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.
I really do think that the fact that we read SO MUCH Henry James was part of the reason we hated him for so long. Also, Great Expectations is more accessible than The Portrait of a Lady, PLUS we had already read it (or tried to read it – or, in my case, didn’t really try very hard) when we were freshmen. I remember that even as a senior I was impressed by how much more accessible Great Expectations seemed to me compared to when we were freshmen.
Have you come up with a reason for all the Henry James, by the way? Besides that he’s a master of the English language and all that crap?
Have I mentioned yet that Great Expectations is hilarious this time around?
1) Not really. He’s definitely a master, but I can’t imagine why anyone would want to teach more than one of his books – and I still don’t think I would teach any of them in a high school course, except maybe one of the novellas – The Turn of the Screw or Daisy Miller – read in short segments and discussed heavily along the way.
2) Yes, you did. I love that book. Haven’t started it this time around yet, but I loved it in grad school.
3) Also, by the way, I was thinking about something in your post, and I think that when Isabel leaves Caspar to go back to Gilbert Osmond at the very end, she is not doing it out of duty to him. I think she is still very much the individualist that she was in Part I, and she has too much pride to go back on her OWN vow. I don’t think she feels one whit of duty toward Osmond, but she can’t stand the idea of admitting she was wrong and letting Caspar or anyone else help her. Yet another level of the novel’s painful irony.
I like that explanation of why Isabel goes back to Osmond (though it sort of is left up in the air what she’s going to do next) better than thinking it’s a duty situation. She’s just stubborn. I can relate to that.
I thought it was clear that she was going back to Osmond. I’ll look in my copy later and see if I can come up with evidence.
I think I read somewhere that it isn’t made clear. Maybe it was on the internet. The internet never lies, you know. (Ha. Ha. Ha.) When I read it I got the impression she was most likely going back to Osmond, but there was also an inkling that she might not be.
I don’t have anything conclusive, but here are my thoughts: Right after Caspar kisses her, the narration says, “She had not known where to turn; but she knew now. There was a very straight path.” It seems to me that if she were not going to go back to Osmond, the path would not be straight – there would be infinite paths, and they would be meandering all over the place. There are two possible straight paths: to follow Caspar or to go back to Osmond. We know she isn’t going to go with Caspar, so Osmond is the other choice.
After Caspar kisses her, we have this: “she felt each thing in his hard manhood that had least pleased her, each aggressive fact of his face, his figure, his presence, justified of his intense identity and made one with this act of possession. So had she heard of those wrecked and under water following a train of images before they sink. But when darkness returned she was free” (636). This makes me think of something else. On the one hand, Gilbert Osmond represents HER freedom. She may have chosen wrong, but she chose him, and he is HERS, and her pride won’t let her back away from that choice. On the other hand (and both theories are valid, I think), she dreads the prospect of going back “on the market” if she leaves Osmond. When Caspar kisses her, she is overwhelmed by the distasteful physical experience of it and realizes that all this crap is going to start all over again if she leaves Osmond and is single again. On some level, Osmond represents safety, since at least she will never have to have the agony of choice (and possibly choosing wrong) again.
Also, I think it’s SO SAD that Ralph probably COULD have saved Isabel this time around, but didn’t. If he had left Gardencourt to her in his will, she could have retreated there and probably been OK, stepping back from society altogether (would she have wanted that? Not sure, but it would have been an option). But Ralph is afraid to give her anything else because of what happened last time, and he gives the house to charity. Such painful irony!
Poor Ralph. He was a good egg.