Review: The Portrait Of A Lady by Henry James

I once read that that the English literature canon could be, at its narrowest, defined as Jane Austen, George Eliot, Joseph Conrad and Henry James. As fraught as any canon is, I like this definition, mainly because it seems so manageable (it’s about 60 novels in total).

The Portrait Of A Lady does what it says – it is a portrait of one Isabel Archer, an early-20s American woman who is brought over to England by her aunt some time in the 1870s. At one point the narrator calls themself her biographer. The novel begins in England, on the grounds of Gardencourt, a grand Edwardian house some forty miles from London. Three men gather in the garden for tea – Mr Touchett, the dying owner, Ralph, his also ailing son, and Lord Warburton, a friend and neighbour known for his “radical” new politics (although not so radical as to give up his many properties and title). Isabel interrupts the eternal summer afternoon and quickly dazzles the men in various ways. She is somehow an ideal woman – polite, charming, but also independent to the point of stubbornness. Her main goal in life is to experience as much of it as possible. Although this of course refers only to a certain type of middle-class life – don’t expect any lower down the rungs to get much more than a mention.

Isabel makes such an impression in fact that she is soon fielding a marriage proposal from the gentlemanly Lord Warburton, which she declines. She is also pursued to England by Caspar Goodwood, a blunt but passionate man who proposed to her back in the US and, shockingly, works for a living (I’m firmly #teamCaspar). “I don’t want to begin my life by marrying,” Isabel tells Ralph, “There are other things a woman can do”. Goodwood is accompanied by the straight-talking Henrietta Stackpole, a journalist and Isabel’s closest confidant who has come to investigate the inner life of the Old World. When old Mr Touchett dies much of Ralph’s inheritance (at his request) goes to Isabel, in effect setting her up for life and ensuring she can do whatever she likes. But the gift is not the freedom Ralph and his father hope it will be.

Under the wing of Mrs Touchett and her friend, the mysterious Madame Merle, Isabel sets out on her version of the Grand Tour, eventually ending up in Florence. There she meets Gilbert Osmond, a “poor” widower known mainly for his exquisite taste in things. Warning signs abound – particularly Osmond’s daughter Pansy who is more doll than human – but Isabel falls in love and they get married. The novel skips forward in time. The marriage of course goes south. Osmond is the archetypal douchebag, a man more interested in what his wife says about him, like his other collectibles. He is controlling and sullen, preventing her from seeing her friends and setting her up to fail socially. But Isabel now feels the burden of social rules more heavily than ever. The final section of the novel centres on whether she will escape her toxic marriage.

Inevitably the novel suffers because it just doesn’t seem that big a deal to leave a marriage any more. You’d have to be really, really invested in 19th Century mores to feel the full effect (James apparently added to the ending because the original was too scandalous). Still, it’s yet another compelling look at young hearts and minds leading their owners astray. Beyond love, the novel’s central concern is, as Isabel asks, “What should one do with the misery of the world in a scheme of the agreeable for one’s self?”. How should one live, and live well? Each of the novel’s characters hint at different answers, whether they be love, duty, art or something less easily put into words.

Most interesting is its portrayal of American, English and European society. The contrast between America – fresh out of the Civil War and idealistically republican – and England – tip-toeing towards a more liberal society – is fascinating. Europe too has been rucked by change again, with the fall of the second French Empire and the beginning of a new republican era. It’s not a time that immediately leaps to mind for its revolutionary fervour, but it’s a neat reminder that to those living them all times feel radical.

Of course the main reason you read Henry James is for those infamous sentences, the ones that add phrases and double negatives until you wonder if you’re back where you started. They are not like anyone else’s. Apart from the sentences, there’s the joy James has in skewering characters. Madame Merle is summed up by one wise observer as “a pathless desert of virtue”; the dying Ralph is “an accidental cohesion of relaxed angles”. And when the novel reaches Italy, it richly evokes the effect of all that history on its heroine:

Isabel took a drive alone that afternoon; she wished to be far away, under the sky, where she could descend from her carriage and tread upon the daisies. She had long before this taken old Rome into her confidence, for in a world of ruins the ruin of her happiness seemed a less unnatural catastrophe. She rested her weariness upon things that had crumbled for centuries and yet still were upright; she dropped her secret sadness into the silence of lonely places, where its very modern quality detached itself and grew objective, so that as she sat in a sun-warmed angle on a winter’s day, or stood in a mouldy church to which no one came, she could almost smile at it and think of its smallness. Small it was, in the large Roman record, and her haunting sense of the continuity of the human lot easily carried her from the less to the greater. She had become deeply, tenderly acquainted with Rome; it interfused and moderated her passion. But she had grown to think of it chiefly as the place where people had suffered.

I’ve wandered Roman ruins and had some of the same feelings. Despite nearly 150 years separating us, my dominant feeling was one of recognition.

Gay rating: not gay

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