I finished The Portrait of a Lady on Tuesday, and when I did it occurred to me that I never really thought I would finish it at all. All this verbiage about the AP English challenge aside, there is a little voice inside me that generally has a pretty good measure of who I am and what I will actually do – it’s the same voice that knew when I was a little kid and said I wanted to be an astronaut that by thirty-seven I would most likely be an unemployed bookblogger who shares her scrambled eggs with the cat – and this little voice was absolutely shocked on Tuesday afternoon when, in a mostly-empty Starbucks in Redwood City, I finally conquered my high school nemesis. And you know what? I loved it – right up to and including its complicated, painful ending. And, as you might expect, I have quite a lot to say about it after so much silence.
Isabel Archer marries the wrong man, of course. She marries Gilbert Osmond, who at first seems appealing because he is unconventional: he is an American and an artist and allegedly very poor, although he is wealthy enough to sustain himself in relatively elegant surroundings in Italy and to educate his daughter in luxurious convents (I think Henry James’ definition of poverty is different from mine, but that’s a story for another day). More to the point, though, Isabel feels that in marrying Gilbert she is acting entirely on her own, doing what she wants to do and not what others think she should do – which would be to marry either boring American cotton-mill owner Caspar Goodwood or the wealthy aristocratic Lord Warburton, whose allegedly “radical” political ideas are always kept safely abstract. It also goes without saying that Isabel could easily have married her saintly, tubercular cousin Ralph Touchett, who loves her with a purity that is almost overdone. I’m not usually much of a sucker for deathbed scenes, especially nineteenth-century deathbed scenes, but Ralph’s death affected me. I kept writing SO SAD in the margins. SO SO SAD.
There’s so much to write about: The way Gilbert and Isabel’s wedding happens completely off-page between chapters 35 and 36 (the reader learns about it only because Madame Merle offhandedly mentions “Mrs. Osmond” to Edward Rosier, a knickknack collector who appears out of nowhere to court Gilbert’s daughter Pansy. It’s as if we’re expected to treat the wedding itself as – what? Boring? Irrelevant? An inevitability once the rituals of courtship and engagement are gotten through?) The way motherhood is treated in this novel as something almost poisonous, with all the mothers of the novel either dead, neglectful, or, in the case of Madame Merle, manipulative and shamed and hidden in the shadows of her daughter’s life. James mentions only in passing that Isabel herself had a baby boy shortly after her marriage and that he died when he was six months old – a tragedy that is never mentioned again but that was never far from my mind as I read about the pain and sorrow of Isabel’s marriage to Gilbert. The novel’s symmetry – the way it begins at Gardencourt when Daniel Touchett is dying and ends at Gardencourt when his son Ralph is dying, the great stasis of an English aristocratic estate spread out in all its splendor only to serve as a yardstick to measure everything that has happened to Isabel Archer over the course of the novel.
But what has happened to Isabel over the course of the novel? The title indicates that this novel is neither a tragedy (though it certainly sometimes resembles one) nor a comedy (in spite of the fact that every hundred pages or so Henrietta shows up and says something hilarious) but a “portrait,” and a portrait suggests stasis. To me in 2013, the word “lady” is a synonym (and sort of an obnoxious one) for “woman,” but I need to remind for myself that for Henry James and his readers a “lady” is a very specific thing, denoting social class and financial status and certain very firmly established pattern of behaviors. At the beginning of this novel, Isabel isn’t a lady yet: she’s a young woman from a respected but impecunious family who is still very much casting about for the role she will play in life. It is her semi-accidental encounters with the Touchett family (first Mrs. Touchett, who visits her in Albany, and later Ralph, who takes it upon himself to protect her and arranges for her significant inheritance) that set her on the path to becoming a “lady.” Part I of this novel is a story of growth, of forward momentum, of upward trajectory, and it shows signs of being a comedy in the manner of a Jane Austen novel. Part II, though, is definitely a portrait. Isabel has hardened and calcified and become a lady, and in spite of the fact that any number of people approach her, confront her about her unhappiness, and offer her a free ticket to a life when she can be happier, and she repeatedly rejects these offers. The message of most nineteenth-century novels seems to be that society is rigid; the message of this novel seems to be that sometimes individuals are even more rigid than the society that forms them. Ralph Touchett’s grief when he comes to understand how powerfully his generosity toward Isabel has hurt her is one of the reasons that his deathbed scene is SO SO SAD. And his grief is legitimate: he injected money into the life of someone who was healthy, active, courageous, curious, adventurous, and free, and his money led directly to her destruction. He is right to grieve, in spite of the fact that his intentions were perfectly good.
The central irony of this novel seems to be that the characters who seem to be the most unconventional and free (Madame Merle, Gilbert Osmond, Mrs. Touchett, Isabel) are actually the most hobbled and miserable, while the characters who have essentially followed all of the social rules and customs of their society (Caspar Goodwood, Lord Warburton, Ralph Touchett) are good, generous, strong, and at least somewhat capable of happiness. Henry James seems to be suggesting that open-mindedness and freedom of thought are healthy, but that freedom of behavior and a desire to flout convention are often dangerous. This novel seems to be saying that we have a choice: we can let social conventions make us miserable for a few years when we are young, or we can let our own mistakes make us miserable for the rest of our lives. I think I agree.
Of all the novels I have ever read, I think this one comes the closest to being a textbook for fiction writers. Even though this novel is long, Henry James is a very efficient writer. Every scene, every chapter, every passage of description has a purpose. At the end of chapter 41, I wrote in the margin, “GO is still very opaque. I don’t feel I understand his motives at all,” and then – what do you know? – chapter 42 is devoted entirely to the exploration and revelation of Gilbert Osmond’s motives. If I were teaching this novel (which I would only do if I were teaching at the college or graduate level – and even then only maybe), the essay assignment would be to analyze the significance of a single chapter. Each chapter in this novel has a clear purpose; nothing is superfluous. Yet, even though the structure of this novel is very transparent and obvious (though not “obvious” in a clunky or unpleasant way), the writing itself is extremely subtle. This novel is practically a textbook on how to imply things.
The relationship between Isabel and Pansy Osmond is one of the most fascinating elements of this novel. Pansy is passive, ethereal, loyal to her father, and entirely without an apparent will of her own. Isabel’s love for Pansy is genuine, I think, but it comes laced with a variety of ironies. Early in the novel, Isabel is the prototypical ingénue – marked by innocence, inexperience, and a sense of being untarnished by pain and experience. For a while, in the middle of the novel, I wondered at the motivations of someone like Osmond who was attracted to this kind of naïvete in a wife at the same time that he quite deliberately preserves the same quality in his daughter. Osmond seemed on some level to fetishize innocence. Later, James gives us a few passages that could be taken from the early chapters of The Age of Innocence, when Newland Archer thinks about the kind of wife he wants to marry. From James: “Her mind was to be his – attached to his own like a small garden-plot to a deer-park. He would rake the soil gently and water the flowers; he would weed the beds and gather the occasional nosegay. It would be a pretty piece of property for a proprietor already far-reaching. He didn’t wish her to be stupid. On the contrary, it was because she was clever that she pleased him. But he expected her intelligence to operate entirely in his favor” (481); and from Wharton: “She was straightforward, loyal and brave; she had a sense of humour (chiefly proved by her laughing at HIS jokes); and he suspected, in the depths of her innocently-gazing soul, a glow of feeling that it would be a joy to waken. But when he had gone the brief round of her he returned discouraged by the thought that all this frankness and innocence were only an artificial product. Untrained human nature was not frank and innocent; it was full of the twists and defences of an instinctive guile. And he felt himself oppressed by this creation of factitious purity, so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long-dead ancestresses, because it was supposed to be what he wanted, what he had a right to, in order that he might exercise his lordly pleasure in smashing it like an image made of snow” (chapter 6). These passages aren’t identical in spirit, but they both concern the same irony. Both Gilbert Osmond and Newland Archer (who live in very much the same Gilded Age milieu) want to be able to create their wives; their wives, on the other hand, end up stuck in the strange position of trying to preserve an artificial sense of innocence in order to please their husbands – and, of course, innocence that is artificial isn’t really innocence. In The Portrait of a Lady, this dynamic becomes all the more strange because of the presence of Pansy, whom Osmond literally locks away in a convent. For her part, Isabel is legitimately affectionate and kind toward Pansy, but she seems determined to view Pansy as a peer rather than a daughter. They are relatively close in age, of course, but Isabel’s determination to treat Pansy as a sister seems to have more to do with Isabel’s refusal to acknowledge the fact that she herself is no longer innocent – that in all the machinations she has to keep in place in order to live in her marriage to Osmond, Isabel has become crafty, manipulative, and adept at concealing her true thoughts.
The ending of this novel fascinates me. Caspar Goodwood – who has seemed like a bit of a caricature to me throughout the novel, and definitely not like someone worth considering as a worthy suitor for Isabel – reappears at Gardencourt a couple of weeks after Ralph Touchett’s funeral and confronts Isabel about how unhappy she is in her marriage. He points out that she has in effect already opened a rift between herself and Osmond in the act of going to England for the funeral against Osmond’s will, and he suggests that she might as well make that rift complete and leave for the United States with him. “Why shouldn’t we be happy – when it’s here before us, when it’s so easy? I’m yours forever – for ever and ever. Here I stand; I’m as firm as a rock. What have you to care about? You have no children; that perhaps would be an obstacle. As it is you’ve nothing to consider. You must save what you can of your life; you mustn’t lose it all simply because you’ve lost a part… You took the great step in coming away; the next is nothing; it’s the natural one. I swear as I stand here, that a woman deliberately made to suffer is justified in anything in life – in going down into the streets if that will help her! I know how you suffer, and that’s why I’m here. We can do absolutely anything we please; to whom under the sun do we owe anything? What is it that holds us, what is it that has the smallest right to interfere in such as question as this? … Were we born to rot in our misery – were we born to be afraid?” (634-5).
My margin note on this page says, “Here comes the twentieth century – in the surprising guise of Caspar Goodwood.”
This speech continues for a few more paragraphs, and there’s even what I’m pretty sure is a Paradise Lost reference – when Goodwood says, “The world’s all before us – and the world’s very big” in echo of the final lines of Milton’s epic. Goodwood is essentially asking Isabel to acknowledge that she has been booted from the Garden of Eden already as it is, so she might as well take advantage of the best part of the postlapsarian world, which is the freedom of choice. After this there are just a few paragraphs of the novel left, and Goodwood keeps pleading for a bit and gives Isabel a kiss that is “like white lightning” (635) (there’s even a reference to his “hard manhood” ). And then she gets up and leaves to go back to Gilbert Osmond, leaving Caspar bewildered in the garden, presumably to do something like go back to his cotton mill in America and invent boxer shorts.
Of course, none of this interested me when I was seventeen – although, like I wrote in my pre-reading notes, apparently I was more intrigued by this novel than I remember being back then. I know I didn’t make it all the way to the end, at least. I think on some level I was Isabel Archer when I was seventeen – SO determined to do things my own way and make my own mistakes – and maybe there is a force of some kind in us that prevents us from seeing our own doubles when we encounter them in literature. The shock would be too extreme. Even reading it now, as much as I enjoyed and appreciated it, I needed that six-week break that I took between Part I and Part II. I enjoyed each part while I was reading it, but even as I was enjoying it there was a force in this book that pushed me away, and I think this is something that great literature does to us in general.
Good books have an almost tidal pull, and reading them feels effortless. By “good books” think of The Kite Runner, The Help, A Prayer for Owen Meany, even To Kill a Mockingbird and A Separate Peace and those other books that people read in high school and continue to list as their favorites long after they have forgotten their particulars. When a teenager reads a good book, the book acts as an ambassador. Sure, the world is scary, these books say. All kinds of bad things can happen, but look – these characters have survived and you will too. Then the book fluffs up a bunch of pillows and puts on water for tea and bakes brownies from scratch.
Good books are, in other words, Oprah.
Great books, on the other hand, are trolls that guard bridges. They do sometimes pull us along, but they are oceans, not rivers, and their currents are complicated. They pull us in multiple directions at once, and sometimes they simply push us away. They are drill instructors in elite Special Forces units, and their job is to keep the weak and undisciplined and cowardly out of the inner circle. Great books spit in your face sometimes. They yell NO SOUP FOR YOU! and slam doors in your face and won’t let you join Fight Club until you’ve stood outside the house for three days and nights with no food or water or words of encouragement. When teenagers approach a great book, the book looks them up and down and shakes its head. No way, it says, chewing on an old toothpick or maybe a hank of Copenhagen. Don’t waste my time. Come back when you have some real problems, kid. Come back when you’ve SUFFERED.
I’m realizing that, for whatever you might think of the books we read in our A.P. English class, Fr. Murphy only exposed us to the greats. He had no time for books that were only good. And as a former teacher, I can say that putting together a syllabus like his took guts. Discussing literature with smart, motivated high school students is one of the greatest pleasures I have had in my life – but, I realize, I have always introduced great literature to my students in small, measured doses. A poem here, twenty pages of Thoreau there, Song of Solomon in April, when they’re rested after spring break. I cajole and wheedle and wisecrack my way through The Scarlet Letter, and mostly it works, and I do think that by the time they finish the novel, my students do feel that they came close to its greatness. But Fr. Murphy didn’t do any of that. He was an inspiring and eloquent lecturer, and we appreciated him for that at the time, but he didn’t try to make difficult literature any more palatable for us by digesting it for us or joking about it. He forced us to take it on its own terms, which is how all great literature should be taken. One of the lasting impressions that this A.P. Challenge has given me is that I can’t quite fathom how much Fr. Murphy trusted us, back then. I’ve never trusted my own students as much as he trusted us, I don’t think – and maybe I’m a little sorry for that.
The Portrait of a Lady is wise and beautiful and sad. It uses setting – stately Gardencourt and crumbling, decimated Rome – to better effect than any other novel I can think of. Its characters actively resist being pigeonholed for every single of its 637 pages, and at no time does it descend to the level of cliché. I don’t even want to think about the kind of life experience that gave Henry James the wisdom to write this novel. It also requires work from its reader, and it knows, I think, that almost everyone who picks it up will end up putting it down without finishing it. That takes guts too – for a novel to be what it is, even knowing that most readers will push it away and go read The Hunger Games instead. I’ll admit it – I’m kind of in awe of myself for having finished this book. I’m different now. I’m not sure how – but I am. And I like it over here, on this side of the divide.