The Portrait of a Lady
“It appeared to Isabel that the unpleasant had been even too absent from her knowledge, for she had gathered from her acquaintance with literature that it was often a source of interest and even instruction.”
I think I’m the only one who still reads/loves Henry James. Okay, maybe they still teach The Turn of the Screw in undergraduate courses (they did in mine, anyway) but I’ve yet to meet anyone else who loves the lengthier psychological novels as much as I do. I don’t know what it is, exactly. I guess I like the feeling of time travel, the sense that I’m sitting next to an English gentleman overlooking the sloping fields and tailored gardens of a country house, or, in the case of The Portrait, that I’m wandering among the ruins of Rome under the particular gleam of an Italian sun. Of course there’s also the fact of getting into someone else’s head that I like, and James’ psychoanalysis is so expansive. His omniscient narrator explores the mind not only of Isabel (the “Lady” in question), but also of her friends, family, and acquaintances over many years, so that by the end one feels that she understands these people better than they understand themselves. Why do people do the things they do? James wants to know, and so do I.
In The Portrait of a Lady James tells the story of Isabel Archer, a young American who travels to England to visit her aunt and uncle, and has her life inexorably altered by the events that happen there. The question under scrutiny, or one of them, at least, is what difference does money make to a young woman’s happiness? Her cousin Ralph, among other men, admires her sense of adventure and originality: “She was intelligent and generous; it was a fine free nature; but what was she going to do with herself? This question was irregular, for with most women one had no occasion to ask it. Most women did with themselves nothing at all; they waited, in attitudes more or less gracefully passive, for a man to come that way and furnish them with a destiny. Isabel’s originality was that she gave one an impression of having intentions of her own.” Realizing, however, that Isabel would not likely be able to fulfill her intentions, given that she was poor, Ralph convinces his dying father to leave the girl a fortune, thereby, he supposes, setting her free from the obligation of finding a husband.
The question now becomes what will make Isabel happy? The results of his social experiment, however, turn out to be not at all what Ralph imagined. Presumably free from the danger of being taken advantage of due to her poverty, Isabel is now “made use of” for her money. It’s a complicated story, the details of which don’t emerge until the end of the novel, but the upshot is that Isabel becomes so focused on not following society’s edicts that she swings in the opposite direction, marrying a poor man in order to set him “free.” The match turns out to be a bad one. Still, there remain plenty of opportunities for Isabel to rearrange her life to better suit her own happiness. She could follow the example of her aunt, Mrs. Touchett, for example, and live apart from her husband for most of the year. She could, the narrator and Isabel’s friends suggest, leave him altogether. She could accept the offers of other suitors who could also take care of her. But Isabel does none of this. It’s almost as if she has acquired a taste for the misery she never knew in her younger life. Suffering, for Isabel, seems to be the sign of a higher nature. It is Isabel’s desire to be free from the scrutiny and expectations of those who wish her well which holds her captive. It is, in essence, her own mind which causes her suffering. In this sense, the tale is as modern and relatable today as it ever was.
One wants Isabel to be a feminist heroine, but James does not allow that wish to be fulfilled. Even with plenty of avenues for escape, Isabel returns to her cruel husband and a life she appears to hate in Rome. So is there no hope for woman, according to James? Are we doomed, not only by societal circumstance, but by our own perverse natures? I don’t think so. In the guise of a secondary character, Isabel’s friend, Henrietta Stackpole, James suggests not. This lady, a traveling journalist, is a mix between Mrs. Touchett who, while completely in control of her own life, is too cold for Isabel’s tastes, and Isabel, who bends to her husband’s every whim. Henrietta is sensible yet caring. And though Isabel is disappointed by her friend’s eventual decision to marry an Englishman, it seems to me the most logical and happy marriage of all. But, of course, logic and happiness does not for a good novel make. And, by extension, perhaps not for the most interesting, or “original,” life, either.