isabel to England, bringing Caspar with her. Her point in coming is to get material for a series of feature articles about Europeans; Caspar makes the journey in order to pursue his offer of marriage.

During her stay at Gardencourt, Isabel and Ralph become close friends – it seems obvious that Ralph is in love with Isabel but even if she wasn’t his cousin it’s unlikely anything would come of it. Ralph is very frail and there are intimations that he hasn’t long to live. His father, too, becomes ill while she’s there and decides to leave some of his fortune to Isabel. Ralph asks him to leave her a great deal more. He wants her to have half his own inheritance, so that she might be completely independent and free to live life as she chooses. The elder Touchett agrees, making Isabel, when he dies, a wealthy woman.

James lets us know that, for someone as innocent as Isabel, this sudden windfall is not necessarily a good thing. Harriet Stackpole believes the money will change her: “The peril for you,” she says, “is that you live too much in the world of your own dreams – you are not enough in contact with reality – with the toiling, striving, suffering, I may even say sinning, world that surrounds you. You are too fastidious; you have too many graceful illusions. Your newly acquired thousands will shut you up more and more to the society of a few selfish and heartless people, who will be interested in keeping up those illusions.”

Isabel and her aunt leave for Florence, where Aunt Lydia lives the greater part of the year. Here she introduces her niece to her close friend, the much-esteemed Serena Merle. The two women hit it off immediately: “Isabel had never encountered a more agreeable and interesting figure than Madame Merle”. James tells us, “She knew how to think – an accomplishment rare in women”. What Isabel doesn’t see is that Madame Merle is calculating and devious, and her affection for the younger woman has a great deal to do with her fortune. She arranges for Isabel to meet her friend, Gilbert Osmond, another American living abroad. Gilbert is a widower whose wife died in childbirth, leaving him to raise their daughter, Pansy. Together, Gilbert and Madame Merle conspire to make Isabel fall in love with him in order to get their hands on her fortune.

Gilbert Osmond is, to all intents and purposes, a dilettante. He has no career, no name, no position, no money – nothing but an attitude of otherworldliness which Isabel buys lock, stock and barrel. She sees him as pure in thought, too noble to concern himself with such mundane activities as making money. Ralph, however, is not deceived. He perceives that “under the guise of caring only for intrinsic values Osmond lived exclusively for the world. Far from being its master as he pretended to be, he was its very humble servant, and the degree of its attention was his only measure of success. He lived with his eye on it from morning till night, and the world was so stupid it never suspected the trick”. When Ralph learns that Isabel has agreed to marry Osmond, he’s appalled and tells her so. But nothing will deter her. She sees marrying Osmond as doing something great, something generous, and looks forward to a blissful union – a meeting of minds. They marry and settle in Rome and within a year she sees him for what he is – cold, egotistical, and cruel. Although she’s become fond of his daughter, she is desperately unhappy.

Why, then, does she stay with him? Divorce was not uncommon, especially among the wealthy, and if that wasn’t an option it was considered quite acceptable to simply live apart. You might as well ask why any woman – or man, for that matter – stays in a disastrous relationship. Isabel has her reasons, and James is too sophisticated a writer, in the best sense of the word, to give us any easy answers. Isabel not only stays but, near the end, when the truth is revealed to her – that Madame Merle and Osmond were lovers once upon a time, and that Pansy is actually Merle’s daughter – she doesn’t flee the marriage. Near the end, her aunt sends a telegram: her cousin Ralph is dying back in England. Against her husband’s wishes, Isabel travels back to Gardencourt, and spends the last few days at his bedside. Caspar Goodwood turns up again and, knowing something of her misery, makes an impassioned plea for her to renounce her marriage – to stay in England, or return to America with him. You find yourself rooting for him – “Go on, Isabel, do as he says – leave the bastard!” She’s moved by his words but tells him to go. And when he comes to Gardencourt the next morning, he’s informed that Mrs. Osmond has left for Rome.

The ending is ambiguous: will she really stay with her husband, knowing what she knows about him – feeling as she does? Papers have been written on the subject . . . scholars have argued that it’s in her nature to accept the consequences of her actions, however dire they may seem. Others have said she’s heading back to rescue Pansy, who’s been confined to a convent by her father for daring to love the wrong man. I choose to believe she’s going back to put an end to her marriage in a suitable, if conventional, manner. She will most likely need to buy him out, but she won’t worry about that. Like Rome and its ruins, she has suffered and survived. She was happy before she was rich, and she will be happy again:

“She saw herself, in the distant years, still in the attitude of a woman who had her life to live, and these intimations contradicted the spirit of the present hour. It might be desirable to die; but this privilege was evidently to be denied her. Deep in her soul – deeper than any appetite for renunciation – was the sense that life would be her business for a long time to come. And at moments there was something inspiring, almost exhilarating, in the conviction. It was a proof of strength – it was a proof that she should some day be happy again. It couldn’t be that she was to live only to suffer; she was still young, after all, and a great many things might happen to her yet.”


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