Source of book: I own this.
I came rather late in life to Henry James: my first experience was in my mid thirties. This is probably just as well, as the teenaged me might have gotten the wrong impression.
James writes tragedies, for the most part. If there is one thing he writes best, it would be dysfunctional or failed relationships. I am hard pressed to think of anything of his that I have read that contained a truly great marriage - and the functional ones that do exist are usually at the extreme margins of the plot and do not even function as a foil to the bad relationships.
I have wondered if this is related to the fact that James never had a romantic relationship, and indeed seemed to avoid close relationships in general. This, combined with his brilliancy in observing and writing about the unhappiness of others, gives his writing a generally tragic air.
The Portrait of a Lady is a devastating tragedy written when James was at the peak of his powers. As with many of his novels and novellas, he focuses on a female protagonist; and, as in other tales, his protagonist is young, naive, and in over her head in a sea of more sophisticated and Machiavellian sharks.
Isabel Archer is a young American woman, whose parents have died, leaving her with neither fortune nor prospects. Her elder sisters have done alright, marrying respectably although not brilliantly, and have settled into ordinary lives. Isabel is the prettiest, and has the most striking personality. In the wake of her father’s death, Isabel’s aunt (who is married to a rich American financier who lives in England), takes an interest in her, and whisks her off to Europe to expand her horizons. In fairly short order, she has managed to turn down two marriage proposals: one from Lord Warburton, a rather decent - and fantastically wealthy - English lord; and from her longtime acquaintance, Caspar Goodwood, a rising American businessman, whose “Americanness,” for lack of a better term, is amusingly caricatured by James. Oh, and her sickly cousin Ralph is also in love with her, but he knows he will die young and has no chance anyway.
Soon afterward, Isabel’s rich uncle dies, and, at the insistence of Ralph (his only child), leaves Isabel a sizeable legacy. This proves to be her undoing. Madam Merle, a friend of Isabel’s aunt, an American expat with a mysterious and lurid past of some sort, takes Isabel in hand. She introduces Isabel to Gilbert Osmond, another American expat, a widow with a daughter, who is somehow connected to her. Gilbert has impeccable taste, can charm anyone, and lacks money. What a perfect match, right? Isabel is too naive to see Gilbert for the narcissist and egoist that he is, or to realize that she is being manipulated by Madam Merle - and that Merle has an uncomfortably close connection with Gilbert. For his part, Gilbert believes he can change Isabel to fit his tastes, and clamp down on her irrepressible originality and independence.
This does not go well. Isabel doesn’t change, Gilbert ends up hating her. Even though he never does anything openly wrong, he essentially mentally abuses her. And, eventually, Isabel realizes that she has been duped.
As is typical with James, there are no really clear villains. Madam Merle herself suffered a bad marriage, and has had to use her brains and charm to survive. She is genuinely taken by surprise when the marriage she has arranged goes bad. She thought Gilbert was better than that, and that he would like Isabel. Likewise (although I won’t reveal the plot twist entirely), her ulterior motive is hardly shameful.
Gilbert is a narcissist and egoist, but he deserves some sympathy too. By 19th Century standards, he isn’t a bad spouse. His mental abuse is the natural working out of the views of the time. He expected her to change herself to suit him - quite reasonable for an upper class man in the Victorian Era - and her refusal to cater to him would (and does) earn her condemnation. An additional source of friction here too is that the money is hers, not his. Had it been the other way around (as it is for Gilbert’s sister and her philandering husband the Count), he could have easily controlled her using money. But the shoe is on the other foot.
Likewise, the “heroes” are flawed. Isabel is a bit of a live wire, but she lacks an intellectual foundation to aid her judgment. She ignores the advice of her aunt and cousin, both of which are more observant than she. She likewise ignores her friend Henrietta (a female journalist who is, like Caspar, hilariously American.) While she pays an unfair price for her mistakes, she mostly has herself to blame.
In the case of Caspar, who is cast as the hero - he offers to save her near the end - it is easy to see why Isabel refuses him. He is an egoist in his own way, and too over eager to be charming rather than slightly creepy. Would she have been happy with him? Probably not. Or with Lord Warburton, who is thoroughly nice, but not Isabel’s type at all.
Perhaps the most fascinating character is that of Ralph, who unwittingly causes the tragedy, and ends up regretting it. Ralph is the cynical observer, except he really isn’t that cynical. He is, how does one even put it? Disinterested, perhaps? (Not uninterested, which is most certainly NOT a synonym.) Ralph has no dog in the race, other than curiosity to see what someone like Isabel might do with enough money to enable her to chart her own course without financial considerations limiting her choices.
It perhaps says something about James that he has his character make terrible choices. I was tempted for a moment to say that James is sexist - his female characters rarely have good judgment. Except that his male characters are no better. They just tend not to pay for their mistakes the same way the women do. And that has little to do with James and everything to do with how late Victorian society functioned. If anything, the men tend to be indecisive and weak at all the wrong moments. It also occurs to me that Catherine from Washington Square is a fantastically strong and admirable character who pays for her virtues, not her mistakes.
One of the two best things about The Portrait of a Lady is the psychological portraits of the characters. The title itself is a clue to that: this book is a portrait of Isabel - a deep look at her psyche, her strengths, weaknesses, hopes, dreams, and emotions. And James is fantastic at the art of showing these rather than stating them. But there is more than that. We are given insights into many of the characters as we go along. Ralph, Henrietta, Mrs. Touchett, Madam Merle, Gilbert, Lord Warburton, Edward Rosier, and Pansy in particular are given special treatment throughout the book. The one blank slate seems to be Caspar, who one wonders if he even has an inner life.
The other strength of this book is the writing. James’ isn’t the easiest writing to read quickly (although it is by no means unusual for his era), but it is fantastically well crafted. At multiple points in this long book (600+ pages), I went back and re-read a passage just for the amazing way it was written.
Here are a few of the best moments - ones I couldn’t resist writing down. First is the opening line:
Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.
James was an American by birth, who, like his characters, spent much of his life in Europe. Lines like this elicit his admiration for the Old World and its ceremonies. It also sets the stage beautifully for what is to follow. In this opening scene, when Isabel first meets her uncle, cousin, and Lord Warburton, much of what will occur later can be seen in the interactions of the characters.
This initial scene occurs at the beginning, but the narrative is already in motion. Later, James circles back to introduce us to Isabel and exactly how she ended up in England. There are two lines in that chapter which are good in themselves, but also form a contrast with the final scenes in the book.
[T]his young lady had been seated alone with a book. To say that she had a book is to say that her solitude did not press upon her; for her love of knowledge had a fertilising quality and her imagination was strong.
Her reputation of reading a great deal hung about her like the cloudy envelope of a goddess in an epic; it was supposed to engender difficult questions, and to keep the conversation at a low temperature. The poor girl liked to be thought clever, but she hated to be thought bookish; she used to read in secret, and, though her memory was excellent, to abstain from quotation.
As an aside here, take a look at the masterful use of semicolons in those two sentences. James’ sentences are written with such a beautiful awareness of how clauses and ideas relate.
This scene is revisited at various points throughout the book. The Touchett’s massive and impressive library, where Isabel spends hours during her initial visit pairs with her last visit, where she cannot bring herself to read. Her early love for reading is crushed by Gilbert’s disdain for books and imagination in general.
James is nothing if not perceptive when it comes to the hypocrisies of his - or any - age. In an early conversation between Mr. Touchett (the rich uncle) and Isabel, they discuss Lord Warburton, who is both fabulously rich and politically progressive - even radical. Mr. Touchett, the capitalist banker, doesn’t think much of this.
“Don’t you think they are sincere?” Isabel asked.
“Well, they are very conscientious,” Mr. Touchett allowed; “but it seems as if the took it out in theories, mostly. Their radical views are a kind of amusement; they have go to have some amusement, and they might have coarser tastes than that. You see they are very luxurious, and these progressive ideas are about their biggest luxury.”
What a delightfully cynical observation. And kind of true too, both about the British aristocracy in the twilight of the Victorian Era and in our own times. It’s easy to be progressive as long as your own status isn’t really threatened. On the other hand, I suppose that one of the reasons the British Empire faded without a bloody revolution is that the Bertie Woosters of the Edwardian Era were content to allow needed reform to happen, rather than double down on increasing inequality like some of our current American plutocrats.
Mr. Touchett is hardly the only cynic in his family, however. Ralph is rather delightful, and this exchange between he and Isabel about Henrietta is fantastically witty.
“Shall I love her, or shall I hate here?” asked Ralph, while they stood on the platform, before the advent of the train.
“Whichever you do will matter very little to her,” said Isabel. “She doesn’t care a straw what men think of her.”
“As a man I am bound to dislike her, then. She must be a kind of monster. Is she very ugly?”
“No, she is decidedly pretty.”
“A female interviewer -- a reporter in petticoats? I am very curious to see her,” Ralph declared.
“It is very easy to laugh at her, but it is not easy to be as brave as she.”
“I should think not; interviewing requires bravery. Do you suppose she will interview me?”
“Never in the world. She will not think you of enough importance.”
“You will see,” said Ralph. “She will send a description of us all, including Bunchie, to her newspaper.”
“I shall ask her not to,” Isabel answered.
“You think she is capable of it, then.”
“And yet you have made her your bosom-friend?”
“I have not made her my bosom-friend; but I like her, in spite of her faults.”
“Ah, well,” said Ralph, “I am afraid I shall dislike her, in spite of her merits.”
That is an exchange worthy of Oscar Wilde.
Later, there is another one, this time about Henrietta’s ambiguous relationship with Mr. Bantling, a minor British aristocrat.
“She has made a conquest. He thinks here a brilliant woman. It may go far,” said Ralph.
Isabel was silent a moment.
“I call Henrietta a very brilliant woman; but I don’t think it will go far,” she rejoined at last. “They would never really know each other. He has not the least idea what she really is, and she has no just comprehension of Mr. Bantling.”
“There is no more usual basis of matrimony than a mutual misunderstanding.”
What an outstanding line. For better or worse, Ralph is right. Henrietta and Bantling do eventually square it up -- although not for a number of years. But, alas, Isabel herself will marry on the basis of a mutual misunderstanding.
Not too long after this, Caspar Goodwood makes his first appearance, and attempts to convince Isabel to marry him. It does not go well. She turns him down, and he won’t let it go.
“What good do you expect to get by insisting?”
“The good of not losing you.”
“You have no right to talk about losing what is not yours. And even from your own point of view,” Isabel added, “you ought to know when to let one alone.”
I’ve met a few people like this in my law practice. The ones who feel they have some entitlement. (And, whether it comes through in this short excerpt, Caspar does feel he has a claim on her, if he can just assert it strongly enough.) However, Caspar does get one thing right about Isabel:
“Do you think I am so very easily pleased?” she asked suddenly, changing her tone.
“No I don’t; I shall try and console myself with that. But there are a certain number of very clever men in the world; if there were only one, it would be enough. You will be sure to take no one who is not?”
“I don’t need the aid of a clever man to teach me how to live,” said Isabel. “I can find it out for myself.”
Isabel speaks the truth -- but not the truth about her, and that is the problem. All it will take is a very clever man (aided by an even more clever woman), and she will marry to be “taught how to live.” Isabel is the one person who can’t see this about herself. Later, Mrs. Touchett has some misgivings about Isabel and Gilbert having met, but she consoles herself that Isabel refused Lord Warburton. I love this line about Mrs. Touchett’s view of marriage:
Mrs. Touchett easily remembered that the girl had refused an English peer; and that a young lady for whom Lord Warburton had not been up to the mark should content herself with an obscure American dilettante, a middle aged widower with an overgrown daughter and an income of nothing - this answered to nothing in Mrs. Touchett’s conception of success. She took, it will be observed, not the sentimental, but the political view of matrimony -- a view which has always had much to recommend it.
I am, shall we say, not of Mrs. Touchett’s opinion. However, I will grant one thing: there is much to be said for marrying someone in one’s general income class. Much less gold digging -- and that goes both directions. But that is probably the attorney in me talking. (Also, how good is that last sentence? Delaying “political” until the end of the clause is perfection.)
There is another witty exchange on the general topic of materialism later on. Edward Rosier, the star-crossed would-be suitor of Gilbert’s daughter Pansy, tries to enlist Madame Merle’s assistance. Edward isn’t the sharpest tool, but he is rather earnest.
Rosier’s eyes wandered, lingeringly, around the room again.
“You have some very good things.”
“Yes, but I hate them.”
“Do you want to get rid of them?” the young man asked quickly.
“No, it’s good to have something to hate; one works it off.”
“I love my things,” said Rosier, as he sat there smiling.
I did snicker when I read that one.
Notwithstanding all this sparkling wit, the story turns darker and darker as it progresses. A particularly devastating moment is when Isabel comes to terms with the fact that her husband hates her.
She remembered perfectly the first sign he had given of it -- it had been like the bell that was to ring up the curtain upon the real drama of their life. He said to her one day that she had too many ideas, and that she must get rid of them. He had told her that already, before their marriage; but then she had not noticed it; it came back to her only afterwards.
And then later:
The real offense, as she ultimately perceived, was her having a mind of her own at all. Her mind was to be his -- attached to his own like a small garden-plot to a deer-park. He would rake the soil gently and water her flowers; he would weed the beds and gather an occasional nosegay. It would be a pretty piece of property for a proprietor already far-reaching. He didn’t wish her to be stupid. On the contrary, it was because she was clever that she had pleased him. But he expected her intelligence to operate altogether in his favour, and so far from desiring her mind to be a blank, he had flattered himself that it would be richly receptive. He had expected his wife to feel with him, and for him, to enter into his opinions, his ambitions, his preferences; and Isabel was obliged to confess that this was no very unwarrantable demand on the part of a husband. But there were certain things she could never take in.
James here betrays the values of his time -- and pushes back on them. Indeed, it really was considered a reasonable demand that a woman “submit” to her husband in all things including her very ideas. In fact, this is precisely what is expected within the Christian Patriarchy circles my wife and I spent time in. At least in theory. And there were more than a few narcissists who, like Gilbert Osmond, came to hate their wives for having their own minds. Isabel may concede this in theory, but not in practice. And I can say for certain that my wife would never tolerate it. Likewise, I would never expect it. I love that she has a sharp mind - and a sharp tongue on occasion. I have no wish to have it any other way.
Sadly, Isabel really has no one with whom she can be honest. Except for Henrietta.
“Yes, I am miserable,” she said, very gently. She hated to hear herself say it; she tried to say it as judicially as possible.
“What does he do to you?” Henrietta asked, frowning as if she were inquiring into the operations of a quack doctor.
“He does nothing. But he doesn’t like me.”
“He’s very difficult!” cried Miss Stackpole. “Why don’t you leave him?”
“I can’t change that way,” Isabel said.
“Why not, I should like to know? You won’t confess that you have made a mistake. You are too proud.”
“I don’t know whether I am too proud. But I can’t publish my mistake. I don’t think that’s decent. I would much rather die.”
“You won’t think so always,” said Henrietta.
“I don’t know what great unhappiness might bring me to; but it seems to me that I shall always be ashamed. One must accept one’s deeds. I married him before all the world; I was perfectly free; it was impossible to do anything more deliberate. One can’t change that way,” Isabel repeated.
There is something particularly devastating about this passage. Isabel, obviously, would lose if she left. Probably her fortune, which would now be Gilbert’s - the laws were unfavorable to women. But also her “respectability,” for whatever that was worth. Caspar would take her. He offered as much. I have seen other people (male and female these days) stay in doomed relationships for years - decades even - because of this misplaced sense of pride. It would be better if more people were willing to admit a mistake - and to grant grace to others who have left failed marriages too.
There is one more amazingly perceptive line from this terrible relationship. Gilbert, naturally, loathes Henrietta. But, because his life consists of showing contempt for the world while craving its approval, he wishes to do the socially proper thing.
Isabel presently saw that Osmond would have liked her to urge a little the cause of her friend, insist a little upon his receiving her, so that he might appear to suffer for good manners’ sake. Her immediate acceptance of his objections put him too much in the wrong -- it being in effect one of the disadvantages of expressing contempt, that you cannot enjoy at the same time the credit of expressing sympathy.
At the end, Ralph finally succumbs to his illness. As he is dying, Caspar and Henrietta agree to take him back to England. Soon afterward, Isabel is told the end is near, and she decides to defy her husband’s wishes, and go see him one last time. The book ends without telling us what the fallout will be. It is implied that she is going back to Gilbert, but it is far from clear if he will take her back or not. If he does, he will presumably punish her forever for her disobedience. But, as one of the above exchanges indicates, she herself wonders if enough suffering will make her leave. Yes, she’d lose her fortune. (Laws were not favorable to women…) Caspar would take her -- he offered. But would she take him? It seems unlikely. So we are left to wonder.
As a final thought, here is the exchange with Caspar when he realizes she is miserable, even if she won’t admit it.
“But I do ask one sole satisfaction -- that you tell me -- that you tell me -----”
“That I tell you what?”
“Whether I may pity you.”
“Should you like that?” Isabel asked, trying to smile again.
“To pity you? Most assuredly! That at least would be doing something. I would give my life to it.”
She raised her fan to her face, which it covered, all except her eyes. They rested a moment on his.
“Don’t give your life to it; but give a thought to it every now and then.”
This actually would have been a great way to end the book. There are another 80 pages to go, and the ending as it is is okay, even if it is a cliffhanger. But, man, what a great final line that one would have been.
I rather love Henry James, and this is one of his finest works. While I noted at the outset that I thought his writing might have been wasted on the teenage me, I also wonder if books like this might be good reading for teens in general, at an age when they are likely to become enamored of charming narcissists like Osmond, or fall prey to the machinations of more sophisticated manipulators like Madame Merle.
Henry James had a brother, William James, considered one of the most influential psychologists - and philosophers - of all time. Henry shared his brother’s keen insights into the working of the human mind, and it is arguable which one has had the most profound influence. Given the power of stories, I lean toward Henry. Not everyone will take a philosophy course. But anyone can appreciate the insight demonstrated in novels like this. It is a difficult task indeed to read The Portrait of a Lady, and not come away deeply moved and troubled by its truths.
Other Henry James works I have read and reviewed: