In an essay that explains his process and literary technique in The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James writes:
The novel is of its very nature an “ado,” an ado about something, and the larger the form it takes the greater of course the ado. Therefore, consciously, that was what one was in for—for positively organizing an ado about Isabel Archer.
One looked it well in the face, I seem to remember, this extravagance; and with the effect precisely of recognizing the charm of the problem. Challenge any such problem with any intelligence, and you immediately see how full it is of substance; the wonder being, all the while, as we look at the world, how absolutely, how inordinately, the Isabel Archers, and even much smaller female fry, insist on mattering. George Eliot has admirably noted it—‘In these frail vessels is borne onward through the ages the treasure of human affection.’
As I have made my way through the second part of this novel, I could not quite figure out what about Isabel’s story affected me so deeply. But James’s own words about his heroine, and similar characters in Eliot’s novels, provided me with an answer—she insists on mattering. Isabel is a charming, beautiful young woman whose inheritance from her uncle gives her what she wants more than anything in the world, freedom and choice. It is no wonder that she rejects one suitor after another, since marriage, to her, would mean giving up her liberty. I did feel immensely sorry for her suitors, especially Lord Warburton, who genuinely loved Isabel and had a difficult time putting aside his love. But reading about Isabel march headlong into a series of choices that make her life wretched was even more painful.
The most brilliant piece of writing in the book is an occasion during which Isabel, late in the night, reflects on the horrible mistake she has made that puts her in the very cage which she was so desperately trying to avoid. She is duped into making this mistake, but her loved ones try to make her see her error in judgment before she acts. Unfortunately for Isabel she is naïve and trusts the wrong people. Once she is plunged into an unhappy life she accepts it with a great deal of stoicism and refuses to do anything to make a better, or at least a more comfortable, existence for herself. She views her solitude, her fear and her entrapment as a type of penance for her poor choices. James, himself, acknowledges that Isabel’s inner dialogue is some of best writing in the story and he says about these lines, “Reduced to its essence, it is but the vigil of searching criticism; but it throws the action further forward than twenty ‘incidents’ might have done.” Isabel’s thoughts during her vigil go on for several pages, but I offer here one of the best, and most chilling, passages:
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 the 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 where it served to deepen the feeling of failure.
James’s novel has shattered me and, despite the fact that there are several people in her life that love her and want to help her, I still came away with a negative view of the world. I need to take a bit of a break from James’s novels and to think more about this one. I have collections of his letters, diaries and essays that will keep me busy for a while.
5 responses to “Frail Vessels: Concluding Thoughts on The Portrait of a Lady”
Lovely review Melissa. It sounds as if James is a perhaps unexpectedly devastating author. Certainly y, from the quality of his prose, not one to be rushed!
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Thanks so much. His prose and his plot are heavy, indeed, meant to be digested only a bit at a time. I had a friend earn me about his novels and he wasn’t kidding!
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Great post. Isabel’s mistake makes me think of Dorothea’s mistake in Middlemarch in marrying Casaubon though I do think Osmond’s motives are worse than Casaubon’s. The other character in Eliot’s work who makes a wrong choice is Gwendolyn. So there are parallels. I think when you ar ready, you should perhaps read The Age of Innocence by Wharton. Like Portrait, it’s a favorite of mine. Harold Bloom argues that Newland Archer is a foil of sorts for Isabel Archer.
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I do think there are similarities with Middlemarch and James was influenced by that novel. But he ends on a much more tragic and sinister note than Eliot does. I’ve read Wharton’s Summer and Ethan Frome. I will have to give Age of Innocence a try as well. Thanks!
Beautiful post Melissa.