The A.P. English Challenge Eats Crow: Thoughts on Part I of The Portrait of a Lady (by Bethany)

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Every so often it is necessary to admit that the grownups are right. I don’t want to, of course. I would much rather live in a Roald Dahl novel, where grownups are a dysfunctional bunch of lying, swearing pinheads and everyone who is good is characterized as childlike: benign, powerless, inept, and fond of fart jokes.

Actually, never mind. I don’t really want to live in a Roald Dahl novel.

As Jill has already told you, we both have had to sheepishly admit that when it comes to Henry James, the grownups are right. And by grownups, of course we mean people like Harold Bloom and F.R. Leavis and all those types, and of course Pat Conroy, but mostly we mean Fr. Murphy. Because Fr. Murphy really loved Henry James – he loved him enough, in fact, to assign three of his novels back to back in November of our senior year in high school. We thought this plan of his was a little excessive, and maybe it was, but the bottom line is that he was right. Henry James is fantastic. Of course, reading this novel takes work. It isn’t the sort of thing one reads late at night or in the last few minutes of one’s lunch hour or in the back of a car being driven very badly by an adolescent – which, of course, is where I usually read things when I was in high school.

I don’t know whether to thank Fr. Murphy for having the patience and good sense to introduce me to this novel when I was an impatient seventeen year-old or angry at him for effectively turning me off of Henry James for two full decades. Think of all the fantastic characterization and subtle description and melancholy irony I could have been absorbing all these years. Is there a category of lawsuit to which this situation applies? Is it even possible to sue a Jesuit? I knew I should have gone to law school.

The first thing I want to say is that this novel reminds me a lot of Middlemarch. The two novels are rough contemporaries, of course, although I kept tricking myself into thinking Middlemarch is earlier, since it is set in the 1830’s – but it was written and published in the early 1870’s, and The Portrait of a Lady followed in 1881. I think of them as siblings. I know that Henry James was highly active in London high society and knew everyone who was anyone, and while I think George Eliot was quite a bit less social, I do wonder what their relationship was like to one another. I think it’s a given that they knew each other’s work and most likely knew each other in passing, but maybe there was more – a correspondence? a rivalry? a friendship? maybe they went to seances together, as late nineteenth-century novelists were wont to do? I may have to do some research.

Both of these novels are so patient. I make a big show of how much more patient I am now than I was at seventeen, but even now I have absolutely nothing on a nineteenth-century novelist. I spent two summer months at a writer’s colony once, and I remember the luxury of long, slow, endless days of walking in gardens, napping, reading, writing, revising – all while each week felt like the equivalent of several months back in my workaday life, and I imagine that life was like this all the time for nineteenth-century novelists. But of course, it wasn’t. Henry James had commitments and deadlines and social events and probably some relatives with T.B. who needed tending to – and he still gave slow, methodical attention to each of his characters and each of his sentences. And he did it over and over and over again.

Jill did a good job of summarizing Part I, so I’m not going to spend much time reiterating the plot, but I do want to delve into a few characters. I don’t think I like Isabel Archer as much as Jill does, although I like her well enough. I think it’s funny that from the moment she is introduced she is touted almost reverently as “an independent woman,” and we are led to believe that as such she is very much a rare bird. Then Henry James proceeds to trot out a series of the most independent women I’ve ever encountered in a nineteenth-century novel. First there’s Mrs. Touchett, who has managed within the confines of her marriage to give herself a life of incredible freedom of movement. Then, when Isabel comes to England, she is followed by the comically liberated Henrietta Stackpole, a journalist whose role in the novel seems to be to traipse around Europe with Isabel, Ralph, Madame Merle, and the rest of their entourage, find sneaky ways to write about these individuals without their knowing about it, and make snide remarks like “I thought that when an Englishman knew a lord he always told you” (342). Henrietta doesn’t like aristocrats very much, although she is happy to date their friends and stay at their villas and spend their money. Finally, the mysterious Madame Merle is another independent woman, although there has been a good deal of foreshadowing to suggest that Madame Merle has a dark past of some kind, suggesting that her independence may have come at the cost of not inconsiderable pain. The only female character in this novel who is not independent is the strange, ethereal Pansy Osmond, Gilbert Osmond’s convent-educated daughter of indeterminate age who sort of reminds me of the Drew Barrymore character in Firestarter. I’m not sure why. Does Pansy serve as a kind of foreshadowing of what Osmond thinks of as the feminine ideal? Is her presence in the novel a subtle way of warning to reader not to root for Isabel to marry Osmond? I’m betting yes.

Jill spent some time on the strange irresistibility of Isabel Archer, a quality that I find very odd. Isabel is indeed a likeable character, but I am not exaggerating when I say that every character who meets her falls under some kind of creepy spell. In some cases, this spell takes the form of romantic love. In other cases, characters “take an interest” in Isabel, often in alarming ways. Ralph Touchett asks his father to sign over half of his (Ralph’s) inheritance to Isabel; his father happily obliges. Madame Merle plays Cupid, arranging for Isabel to meet Gilbert Osmond and then conspiring with his sister, the oddly-named Countess Gemini, in hopes that they will fall in love. Jill and I had another English teacher in high school – not Fr. Murphy – who was fascinated with the words “ingenuous” and “disingenuous.” He included them on every single vocabulary list he ever gave us. Reading this novel now, I think that when one looks up the word “ingenuous” in the dictionary, it should say “see Isabel Archer.” In a movie made today, her character should be played by Anne Hathaway. In a movie made half a century ago, she should have been played by Audrey Hepburn. Hell, maybe she was played by Audrey Hepburn. I really should do some research before I post things like this.

Oh, and by the way – remember how I told you in my pre-reading notes that back in high school I wrote in the margin of my book that Henry James likes the word “desultory”? Well, it’s true, he does – but only until Isabel Archer arrives. This word gets a little more air time during the early days of her time in England, when both Daniel and Ralph Touchett are convalescing and Lord Warburton is still contemplating his marriage proposal to Isabel, but as soon as she has rejected his proposal and begun to assert herself, Isabel Archer pretty much knocks the desultoriness right out of this novel. She energizes it. There’s something fishy about her, but she energizes the novel nonetheless.

What I wish I had the time and patience to do right now (there I go again with the patience) is write a bit about James’ use of language – which is absolutely fantastic. While my college and graduate educations did not include Henry James (largely by my design, of course), I did somehow manage to pick up the fact that he is known to be the master of characterization – and it’s true that his characterization is fantastic. I will make a point of spending some time in my final review quoting and discussing some of James’ language, if only as a feint to direct your attention away from the fact that for twenty years I was wholly and completely, stubbornly wrong. Just like naps and coffee, Henry James is a wonderful delicacy and, it seems, an acquired taste.

There have to be a few things that the grownups were actually wrong about, right? Trench warfare, maybe? Communism? Corsets? Chinese foot binding? At this point I’m prepared to wake up tomorrow morning with a desperate craving for all of the above.

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This entry was posted in AP English - 18 Years Later, Authors, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Henry James, Reviews by Bethany. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The A.P. English Challenge Eats Crow: Thoughts on Part I of The Portrait of a Lady (by Bethany)

  1. badkitty1016 says:

    I think Anne Hathaway would be an excellent Isabel Archer. Nicole Kidman played her in the 90’s but she strikes me as a bit too old for the part. Back then, of course, she was much younger, and perhaps her marriage to the potentially wacko Tom Cruise was helpful in creating her version of the character. In that movie John Malkovich played Gilbert Osmond, which was probably perfect casting.

    Also, I’m sure this was some sort of Freudian slip but you put that Gilbert Osmond’s daughter’s name is Posy, but it’s actually Pansy….. She really has no personality, that one. Except that she likes to make tea and serve it to people. She really is the antithesis of all the other women in this book.

  2. lfpbe says:

    I actually wrote Pansy at first, but then I second guessed myself, thinking that that name is TOO perfect for her and that even Henry James wouldn’t be that ironic. Oh well.

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