“The Portrait of a Lady” by Henry James

This post is not primarily about the plot of The Portrait of a Lady, but inevitably, elements of the plot do emerge. So it is best to issue what is commonly known as a “spoiler warning”.

             Some think it a matter of course that chance
Should starve good men and bad advance,
That if their neighbours figured plain,
As though upon a lighted screen,
No single story would they find
Of an unbroken happy mind,
A finish worthy of the start.

  • From “Why Should Old Men Not be Mad?” by W. B. Yeats

Flicking through a printed copy of The Portrait of a Lady, one finds long sections that are on the page intimidating blocks of print, with what little clear white space there is only visible at the end of the paragraphs, alternating with equally long sections of dialogue, with clear white space in abundance. Of course, most novels contain sections of narrative and sections of dialogue, but rarely are they quite so distinct from each other as they are here. James liked dialogue: much of the novel can read like a play, with important information conveyed to the reader through what the characters say. Take, for instance, the climactic scene towards the end as Isabel discovers Madame Merle’s secret:

“Ah, poor creature!” cried Isabel, bursting into tears.

It is a surprising reaction in many ways, even given what we know of Isabel’s generosity of spirit: it’s a remarkable person indeed whose immediate reaction on learning that she has been betrayed and abused is to feel sympathy for her betrayer and abuser. But we get to know what Isabel thinks at this point purely from what she says and does – much as we would do if she were a character in a play or in a film.

James makes his dialogue do much of the narrative work throughout the novel. It may be objected that no-one really speaks as these characters do – that no-one, James himself possibly excepted, could be so precise and so articulate in their verbal expression. But if we can accept Shakespearean characters speaking in blank verse, I think we can accept also James’ characters speaking in exquisite Jamesian prose: it is part of the convention, part of the pact we make with the author. There are a few other things we need to agree as part of this pact: we need to agree that the author is an omniscient narrator, but that he won’t always give us the benefit of that omniscience; that he is happy to enter into the minds of different people, but that he will choose whose minds he wishes to enter into at any given time; that he can show us whichever scene he wants, but that the choice of which scenes to show and which he prefers to suppress will, once again, be entirely at his discretion; and so on. These are the rules of the game, as it were. So of course the narrator knows from the start the secret of Madame Merle; many readers, I think, will guess the secret for themselves long  before it is revealed, and may even wonder why Isabel is so slow in guessing what is so obvious; but the narrator, omniscient though he is, confirms the secret only when it is presented to Isabel, and not earlier. What the reader learns, which of the reader’s suspicions are confirmed, and when, are all strictly controlled by the author, and the ground rules are that we, the readers, must submit to this.

James’ felicity with dialogue, idiosyncratic though that dialogue may be, makes it perhaps surprising that he fared so badly as a dramatist. As is well-known, he tried, presumably inspired by Ibsen, whom he admired, to refashion himself in the mid-90s from a novelist to a dramatist, but failed miserably. I should try to get hold of some of his plays just to figure out why they are, by common critical consent, such failures as drama, but it seems reasonable to suspect that the scenes of dialogue only work in his novels because of that one element novels have but plays don’t – the narrative passages. All that is so remarkable about his passages of dialogue – the registering in what is said of the subtlest shifts in perception, or the finest alteration of the balance of power between the characters – seems to rely on the narrative around it to set it off: without all those pages blocked with print, and with barely any clear white space visible to relieve the reader’s eye, the dialogue would, I think, have fallen flat; but, once set in the context of the narration, it’s a different matter entirely. The dialogue in the early chapters is little more than conversation, but as the novel progresses, it becomes far more than that: it depicts the intricate interplay of the characters, and of the seemingly intangible shifts in the way they perceive each other, and themselves. And it is these long narrative passages that alternate with the dialogue that make this possible.

These narrative passages are almost purely internal: they describe what is going on in the characters’ minds – what they perceive, what they think they perceive. There is very little description, if any, of what the characters look like: what impression we get of their appearance we get merely from what they say and do, and from how they react to each other. And neither does James seem very interested in a sense of place: he will give us a few lines to set the scene, in the manner, as it were, of stage directions in a play, but once the dialogue starts, there’s where the interest lies – in what the characters say and think and perceive, and not in where they are. Quite often, in the middle of these scenes of dialogue, I’d quite happily forget whether the dialogue is taking place in an English country house, or a terrace of a Florentine villa, or amidst the ruins of Rome. That may, of course, be because I am a bad reader, but the point is, I think, that in this novel, it doesn’t matter much: when, say, Myshkin and Rogozhin exchange crosses in The Idiot,  we are always aware, and, indeed, it is important to be aware, that the scene is taking place in Rogzhin’s vast, gloomy old house; but when say, Ralph Touchett warns Isabel about marrying Gilbert Osmond, it matters little where this takes place: James’ interest seems focussed almost entirely on people, not on places.

James’ shaping of the novel is also curious. Most readers will agree that at the centre of the novel is a dissection of a bad marriage, so it is rather surprising that the man Isabel marries doesn’t make his entrance till almost half way through. The novel is in roughly three movements (it seems appropriate here to borrow terminology from music), each of these movements ending with an important scene between Isabel and Caspar Goodwood, the disappointed suitor who remains nonetheless devoted. In the first movement, we are mostly in Gardencourt, an English country estate somewhere near the Thames in Berkshire, and the choice of the name is far from accidental: it is a clear reference to the character Grandcourt in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, a work to which this novel clearly owes much (as it does also to George Eliot’s Middlemarch); but it is also a reference to a prelapsarian state in the Garden, a state both of innocence and of inexperience: Isabel Archer here, though intelligent and independent of thought, is also innocent, and lacks experience of the world; and this world is, indeed, all before her. Isabel must make her decisions on how, and where, to take her place in it. For Gardencourt is also a court – a place where judgements and decisions are made, with far-reaching consequences.

At the start of the second movement, the serpent enters the garden, in form of the very charming and accomplished Madame Merle, and Isabel, now wealthy (thanks to the manoeuvring, unknown to her, of her cousin Ralph Touchett), soon leaves the Garden to engage with the evils and temptations that reside outside. The decision she eventually makes, we can see quite clearly, is a wrong decision – a disastrously wrong decision; and James does not hide from the reader its wrongness: we are actually given scenes of Osmond and Madame Merle conspiring with each other like conventional villains from melodrama on how best to entrap the innocent Isabel. There are shades, certainly, of Mary and Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park, and  of  the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses; and also, I think, of the Gothic thriller: the innocent heroine who marries a villain, and who is then persecuted and terrorised by her husband, is a staple of the Gothic mystery novel, and is, indeed, the basis of the plot of one of the most famous examples of the genre – Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. (Later in James’ novel, the villain even has his daughter locked up in a convent! It is indeed astonishing how happy James was to use motifs from the old-fashioned melodrama even while pushing forward the art of the novel.) But although we can see all this villainy clearly, Isabel can’t, and James, in this movement of the novel, has the hardest of tasks: he has to show us his heroine acting foolishly, and against the best of advice, and yet convince us somehow that she is nonetheless intelligent; he has to show Gilbert Osmond both as a villain of a Gothic novel, and yet also as someone whom Isabel can credibly accept. This is not an easy task for the novelist to accomplish, but, as one of his own characters might say, James brings it off quite beautifully.

Of course, we do have to accept that someone who lives in a villa in Tuscany and does not have to work for a living is actually “poor”, but once again, that’s part of the pact we have to make with the author: in the milieu he is depicting, Gilbert Osmond is, in comparative terms at least, “poor”. He is also middle-aged, a widower, generally undistinguished, and in every sense, one would have thought, an unsuitable match for the wealthy, young, and beautiful Isabel (at least, one thinks of her as beautiful, though I don’t think James says so himself directly); but his very seeming unsuitability is among those things that draws Isabel to him. Back in Gardencourt, she had rejected the extravagantly eligible Lord Warburton – wealthy, young, handsome, titled, and by nature kind and generous – at least partly because, one suspects, he was so very eligible: Isabel wanted to experience life on her own terms, and make her own decisions, and so, to this end, any decision determined by conventionality and approved of by custom is from the start dismissed. This determination not to abide by the stultifying demands of conventionality, and to make her own way, do indeed, in James’ hands at least, indicate on Isabel’s part an independence of mind and a certain intellectual pride that indicate intelligence, even when, as here, both that independence of mind and that intellectual pride are so woefully misdirected.

Not that Gilbert Osmond is a stereotype villain: James is happy to use elements of the Gothic thriller, but that is not the genre in which he is writing. Osmond does indeed woo and marry Isabel for her money, but her money, though a necessary criterion for Osmond, is not in itself a sufficient criterion: he wants power – power over other people; and the idea of power over Isabel, who, it is thought, had turned down even a wealthy and handsome English aristocrat, excites Osmond’s sensibilities. Osmond is an unforgettable portrait of a man who lives primarily by his ego, and whose principal delight lies in having that sense of ego heightened by exercising power over others.

It is in the third and longest movement of the novel, which begins some years after the second movement had ended, that it all unravels: it is here that we are given the anatomy of a failed marriage. Isabel is, predictably, unhappy: in the patriarchal society she inhabits, her husband has easily assumed a dominant role. And Osmond too is unhappy with the marriage: Isabel, her pride still intact, keeps aloof as best she can, and does not flatter her husband’s ego as he had hoped she would. They generally tend to keep out of each other’s way.

This third part begins not with Isabel or with Osmond, but with Edward Rosier, a character we had only very briefly glimpsed earlier, and whom I certainly did not remember by this stage. It is almost as if Isabel’s story has ended, as all good stories should, with a marriage. We do see Mr and Mrs Osmond after a while, though they seem at first more supporting characters rather than leading characters of the drama; but even here, we sense how unhappy Isabel is, and how dissatisfied Osmond is, despite having had his way: she does not openly defy him, but neither does she submit to the power he wishes to wield over her. It is many more chapters before we actually see them together: the person whom we see with Osmond, close to Osmond, is not is wife, but, rather ominously, Madame Merle.

Things come to a head with the various machinations around the marriage of Pansy, Osmond’s innocent daughter now on the verge of adulthood. Edward Rosier wishes to propose to her, but Osmond, while not disapproving, has higher things in mind for his daughter: she, too, exists, as far as he is concerned, primarily to serve his ego. So Osmond is casually and calculatedly rude to Rosier. He has bigger fish in mind: Lord Warburton, a few years older than when we had first seen him, but still very eminently eligible. And Lord Warburton appears interested in Pansy, although Isabel suspects that the interest not to be wholly sincere, and, observing all proprieties though he may be, his chief aim is to be close to her, Isabel. And Isabel has too much pride to yield to this.

This situation sets up a series of tremendous scenes in which the dialogue is more, much more, than the somewhat inconsequential conversation it had been in the early chapters of the novel: the more James tells us about his characters, the more we find every word they speak weighted with meaning and significance. The balance of power is intricate: the slightest thing can alter it. And perceptions of where one stands in the struggle for power can be as powerful as the thing itself.

Isabel warns off Lord Warburton. Not explicitly, but she knows how to do this kind of thing without being explicit. Osmond senses Isabel’s part in Lord Warburton’s withdrawal: he has no hard evidence, but does not require it. All this brings about a series of conflicts between husband and wife that are among the most dramatic scenes in all fiction, though very little, as such, happens. Everything relies on the reader being aware of the shifting balances of power between the characters.

It all leads leads to a denouement that frankly breaks the heart. I did not remember from my last reading some thirty or so years ago just how affecting this ending was: I suppose that, as with so much I read in my younger days, I had not been a good enough reader, nor had been sufficiently mature emotionally, to take it in adequately. This time round, I found an emotional directness that I had not expected from James. In his later fiction, he often allowed emotional scenes to take place off-stage, such as, say, the final meeting between Milly Theale and Merton Densher in The Wings of the Dove; but here, James presents directly scenes of the deepest of emotions, of the most tender of feelings, with a lack of embarrassment I am tempted to describe, despite James’ own well-known aversion to Dickens, as “Dickensian”. I really had not remembered this ending being quite so affecting. However, this ending did not spring out of nowhere: it could not have been so affecting had James not laid the necessarily groundwork for it with such painstaking care earlier in the novel. And so exquisitely is the novel structured, that to understand properly what happens at the end, we must consider it from the very beginning: James’ decision to delay the entrance of Gilbert Osmond till almost half way into the novel is, after all, no mere whim: this novel is, one must remember, the portrait of a lady, rather than the portrait of a marriage.

It is in the prelapsarian and innocent wold of Gardencourt that we begin. The very opening sentences suggest a sense of calm and inactivity that quite belies what is to come afterwards. I have often wondered whether there has been another novel of comparable stature that has so unpromising an opening:

Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.

This is what, on this side of the Atlantic, we would describe as “twee” – self-consciously arch and affected and cloying. It suggests a world where everything is delightful and lovely, where nothing really changes, where even the drinking of tea in the afternoon becomes a “ceremony”. This could almost be the opening of a Wodehousian idyll. The setting is right for Wodehouse – an English country estate, wealthy Americans, and so on. But James is not writing a country house comedy any more than he is a Gothic thriller: instead of Bertie Wooster, we have a somewhat different kind of English aristocrat – Lord Warburton. It is into this static situation that Isabel Archer emerges, and, quite literally, sets the novel in motion.

These early chapters proceed at an extremely leisurely pace, as if nothing of any great moment lies on the horizon. A flashback tells us of Isabel’s background, and of how she came to be where she is; and a flashback within a flashback gives us some more detail of Isabel’s past. Isabel is characterised in these early chapters principally by how the other characters react to her: all three men in Gardencourt fall in love with her. Mr Touchett is an old man, but he almost from the start develops for her a deep paternal affection. Meanwhile his son, Ralph, finds himself utterly entranced by his cousin; but he knows he is seriously ill and dying – this prelapsarian garden contains its shades – and he doesn’t even pause to consider a future for himself with Isabel – or, indeed, a future for himself at all. And there is also Lord Warburton, who makes possibly the most delicate of proposals in all literature, and is turned down: Isabel is looking towards other horizons. If the world is all before Isabel, she will explore it, and find her own place in it, on her own terms.

The pace is so leisurely here, that the reader may well wonder where, if anywhere, all this is leading. There are elements of humour, it is true, and some of that humour is – quite surprisingly, once again, given James’ aversion – “Dickensian”. Henrietta Stackpole is a name – like Caspar Goodwoood –  that could easily have been invented by Dickens, and her general air of uncouth brashness provides a much needed contrast to the endless refinement of moneyed and aristocratic England that James presents. And as for the brusque and peremptory manners of Mrs Touchett, there seems to me more than a touch of Betsey Trotwood about her. There’s an element of Dickens also, I thought, in the cameo appearance of Mr Bantling, and the talked about, though never seen, Lady Pensil (how Dickens would have loved these names!) But despite this occasional touch of Dickensiana, we are unmistakably in Jamesworld – a world of moneyed and leisured people, whose work, should they work at all, is of no interest to anyone (and certainly not to James); a world where the young and wide-eyed visitors from the New World meet the more cynically sophisticated environment of the Old. Not that James’ characterisations are in any way schematic: Lord Warburton, of the Old World, is principled and very much a man of integrity; while the villains, Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle, are expatriate Americans; but the novel turns on the encounter between moral innocence and moral corruption, and in James’ fictional world, these states are represented respectively by the New World and the Old.

The first movement of the novel ends in London, with Isabel’s meeting with Caspar Goodwood, who is devoted to her, and has followed her to Europe, despite there being little hope of his being accepted. He is everything lord Warburton isn’t – rough-edged, energetic, vigorous, and all the other qualities befitting a denizen of the New World. Isabel’s rejection of Caspar turns out to be more difficult than her rejection of Lord Warburton: she did not even have to think about rejecting the English aristocrat, but after declaring her final rejection of Goodwood, she sheds tears. But she has a sense of her own destiny, and Ralph, already under a death sentence, and the only one not to declare his love for his cousin, persuades his father to leave to Isabel much of what had been marked out for him. So, soon into the second movement of the novel, Isabel finds herself not merely searching for her destiny, but with the means to do so. The world is indeed all before her; but beside her is Madame Merle, and in her calculated coils, Isabel, although she doesn’t realise it, is helpless.

The pace is slow; nothing much appears to be happening; but all the seeds are carefully planted that are later to flower to such devastating effect. It is only after all these seeds have been planted, after all these elements have so carefully been put into place, that James allows Gilbert Osmond to make his entrance. And, with an insidious sense of inevitability, the unthinking happens: the proud, intelligent Isabel, who had turned down Lord Warburton and even Caspar Goodwood, who is loved hopelessly and selflessly by her cousin Ralph, falls prey to, of all people, the scheming Gilbert Osmond. He and Madame Merle engineer Isabel into accepting.

The second movement ends as the first had done, with Caspar Goodwood once again meeting with Isabel, this time to ponder uncomprehendingly on the proud, independent searcher coming to this of all ends. And once again, the meeting moves Isabel to tears.

But the story is not over yet: we have the final tragic movement yet to come. And the drama that is let loose here is electrifying. In scene after scene, James tightens the tension, knowing precisely to what extent to turn the screw at each scene; and in between these scenes are those passages of narration, increasingly metaphor-laden. One metaphor in particular struck me:

After he had left her, Madame Merle went and lifted from the mantel-shelf the attenuated coffee—cup in which he had mentioned the existence of a crack; but she looked at it rather abstractedly. “Have I been so vile all for nothing?” she murmured to herself.

  • From Chapter 49

The coffee-cup in which there is a crack is an image that very obviously foreshadows the central symbol of James’ later novel, The Golden Bowl. There, the crack had been a fine in an otherwise exquisite bowl of gold, but it was a fatal crack: the bowl was bound eventually to break. It is a mysterious and enigmatic symbol purely because its most obvious interpretations are too banal given the weight James gives to it, and we are forced therefore to peer further. Why does this crack in the coffee-cup resonate so powerfully both with the reader and with Madame Merle at this point?

For Madame Merle has been vile, and she has known it. James, rather disconcertingly, refers quite frequently to the “horror” and the “terror” felt by Isabel, almost as if she really were a protagonist in a Gothic horror novel. And the adjective “evil” is used to describe Osmond and Madame Merle. This may seem somewhat over-the-top to some readers, just as the use of the same word in Mansfield Park in relation to Mary and Henry Crawford is seen also to be a gross overstatement, but James is as serious as Austen was: to seek to exert power over others is indeed, both to Austen and to James, an evil, and that it happens in a real world rather than in some Gothic world of dungeons and torture chambers does not make it any less evil.  Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle are clearly, without any exaggeration, forerunners of the evil spirits Peter Quint and Miss Jessel in The Turn of the Screw, who also seek to “possess” other human beings for their own ends.

But by the end, Madame Merle is defeated. Isabel has a sudden intimation of the evil in the relationship between Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond when she enters a room, and is struck by the way the two are positioned with respect to one another:

Madame Merle sat there in her bonnet, and Gilbert Osmond was talking to her; for a minute they were unaware that she had come in. Isabel had often seen that before, certainly; but what she had not seen, or at least had not noticed—was that their dialogue had for the moment converted itself into a sort of familiar silence, from which she instantly perceived that her entrance would startle them. Madame Merle was standing on the rug, a little way from the fire; Osmond was in a deep chair, leaning back and looking at her. Her head was erect, as usual, but her eyes were bent upon his. What struck Isabel first was that he was sitting while Madame Merle stood; there was an anomaly in this that arrested her. Then she perceived that they had arrived at a desultory pause in their exchange of ideas, and were musing, face to face, with the freedom of old friends who sometimes exchange ideas without uttering them. There was nothing shocking in this; they were old friends in fact. But the thing made an image, lasting only a moment, like a sudden flicker of light. Their relative position, their absorbed mutual gaze, struck her as something detected. But it was all over by the time she had fairly seen it.

  • From Chapter 40

It is a simple impression made in a split second, which contains nothing really to alarm, or even to disconcert, but which nonetheless strikes Isabel as somehow wrong, although what precisely is wrong she would not have been able to explain. It is a sudden glimpse into a previously unseen world, and, although what is glimpsed is vague and intangible, it sets off a “sudden flicker of light” in Isabel’s perceptions. She knows, she senses, that she is, somehow, the victim of these two. But Isabel is unarmed, because she lacks knowledge: she does not know enough to pinpoint even to herself the nature of that which she so powerfully senses.

Later in the novel, when she does have the knowledge, when Madame Merle’s secret is known to her, the balance of power shifts. Madame Merle now senses that Isabel knows something of her secret, but how much Isabel knows, she cannot tell:

The person who stood there was not the same one she had seen hitherto; it was a very different person—a person who knew her secret. This discovery was tremendous, and for the moment she made it the most accomplished of women faltered and lost her courage. But only for that moment. Then the conscious stream of her perfect manner gathered itself again and flowed on as smoothly as might be to the end. But it was only because she had the end in view that she was able to go on. She had been touched with a point that made her quiver, and she needed all the alertness of her will to repress her agitation. Her only safety was in not betraying herself. She did not betray herself; but the startled quality of her voice refused to improve—she couldn’t help it—while she heard herself say she hardly knew what. The tide of her confidence ebbed, and she was able only just to glide into port, faintly grazing the bottom.

  • From Chapter 52

In The Golden Bowl, when Maggie Verver faces the adulterous Charlotte Stant, she senses that she now has power over her: not only does she know of Charlotte’s affair with her husband, she knows also that Charlotte is aware of her knowledge; but what Charlotte isn’t aware of is how much she knows. And Maggie enjoys the power she now has over Charlotte by deliberately not telling her, and leaving her to the agony merely of conjecture and surmise. I think something similar happens at this point between Isabel and Madame Merle: Isabel senses that it is she who now has power over Madame Merle, and, like Maggie Verver, enjoys the enjoyment of this power by remaining silent:.

Isabel saw all this as distinctly as if it had been a picture on the wall. It might have been a great moment for her, for it might have been a moment of triumph. That Madame Merle had lost her pluck and saw before her the phantom of exposure—this in itself was a revenge, this in itself was almost a symptom of a brighter day. And for a moment while she stood apparently looking out of the window with her back half turned, Isabel enjoyed her knowledge.

  • From Chapter 52

Madame Merle is retires from the fray: Isabel has won. Like Charlotte Stant in The Golden Bowl, she returns to America: in Jamesian terms, she gives up the fight. Like Princes Eboli in Schiller’s Don Carlos (and in Verdi’s opera of the same name, based on Schiller’s play), Madame Merle is shamed into defeat. Isabel is triumphant.

But it is a strange sort of triumph. There remains still her deeply unhappy marriage. Gilbert Osmond had, on his last meeting with Isabel, taken the moral high ground: it is he who is, both in his own eyes and in the eyes of the world, in the right, and Isabel in the wrong for even thinking of defying her husband’s wishes. Isabel had lost in that particular confrontation: the balance of power had been all on Gilbert’s side. But she had defied him nonetheless: she had travelled to England on her own, to visit her dying cousin Ralph.

And it is in the magnificent scene at Ralph’s deathbed that we reach the culminating point of the novel. Here, as in the scene in Anna Karenina where Anna lies close to death, there is no room any more for dissimulation: in the presence of death, so solemn and so majestic, all involved seem to share a higher state of consciousness. The love between Isabel and Ralph is perhaps the only one in the entire novel that has been, and is, entirely sincere, and entirely mutual. Isabel had previously been careful not to reveal to Ralph that she was unhappy in her marriage, as the satisfaction Ralph would receive on being proven right would have been far outweighed by his unhappiness on the same score; but there is no room for untruths now, not even kind untruths: Ralph and Isabel speak to each other from the deepest recesses of their hearts. It is a scene I had not expected from James. It is almost as if he is daring the reader to feel embarrassed by so unadorned, so naked a depiction of the most deeply felt of human emotions.

“He married me for my money,” she said.

She wished to say everything; she was afraid he might die before she had done so.

He gazed at her a little, and for the first time his fixed eyes lowered their lids. But he raised them in a moment, and then—

“He was greatly in love with you,” he answered.

“Yes, he was in love with me. But he would not have married me if I had been poor. I don’t hurt you in saying that. How can I? I only want you to understand. I always tried to keep you from understanding; but that’s all over.”

“I always understood,” said Ralph.

“I thought you did, and I didn’t like it. But now I like it.”

“You don’t hurt me—you make me very happy.” And as Ralph said this there was an extraordinary gladness in his voice. She bent her head again, and pressed her lips to the back of his hand. “I always understood,” he continued, “though it was so strange—so pitiful. You wanted to look at life for yourself—but you were not allowed; you were punished for your wish. You were ground in the very mill of the conventional!”

“Oh yes, I have been punished,” Isabel sobbed.

  • From Chapter 54

I was caught up short at the point where Ralph declares himself to be happy: I was sure I had read another scene in another novel where a man, in the throes of the greatest of griefs, also declares himself happy, but I couldn’t remember at first which novel it was. Then, eventually, it came to me: it is in a novel written by that author James professed to dislike – Dickens; and it occurs when Bob Cratchit, grieving for his dead child, calls around him the rest of his family:

“… But however and whenever we part from one another, I am sure we shall none of us forget poor Tiny Tim — shall we — or this first parting that there was among us?”

“Never, father!” cried they all.

“And I know,” said Bob, “I know, my dears, that when we recollect how patient and how mild he was; although he was a little, little child; we shall not quarrel easily among ourselves, and forget poor Tiny Tim in doing it.”

“No, never, father!” they all cried again.

“I am very happy,” said little Bob, “I am very happy!”

  • From Chapter 4 of “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens

We may say that Ralph is “happy” because he can speak to Isabel before he dies, and that Bob is “happy” because he still has the rest of his family, but in both cases, I think, the author is encouraging us to peer deeper: the “happiness” in both cases comes, I think, from their having been, and continuing to be, so close to another human being as to be able to experience emotions of such depth, even though that experience is so full of pain.

The death scene is the novel’s emotional high point: it doesn’t so much put human affairs in their context, but, rather, heightens them; the presence of death confirms the moral seriousness of human affairs, and of what humans do to each other. But the novel isn’t entirely finished yet: there is still some unfinished business to attend to. As at the end of the previous two movements, Caspar meets and speaks once again to Isabel; and this time, he offers a way out. Much has been written on why Isabel refuses. I think this ending is inevitable: one has only to imagine Isabel accepting Caspar Goodwood’s proposal to realise how unsatisfactory an ending this would have been. Isabel has to refuse because, despite all that has happened, she has still her pride, and her self-respect. In The Lady From the Sea, a play written by Ibsen some four years after the publication of this novel, the title character, Ellida Wangel, had chosen well: her husband is a decent and kindly man; but given that the choice had not been entirely free, Ellida finds herself questioning its validity. Now, it is unlikely that Ibsen would have read James’ novel, but, whether by design or by accident, Ibsen had presented in Ellida Wangel a corollary of Isabel Archer: where Ellida questions even a correct choice because it had not been free, Isabel accepts an incorrect choice because it was: wrong though that choice was, in every respect, it was made in absolute freedom, and Isabel known that she is honour-bound, to herself if no-one else, to accept the consequences of what she had chosen so freely.

And neither is she choosing, I think, to remain a victim: armed now with knowledge she had previously not possessed, she is now capable of resuming the struggle with Gilbert Osmond, this time on equal terms. And I do not think it is merely wishful thinking on my part that she will emerge triumphant – that she will vanquish Gilbert Osmond as surely as she had vanquished Madame Merle. The real struggle is still to come: we are only at the beginning.

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12 responses to this post.

  1. I happened to stumble on this in my WordPress feed and I am so glad — it’s a fantastic piece. I liked your discussion of the word “evil” and how fitting it is for the seemingly small sin of manipulating a person into a bad marriage.

    This is my favorite of all James’ novels, and I think you illuminated why — that he had by then attained the height of his powers of subtlety, without having reached quite the level of ellipsis and obfuscation that he would (masterfully, but frustratingly) achieve later on, as in the Ambassadors or The Golden Bowl, so there is still room for the drama of scenes like Isabel’s confrontations with Goodwood or her deathbed confession to Ralph.

    Reply

    • Hello, and welcome to this blog!

      James’ surfaces are always so polished and refined, and ever so seemingly gentle, that it’s often hard to credit the sheer nastiness and sordidness that lie underneath. Evil often crops up in James’ work I think – explicitly so in The Turn of the Screw, but The Turn of the Screw isn’t, I think, an anomaly in James’ oeuvre: the evil of possessing (in all senses of that word) other human beings, or desiring the possess them, seems to me a theme that runs through virtually all his work.

      The last three novels fascinate me: I get a sense of the visionary, but they are all too elusive to be pinned down. The Golden Bowl especially seemed to go way over my head.

      Reply

      • That was something I had never thought of before, how The Turn of the Screw is not so different from Portrait of a Lady, or The Golden Bowl. I think I read it when younger assuming it was “just” a ghost story and so didn’t take it as seriously as I should have, or really try to place it within the rest of his oeuvre. Perhaps I should return to it in 2016 with your piece in mind; I’d probably get a lot more out of it.

        (I read The Golden Bowl QUITE seriously and still, like you, I’m afraid much of it also went over my head! That’s another I’d like to revisit someday.)

      • I think all these great novels are worth revisiting: literature of this quality is not to be read once and put aside – it’s to be lived with, so it becomes, as it were, part of one’s mental furniture!

  2. There is a terrific irony in that even though Madame Merle is the serpent in Eden, it is Ralph who really poisons Isabel. An evil act.

    I’ll protest one point: I do not have to and will not make that pact with the author. These characters are a bunch of rare birds who live in a strange fairy tale world. James is at times one step away from Ronald Firbank.

    Reply

    • There is something very rarefied about James’ novels, isn’t there? The themes he deals with are very much themes of this world – betrayal, guilt, personal power, freedom, etc. – things that we all live with; but the fictional world in which this is all happening is so far removed from the world most of us nhabit, it does seem at time like, as you say, som “strange fairy tale”. It is tempting at times to think that the main problem with these characters is thatthey have too much time and money on their hands, and too little work.

      The pact I findmyself making with James is not, I confess, very willingly made, but the rewards of taking this leap of faith, and trusting the author, are generally enormous. (Except for The Awkward Age: heaven only knows whatthat’s about – it’s the only novel by James I’ve found myself unable to finish.)

      Reply

  3. I much enjoyed reading your summary and offer a comment on the conclusion.

    You write that, “Isabel accepts an incorrect choice because it was: wrong though that choice was, in every respect, made in absolute freedom, and Isabel known that she is honour-bound, to herself if no-one else, to accept the consequences of what she had chosen so freely.”

    Early in The Portrait of a Lady we are told that, “The girl had a certain nobleness of imagination which rendered her a good many services and played her a great many tricks. She spent half her time in thinking of beauty and bravery and magnanimity; she had a fixed determination to regard the world as a place of brightness, of free expansion, of irresistible action: she held it must be detestable to be afraid or ashamed. She had an INFINITE HOPE that she should never do anything wrong.”

    In the beginning, Isabel leaves Albany for Europe so that Mrs Touchett can “introduce her to the world”. But the sight of Europe fails, in the end, to satisfy. Isabel yearns to discover life, on her own terms. She marries Mr Osmond! We are told that, “In matters of opinion she had had her own way, and it had led her into a thousand ridiculous zigzags. At moments she discovered she was grotesquely wrong, and then she treated herself to a week of passionate humility. After this she held her head higher than ever again; for it was of no use, she had an unquenchable desire to think well of herself. She had a theory that it was only under this provision life was worth living; that one should be one of the best, should be conscious of a fine organisation (she couldn’t help knowing her organisation was fine), SHOULD MOVE IN A REALM OF LIGHT…”

    So in the end, the same Isabel Archer begs the irrepressible Bostonian, Caspar Goodwood, her satanic tempter, “Do me the greatest kindness of all…leave me alone”.

    The deceased Ralph, along with his father and his mother, had performed her good service. Lord Warburton had been a rich and famous distraction. Henrietta Stackpole entertainment. Caspar Goodwood, strong, intelligent and romantic, represents for Isabel what might have been, in the early years.

    It seems to me that Isabel freely returns to Rome, to Pansy and Oswald, to shine “in a realm of light”. Like Milly Theale, Isabel lives, unashamed and unafraid! We have a paradoxically glorious ending buoyed by “an infinite hope” untarnished. Rather than being honour-bound to choices made, Isabel Archer is wholly transcendent, “her head held higher than ever”. Here is, at very least, a vindicated Dorothea Brooke or Maggie Verver.

    Reply

    • Hello, and thank you very much for your fascinating post above. (I’m never sure whether to call what appears below the line “posts” or “comments”… but you know what I mean!)

      *** I guess I’d better issue a spoiler alert here ***

      While there is, naturally, much debate on why Isabel decides to return, we can sense the rightness of the ending by trying to imagine it otherwise: imagine if Isabel had taken up Caspar Goodwood’s offer! It would have been a terribly unsatisfactory ending! And it seems to me that the passage you quote really contains the key to this:

      … she had an unquenchable desire to think well of herself. She had a theory that it was only under this provision life was worth living …

      Had she taken up Caspar Goodwood’s offer, she would not have been “able to think well of herself”, and consequently, she would not be able to “move in a realm of light”.
      In the other passage you quote:

      …she held it must be detestable to be afraid or ashamed. She had an infinite hope that she should never do anything wrong.

      This is a person who cannot think well of herself if she thinks she has one something “wrong”. And not returning to Osmond would have bene dreadfully wrong. James does not spell out why, but we can, I think, sense for ourselves why it would have been wrong: she had made her decision in complete freedom, and it would be wrong of her now to shirk the consequences of a decision that had been made so freely. She had sought freedom, and she had it; and now she feels honour-bound – not to Osmond, but to herself – to face the consequences. Only when she feels morally vindicated to herself can she hold “her head higher then ever again”.

      That, at least, is how I read this. In Ibsen’s lady from the Sea, Ellida Wangel had asked not merely for freedom: she had asked for “freedom with responsibility” (my emphasis): the former without the latter is but self-indulgence, and neither Ellida nor Isabel ask for that. What we see Isabel doing at the end, I think, is face her responsibility, for only then can she “move in a realm of light”. It is a quite tremendous ending!

      All the best,
      Himadri

      Reply

      • You write, “This is a person who cannot think well of herself if she thinks she has done something “wrong”. And not returning to Osmond would have been dreadfully wrong.”

        Before Isabel decides to leave Italy for England, I suspect every reader wholeheartedly wills her to leave. Madame Merle is well and truly sullied but Osmond is comprehensively worse. Indeed, he has no redeeming feature. Nothing warrants Isabel suffering him a moment longer, not even her love for Pansy. And once in England, even the thought of her returning appalls us. Especially as we ponder the faithful Ralph Touchett. Thank goodness Isabel has finally escaped Osmond’s tentacles for good. We wish her well with the brash American, Caspar Goodwood.

        But, horror of horrors, Isabel DOES return to Osmond! And just here shines the genius of Henry James. On finishing the novel, the question that haunts the reader is: “How could she return?!” In subtly suggesting an answer, James transforms Isabel into something peerless, messianic and superhuman. And, as the years roll on, we continue to swoon in her enduring radiance as she holds “her head higher than ever again”.

        As for The Lady of the Sea, the play ends with Lyngstrand as the mermaid dying in brackish waters, having missed “The last voyage this year.” Our would-be sculptor has unwittingly become a work-of-art in his own right since Mr Ballested finally has his model: a stranded mermaid! Unlike Isabel Archer, Lyngstrand hesitates and is lost. Ibsen himself, of course, had escaped stifling Norway for Italy many years earlier.

      • Hello, I don’t think we’re disagreeing. Isabel does indeed return because, in returning, she could hold “her head higher than ever before”. I think we are agreed on that. The question to be pondered is why it is that only by returning could she hold her head so high.

        Lyngstrand isn’t, of course, the principal character in The Lady From the Sea: at the centre f the play is Ellida Wangel, and it does seem to me that the decision she makes, and her reasons for doing so, cast some light on Isabel’s decision. In both cases, freedom and responsibility are seen as inseparable. Ellida cannot accept responsibility for her choice given that she had not been completely free in making that choice; Isabel, on the other hand, having had the complete freedom she had demanded for herself, takes on the responsibility also. Had she not done so, she would not have been able to hold her head so high.

  4. You write, “The question to be pondered is why it is that only by returning could she [Isabel] hold her head so high.”

    I like to think that much of the answer lies in: “She spent half her time in thinking of beauty and bravery and magnanimity; she had a fixed determination to regard the world as a place of brightness, of free expansion, of irresistible action: she held it must be detestable to be afraid or ashamed.” Whenever I think of Isabel living again with Osmond, this expansive sentence brings tears to my eyes.

    You write, ” Lyngstrand isn’t, of course, the principal character in “The Lady of the Sea”: at the centre of the play is Ellida Wangel…”

    Perhaps so, but the play does begin and end with Ballested and Lyngstrand, and how their story relates to Ellida’s is most fascinating. In the final event in the play, Lyngstrand has the freedom to escape but, in failing to act responsibly, remains forever bound. (By contrast, Isabel has the freedom to escape but freely chooses bondage.)

    The irony at the end of “The Lady of the Sea” is awesome:

    Arnholm___ (looking at WANGEL and ELLIDA). The English
    steamer is putting off.

    Lyngstrand___ The last voyage this year.
    Ballested___ Soon all the sea-highways will be closed, as
    the poet says. It is sad, Mrs. Wangel.

    Ellida (smiling earnestly)___ Well, you see, Mr. Arnholm—
    Do you remember we talked about it yesterday? When you
    have once become a land-creature you can no longer find
    your way back again to the sea, nor to the sea-life either.
    Ballested___ WHY, THAT’S EXACTLY THE CASE WITH MY MERMAID.
    Ellida___ Something like—yes.
    Ballested___ ONLY WITH THIS DIFFERENCE—THAT THE MERMAID
    DIES OF IT, IT, WHILE HUMAN BEINGS CAN ACCLAM—ACCLIMATISE
    THEMSELVES. YES YES. I ASSURE YOU, MRS. WANGEL, THEY CAN
    AC-CLIMATISE THEMSELVES.
    Ellida___ In freedom they can, Mr. Ballested.
    Wangel___ And when they act on their own responsibility,
    dear Ellida.
    Ellida (quickly holding out her hand to him)___ Exactly.
    (The great steamer glides noiselessly out beyond the fjord.
    The music is heard nearer land.)

    Paradoxically, the final lines of the play are all about Lyngstrand and his failure to act. He alone is THE LADY OF THE SEA!

    Reply

    • Hello,
      Yes, I agree that the reason for Isabel returning is given in the passage that you cite. This is the only way that Isabel can continue to hold her head high – by accepting responsibility for the freedom she has exercised.

      I had cited Ellida Wangel because it ad seemed to me that the position she finds herself in complements the position Isabel finds herself in: both desire freedom with responsibility. Lying strand, from what I remember, is a somewhat unintelligent character: Hilde unsparingly mocks him. But yes, Ibsen does draw a parallel between Lyngstrand and Ellida. (There are also parallels, I think, between Ellida and Bolette.) I must admit, though, that it’s been some time since I last encountered this play, and I’m not sure I could delve into details without re-reading it.

      Perhaps I should read through those great Ibsen plays again, and put up a few posts on them. These plays are very close to me!

      All the best,
      Himadri

      Reply

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