Tag Archives: Henry James

Frail Vessels: Concluding Thoughts on The Portrait of a Lady

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.

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Such Constant Attention: Some initial thoughts on The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

William Gass astutely describes the literary style of Henry James, “If any of us were as well taken care of as the sentences of Henry James, we would never long for another, never wander away; where else would we receive such constant attention, our thoughts anticipated, our feelings understood?”   As I was struggling to decide which title on my list of  epic books to read first, I opened up a few of them and read a paragraph or two.  After reading only a page of The Portrait of a Lady I knew exactly what Gass was talking about. That’s not to say that some of the other books on my list didn’t appeal, but the language of  The Portrait of a Lady struck me as so  meticulous and precise that I was immediately drawn in:

Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony know as afternoon tea.  There are circumstances in which, whether you partake of the tea or not—some people of course never do—the situation is in itself delightful.  Those that I have in mind in beginning to unfold this simple history offered an admirable setting to an innocent pastime.  The implements of the little feast had been disposed upon the lawn of an old English country-house, in what I should call the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon.  Part of the afternoon had waned, but much of it was left, and what was left was of the finest and rarest quality.

I also noticed, and was delighted by, James’s droll sense of humor.  Mr. and Mrs. Touchett, ex-pats from the United States,  have been married for many years, most of which they have lived apart.  It is clear that the couple has not had a successful or happy marriage, and Mrs. Touchett’s reasons for not staying in London with her husband are trite and hilarious:

Mrs. Touchett indulged in no regrets nor speculations, and usually came once a year to spend a month with her husband, a period during which she apparently took pains to convince him that she had adopted the right system.  She was not fond of the English style of life, and had three or four reasons for it to which she currently alluded;  they bore upon minor points of that ancient order, but for Mrs. Touchett they amply justified non-residence.  She detested bread-sauce, which, as she said, looked like a poultice and tasted like soap; she objected to the consumption of beer by her maidservants; and she affirmed that the British laundress (Mrs. Touchett was very particular about the appearance of her linen) was not a mistress of her art.

These seem like rather trivial reasons to reject living in a country.  I have to admit that, although I’ve never heard of or had bread-sauce, after looking at photos and recipes it does seem rather unappetizing.

Finally, James’s contrast of American versus British customs, attitudes and characters I found most compelling.  He often lingers on the habits, speech and physiognomy of his American characters.  My impression, so far, is that the English are traditional, reserved, quiet, and, perhaps, a bit uptight.  The Americans, especially in the form of the heroine Isabel Archer, possess a great deal more candor, are less interested in social classes, and, in general, are a bit more carefree.  Isabel, who has been brought to London from New York by her Aunt Touchett after the death of her parents,  is intelligent, speaks on a variety of interesting topics, is well-read, and English men like Lord Warburton, when they first encounter Isabel,  find her more appealing than her British counterparts:  “Lord Warburton was left standing with Ralph Touchett, to whom in a moment he said: ‘You wished a while ago to see my idea of an interesting woman.  There it is!'”

On a rather tangential note, I visited the Frederic Malle store in Manhattan and had the chance to sample his famous Portrait of a Lady scent.  It is spicy, sensual and exotically intriguing.  It is unclear whether or not the scent was inspired by James’s novel or character, but the description of the scent, I think, can be equally applied to what I already know about Isabel: “A rare symphonic perfume appeared: a new oriental rose, a sensuous beauty that attracts people like a magnet, a modern classic: Portrait of a Lady.”

 

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