The Portrait of a Lady

In which I review The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James’ 1881 novel about a free-spirited American heiress who falls under the spell of two charismatic and manipulative fortune-hunters.

What it’s about: England, the 1870s. Isabel Archer, an intelligent and spirited American girl, travels to England with her aunt, where she rejects marriage offers from English aristocrat Lord Warburton and the ardent if humourless American Caspar Woodward. Her sickly cousin Ralph Touchett encourages his father to leave Isabel a fortune to allow her to “meet the requirements of her imagination.” Now a wealthy heiress, Isabel befriends Madame Merle, an intelligent and cultured single woman. Merle throws Isabel into the path of Gilbert Osmond, a feckless dilettante with a young daughter named Pansy. Encouraged by Merle, Osmond declares his love for Isabel and they marry. Five years later, and following the death of her infant son, Isabel is trapped in a loveless, emotionally abusive marriage. Realising that Osmond has only married her for her money, she defies his plans to have Lord Warburton marry Pansy. Merle is finally unmasked as Osmond’s lover and Pansy’s mother, who plotted Isabel’s marriage to make Osmond rich and secure Pansy’s future. Isabel returns to England to visit the dying Ralph, who declares his love for her. Caspar reappears and again declares his love, but Isabel flees to Rome, presumably to return to Osmond.

Why it’s a classic: You can’t swing a dick in the cathedral of the Western Canon without hitting Henry James square in the jaw – which, who knows, he might have enjoyed, had he left the house more often and not been so frightened of sex. The Portrait of a Lady is primarily a classic for its extraordinarily rich, well-imagined psychological portrait of a young woman, who James articulates in all her enthusiasm, intelligence, naivity and insecurity. While James never gives up his authority as the Puppetmaster (inserting the occasional “I” into an omniscient third-person narrative), he also manages to take us fully inside the workings of Isabel’s mind, observing and occasionally judging her as she seeks out experience, makes mistakes and “perfects” her adult identity through suffering.

The novel is also a deliciously told (if very drawn-out) chamber piece about youthful American optimism falling prey to the wickedness and decadence of old Europe, that strongly recalls Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Madame Merle’s name echoes Madame de Merteuil, the brilliantly wicked schemer of Laclos’ story, who also comes a cropper when her wicked plans are unmasked. The vaguely pulpy quality of the plot pushes against the psychological realism and roughs it up a bit. James even manages to suggest something of Isabel’s sexual repression – her longing for intimacy, and the fear and frigidity that any physical encounter seems to provoke. As she confronts the reality of Caspar’s love, she imagines herself “float[ing in fathomless waters” and has a vision of “those wrecked and under water following a train of images before they sink.” In Isabel’s bitter confrontations with Osmond, James shows his understanding of the irresistible allure of a dominant, emotionally withholding man, and the grinding misery and terror of living in a toxic, codependent relationship.

Despite the grim facts of the story and James’ decidedly modern reluctance to allow his heroine a happy ending, he still manages to be incredibly funny. His portrait of Henrietta Stackpole, Isabel’s spinster friend and “lady journalist”, is a perfectly pitched satire of the awfulness of American Tourists Abroad (who eventually finds a perfect match with the equally dim-witted Englishman Mr Bantling). He also pokes savage fun at the effete Leonard Rosier who cares as much for his “bibelots” as winning the hand of Pansy Osmond. But the story belongs to Isabel, who we see transform from a naive and impulsive girl into a lady who forms a more painful acquaintance of the world, and must decide whether she can live with the consequences of her choices.

Bouquet or Brickbat: I’m not sure there’s a floral arrangement large enough to declare my love for this book. I’ve been unsuccessfully trying to finish A Portrait of a Lady for the last decade. My last attempt, two years ago, got me as far as Isabel’s marriage, but I kept abandoning it – not because I didn’t love it, but because the demands of life left me insufficient time to curl my brain around James’ crenellated and sometimes extraordinarily opaque prose. “It was a moment before Isabel grasped her meaning,” James writes at one point; “this sense was so modestly, or at least so ingeniously, veiled.” This could be James’ manifesto of his writing style, and the tantalising if occasionally exasperating experience of reading him. Never one to make a simple declarative statement when a double negative, a tangled metaphor or a freight-train-length subjunctive clause will do, his subtle, allusive prose style definitely takes some getting used to. Not that his lack of directness is for any lack of ability, of course. When he wants to, James can deliver a line of prose so startlingly intense and alive that it makes your heart stop. The final chapters, in which Isabel plumbs the depths of her unhappiness, are especially thrilling: “The rest was that she had never been loved before. She had believed it, but this was different; this was the hot wind of the deser, at the approach of which the others dropped dead, like mere sweet airs of the garden.” There is, one realises, a degree of sadism in James’ approach, both in his withholding information from his naive heroine until she’s locked inside her gilded cage, and his similar refusal to come to the point for the benefit of his readers, withholding plot reveals like a driving instructor hiding street maps, and remaining maddeningly vague about his characters’ true intentions until the final links of the melodrama are unravelled.

So why, then, would anyone subject themselves to James’ two-steps-forward three-steps-back narrative, and his menagerie of emotionally constipated bourgeois with too much money and not enough sex or Vitamin C? Because, as a friend commented to me recently, “He knows shit about people.” Isabel Archer should feel like a museum piece, with a life that’s profoundly different from our modern age, but she’s so extraordinarily well-portrayed that it’s impossible not to sympathise with her deeply.  Though few of us would take Isabel’s view that marriage is an undissolvable commitment, nearly all of us will understand a young person’s longing to “get a general impression of life” and the feelings of impatience and fear as we make our first adult decisions that will seal our future. Most of us, too, will experience the painful realisation that adult life seldom resembles a romance novel, and that we know ourselves better when we are suffering than when we are happy. In Madame Merle, James gives us another portrait of a lady – a brilliant, ambitious woman whose future promised more than it delivered, and who is laid low by the machinations of a cruel and manipulative man.

For these reasons, and for the sheer pleasure of being in the presence of such a formidably intelligent storyteller, The Portrait of a Lady deserves its status as a classic – and one of the very best novels I’ve ever read. I’ve come rather late, at the age of nearly 44, to discovering The Master, but now I intend to be a devoted and submissive disciple.

Quotable Quote: Too many to mention, but here are two of James’ choicest observations of Isabel, that seem to exist both inside and outside her consciousness:

Deep in her soul – it was the deepest thing there – lay a belief that if a certain light should dawn, she could give herself completely; but this image, on the whole, was too formidable to be attractive.”

Her way of taking compliments seemed sometimes rather dry; she got rid of them as rapidly as possible. But as regards this was sometimes misjudged; she was thought insensible to them, whereas in fact she was simply unwilling to show how infinitely they pleased her. To show that was to show too much.”




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