The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady is considered one of Henry James’s finest novels. As with so many of his tales, it concerns rich Europeans and rich Americans traveling in Europe, and is set in the latter half of the 19th century.

To some extent I can appreciate why it is so highly regarded. Though I’m not sufficiently sophisticated about literature to consistently be able to pick out what constitutes unusually good writing, even I at times reading this book was impressed at how well and pleasingly certain things were articulated.

Take this quotation from early in the book, as the protagonist is offered advice by her cousin:

Take things more easily. Don’t ask yourself so much whether this or that is good for you. Don’t question your conscience so much—it will get out of tune, like a strummed piano. Keep it for great occasions. Don’t try so much to form your character—it’s like trying to pull open a rosebud. Live as you like best, and your character will form itself. Most things are good for you; the exceptions are very rare.

I don’t know that I even agree with the philosophy expressed here—actually I’d say I disagree with it more than I agree with it—so it’s not the substance that necessarily impresses me. I just think the way the philosophy is expressed is quite lovely, with imaginative and appropriate metaphors.

I also can appreciate that James as a novelist has considerable psychological and sociological insight. If you want to know what the people of this milieu that he specialized in were like back then, what made them tick, I would think that a book like The Portrait of a Lady would be an excellent resource.

But it’s this last point that also relates to why my enjoyment of the book was limited. I wouldn’t say I find the people of this social milieu consistently repellant, but I mostly don’t find them unusually admirable, likable, or fascinating either.

For the most part, they are the “idle” rich, the sort of people that I suppose are considered by many to lead the most important lives, but to me their lives are typically not more important, more interesting, or more worthy of a 600 page novel than the lives of random people taken from the general population.

These people all too rarely actually do anything, so it gets a little tiresome spending this much time with them. They’re all about flirting, gossiping, obsessing over maintaining their social status, sightseeing as they flit from one European capital to the next, marrying advantageously, scheming, etc. I guess a small number of the men do have jobs of one sort or another—e.g., in banking, or owning their own business—but that pretty much all happens off stage; they certainly don’t seem to have any work responsibilities that preclude them traveling around the world to propose to someone who doesn’t want them.

Anyway, the “lady” of The Portrait of a Lady is Isabel Archer, of Albany, New York. She and an aunt she didn’t know she had find each other at the beginning of the book, when the second of Isabel’s parents dies. The aunt lives in England—or did, but now seems to spend most of her time traveling or hanging out in Italy or anywhere she doesn’t have to bother being with her husband. She takes young Isabel under her wing and decides to help her experience more of life by bringing her with her to England and beyond.

Isabel is an intelligent, independent-minded young woman, and evidently quite charming and attractive since almost everyone she meets seems drawn to her. Both her elderly uncle and his son—her cousin—Ralph immediately think she’s the cat’s pajamas when she arrives to stay with them indefinitely in England. She has a business owner suitor Caspar who would have preferred she had stayed home so he could marry her, but who refuses to give up hope no matter where she goes or how she develops. An English nobleman from nearby—Lord Warburton, a friend of the family—becomes smitten with her and also wants to marry her. She has a hip female American essayist friend Henrietta who routinely crosses paths with her throughout the book and respects and treats her as an equal in spite of her youth. People who pass through the house—most notably for the story a certain Madame Merle—are consistently taken with her as someone special. And ultimately she is proposed to by yet another guy, Gilbert Osmond, a cynical artist of some kind who lives in Italy.

As her uncle nears his death, he and Ralph discuss how best to help Isabel. They decide that she should get enough of the old man’s fortune to set her up for life where she won’t have to worry about money or how to support herself. (She’s described at times as “poor” in the book. She certainly isn’t, except compared to the other characters. She’s probably in the top 10%, but she’s schmoozing with people who are mostly in the top fraction of 1%.)

She is reluctant to marry, or to do anything else that will threaten her freedom to live her life as she pleases, something that will be easier to do with all the unexpected wealth she soon inherits. Though she reciprocates the feelings of both Caspar and Lord Warburton to some degree, she turns them both down. (Truth be told, Ralph too is fond enough of her to propose, and if anything she likes him more than her suitors, but aside from being her cousin—which doesn’t seem to be a factor to these folks—he’s sickly (tuberculosis presumably) and may not live much longer and so doesn’t think it appropriate to marry. But they develop a closeness more like brother and sister.)

But she does eventually accept Osmond’s proposal, though most would say he is easily her least suitable, least desirable suitor. But she falls for him, probably in part precisely because he’s not the sort that someone like her would be expected and pressured to marry—not when she has an English lord panting after her—plus he comes highly recommended by Madame Merle, whom she has come to much admire and trust.

Osmond has a daughter from a previous marriage, Pansy, who is 15 when she makes her first appearance in the book, and then 19 when the story picks up a bit later.

Pansy is certainly very nice, and it’s possible she’s really good-looking—like Isabel she soon has multiple guys jockeying to marry her—but God what a weird, creepy character. It’s clear why James paints her the way he does, but he takes it to such an extreme as to be hard to believe there could really be someone like her, or that if there were, people would respond to her as if she were even remotely normal.

Osmond has arranged it so that she has spent most of her life being raised in a convent. As a result, she has become an automaton. Utterly submissive to all, especially her father, meticulously well-versed in all the social graces, she is like a parody of the classic “well-behaved child.” As a 15 year old, she has the mind, spirit, and capacity for independent thought and behavior of a 7 year old. (I’m not exaggerating; had her age never been mentioned, I would have pegged her as being about 7.) At age 19 she’s only marginally more developed. Every kid—every young woman—no matter how strictly raised, has some rebelliousness, however slight, some capacity to object to authority. She has zero.

She’s a “Stepford wife,” basically, which it’s clear is exactly what Osmond has aimed for all along. The way he relishes her maximal submission to him is sinister, and a little terrifying when you think about how it may well reflect something sexually twisted about him.

The marriage between Isabel and Osmond goes bad fairly quickly, as Osmond reveals his true colors. He is not some kind of non-conformist or individualist who disdains society; in fact, he obsesses over his social status, determined, for instance, to see Pansy married only to someone very rich and very prominent in society.

He cares not a whit for Isabel, only for her (now their, or given 19th century law I suppose his) money. The things that seemed to attract him as so refreshing—her intellect, energy, spirit, willingness to defy societal expectations, etc.—are in fact things he does not value at all in a mate. Or insofar as such traits did sincerely attract him in the beginning, it was probably only because he would experience it as more sweet to overcome them once she was stuck with him.

For what he really wants in a wife is an adult Pansy, someone he can shape to be completely under his control, easily manipulated by him to behave in whatever way advances him in society.

The section of The Portrait of a Lady wherein James describes Isabel’s realization of what a terrible mistake she has made, and how trapped she now is in this marriage, is one of the most powerful and effectively written in the book. Here’s just a small sample:

A gulf had opened between them over which they looked at each other with eyes that were on either side a declaration of the deception suffered. It was a strange opposition, of the like of which she had never dreamed—an opposition in which the vital principle of the one was a thing of contempt to the other. It was not her fault—she had practiced no deception; she had only admired and believed. She had taken all the first steps in the purest confidence, and then she had suddenly found the infinite vista of a multiplied life to be a dark, narrow alley, with a dead wall at the end. Instead of leading to the high places of happiness, from which the world would seem to lie below one, so that one could look down with a sense of exaltation and advantage, and judge and choose and pity, it led rather downward and earthward, into realms of restriction and depression, where the sound of other lives, easier and freer, was heard as from above, and served to deepen the feeling of failure.

I’m inclined to attribute her plight in large part to the sexism of the era—the overwhelming pressure on women to marry or be considered failures, and then to accept a subservient role to their husbands—but one thing I find striking about The Portrait of a Lady is how few of the female characters follow that conventional path. Almost all of them are either single (e.g., Henrietta), or are estranged from their husbands (e.g., her aunt, who is not only estranged from her husband but lives almost full time in a different country).

It’s not just that they aren’t servile wives, but that they get away with not being so without having to pay any huge penalty. The female characters who retain some significant degree of independence seem to be getting along just fine.

Furthermore, when Isabel initially decides that she will marry much later if ever, so that she can see the world, find herself, and develop as an individual before becoming part of a couple, far more people in her life support her stance than find fault with it. Then later in the book when her marriage has clearly gone sour, there is no shortage of people urging her to end it and regain her freedom.

As the book draws to a close, she is indeed faced with this question of whether to abandon her marriage. But while it is entirely possible she will not do so, at least as I read it, her staying in the marriage would not be a matter of lacking other realistic options due to the sexist social reality in which she lives, nor would it be a matter of having been psychologically defeated and lost her will to do anything other than submit.

Instead, there are two factors that seem to matter most to her in influencing her toward staying with Osmond, both of which manifest strength more than weakness.

One is that she takes her marriage vows seriously and literally. She believes that as a matter of ethical principle, when you take a vow like that you stick to it and make the most of the situation, no matter how much you recognize it in retrospect as having been a mistake. Once you’re committed, there are no “do overs.”

The second is that in abandoning Osmond she does not want to abandon the pitiful Pansy. She has come to feel a responsibility toward Pansy; she wants to be present for her and to try to help her overcome what Osmond has done to her so that she can develop at least some maturity and independence and achieve some happiness in life.

This is far from the kind of book I most enjoy, but I’m glad I read it, glad I got a little more exposure to James.

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