I finished The Portrait of a Lady a few weeks ago, and I honestly don’t know what I’ve been doing since mid-February because it obviously hasn’t been writing blog posts. Let’s just say that the first ten weeks of 2013 have been more than a bit fraught with activity and stress. And now here I am on March 10th, laying on my bed in a hotel room in Yosemite National Park, wondering how in the heck it got to be two days before my 36th birthday and didn’t I just turn 35? And what have I been doing the past ten weeks that it’s taken me this long to blog about January’s AP Challenge book? Oh well. Here goes nothing. I started this post right after finishing the book, and I don’t remember where I was planning to go with it, but I’ll try to pick up where I left off.
I feel like I got through the second half of Henry James’ masterpiece much faster than the first half. I suspect because the second half had a bit more action and some suspense surrounding Isabel Archer and Gilbert Osmond’s marriage. The book gets billed as similar to Dangerous Liaisons or a Machiavellian theme. And I see that, but in Dangerous Liaisons didn’t the guy actually fall in love with the woman being done wrong? Because by the end I got the feeling that Gilbert Osmond hated Isabel and only wanted her around so he could dominate her. And this is as far as I got right after I finished the book.
I reflected on my 1993 impressions of this book ad nauseam in my first two posts about The Portrait of a Lady, and how wrong I was and how teenagers have no taste. I wish Fr. Murphy had told us that we probably wouldn’t have the time of day for this book until nineteen years had gone by. It would also have been nice to hear him say that it was okay to wait almost twenty years to finish it, too. That would have helped my Catholic guilt a lot. What’s funny to me is that it didn’t take me nineteen years to realize the March AP book, Dickens’ Great Expectations, was better than I thought it was in high school. I actually wanted to finish that one, and took my most favorite English class ever, the Nineteenth Century British Novel, in no small part because it was on the syllabus. Why was Dickens different than Henry James? Why did I continue to hate him, and The Portrait of a Lady, for fifteen more years? I don’t know. I may never know.
Where was I? Oh, yes. Henry James, Isabel Archer, and Gilbert Osmond. Isabel and Gilbert’s relationship was amazingly awful to me. What was wrong with him, really, that he had to be that controlling? Was that just how men were in the late nineteenth century? I don’t think so. Sometimes I imagined Osmond lurking in corners, wearing a cape, and chuckling like one of those old time cartoon villains. We don’t really get to know him or his motivations. It can’t be just his desire to advance his daughter, Pansy, to an advantageous marriage using Isabel’s money and connections. I don’t think even Isabel has a clue, or if she does she doesn’t verbalize it. She just suffers. And when she has a chance to leave, she takes it, but I get the impression that there is at least a fifty percent chance she is going right back there to him, because it’s her duty or some other such nonsense.
Henry James wrote what Fr. Murphy called “dense prose.” It’s a term I have used often in the nineteen plus years since starting AP English. I always thought of it as a bad thing, dense prose. But it’s not, not really. Modern fiction is much less dense, and that makes for faster reading, which has historically been my goal. But 2013 has not been a prolific reading year for me. But everything I’ve read has been dense, with sentences a person “can chew on,” to quote my wonderful boss, and that’s a quality I haven’t ever appreciated until now. It used to be that I measured the worth of a book by how quickly I finished it. But as I progress through these books, these classics, I see that there is more to it than that. These books, especially The Portrait of a Lady, will stand out in my memory for as long as I have a memory. And it guess that’s the whole point.