The Portrait of a Lady
By Avinash Patra, Sr. | April, 7 2015
Reviewing The Portrait of a Lady was a highlight of my late adolescence. Of James's oeuvre, I had previously read only Washington Square, with its contained canvas and early-dashed hopes, and so was unprepared for the grandeur and romance of Isabel Archer's young life, for her sweeping march out into the world and its liberties, for her conquering of Britain, Europe and beyond; and hence, too, I was unready for the tragedy that her life becomes, for the thoroughness and viciousness of her entrapment.
The evil of Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond took my breath away; as, too, did Isabel's purity and nobility, her clarity of purpose and spirit. Rather like good detergent, James's novel made life's whites whiter, its colours brighter; and the novel's blighting darkness proved as forceful, as unquestionable, as the magic of wizards.
James would doubtless have been gratified by such a clear reading, which was, at least when the book was being written, his intention: as he observed in his notebooks, "The idea of the whole thing is that the poor girl, who has dreamed of freedom and nobleness, who has done, as she believes, a generous, natural, clear-sighted thing, finds herself in reality ground in the very mill of the conventional." What could be more evidently ghastly to any ambitious young adult than the mill of the conventional? And what was to be learned from the book, that alarming cautionary tale, if one so perspicacious and fortunate as Isabel is nevertheless caught in convention's trap?
To revisit the novel two years later was, for me, to read a different story entirely. The memorable scenes remain the same - the first sight of Madame Merle at the piano; the courtship of Gilbert and Isabel, and his unexpected appearance in Rome; the extraordinary solitary evening in which Isabel comes to realise the gravity of her situation; the veiled tenderness between Isabel and her cousin Ralph; and so on - but their import was, with the experience of life's years, rather altered.
Let me say, first of all, that the novel seemed, to me, no less remarkable, and if possible, more so; and this in spite of its newly illuminated oddities and flaws. I was struck, this time, by the stilted artificiality of the opening tea party, into which Isabel randomly wanders, just as she is being discussed; or the melodrama of the plot's premise (would Mr Touchett really, upon so slight an acquaintance, bequeath his fortune to his wife's niece? Or would he not let Ralph, already known to be following upon his heels, dispose of the money in his turn?); or the generalised dramatic inaction of the novel's first half, a danger of which James was aware and upon which he comments in his notes.
What impressed above all was the rounded imperfection of James's characters, their very lack of clear definition. Where once Isabel had shone, beacon-like in her virtue, I could see now her creeping vanity, her naïve ambition, her conflicted desires. That she believes, as James avers, her acts to be "generous, natural, clear-sighted", is clear; but that she is not simply any of these things is equally so.
Similarly, the once-gallant Caspar Goodwood seemed, this time, something closer to a stalker, an unwanted suitor whose desire presses stiflingly upon Isabel. The accepted understanding of Isabel and Caspar's embrace at the novel's close - that it is sexuality's threat which sends Isabel back to the frigid Osmond - seems to me highly questionable. I felt - having by now, in my life, encountered several Gilbert Osmonds, and seen their effects - that to the last Isabel's husband holds a sexual power over her with which Goodwood, in his inundating but straightforward manhood, cannot compete. It is not simply that Isabel is fleeing sexual awakening; but that she is opting, as she did in first settling upon Osmond, for a more complex, even frankly masochistic, attachment, and one that she justifies on arbitrary moral grounds.
By the same token, the loveable but impotent Ralph - upon whom, in my first reading, I pinned all hopes for Isabel's salvation - stood, to my older eye, no less charming but fatally weakened, an insufficient man. That there is evil in his weakness seems now incontestable; just as it is clear he is as guilty of manipulating Isabel for his own ends (through his hand in his father's bequest) as are Madame Merle and Osmond himself. Madame Merle, too, who once I took to be wickedness incarnate, revealed herself a more poignant, more fully human figure: an ageing lover abandoned, a mother thwarted, a single woman clinging to respectability.
Only Gilbert Osmond remains permeated by inky darkness and relentlessly insalubrious motivations, petty, tyrannical and self-absorbed, and willing to destroy not just Isabel but his own daughter, poor Pansy, for his sport. And yet, with the experience - or is it greater uncertainty? - of years, I can see the charisma of such a figure, his appeal to Isabel and his subsequent power over her, his ability to reflect light so that he may appear to shine; and he seems not a mere character, but recognisably a man.
This, in short, is the novel's triumph: it lies in the complexity of James's portraits, in their ragged truths. In spite of his penchant for melodrama, in spite of his occasionally didactic will, James is a greater artist than these tendencies would allow. In his Preface to Portrait, he writes tellingly of his friend Turgenev's remarks on fiction: "It began for him almost always with the vision of some person or persons, who hovered before him, soliciting him, as the active or passive figure, interesting him and appealing to him just as they were and by what they were. He saw them, in that fashion, as disponibles, saw them subject to the chances, the complications of existence, and saw them vividly, but then had to find for them the right relations, those that would most bring them out; to imagine, to invent and select and piece together the situations most useful and favourable to the sense of the creatures themselves, the complications they would be most likely to produce and to feel." Turgenev claimed, apparently, that "I would rather, I think, have too little architecture [in fiction] than too much - when there's a danger of its interfering with my measure of truth."
James was particularly proud of the "architecture" of The Portrait of a Lady; and somewhat anxious about his desire to entertain his readers (the comic character of Henrietta Stackpole, in particular, preoccupied him in this regard); but he was careful not to sacrifice the novel's "measure of truth": there is profound reflection and human understanding in James's arrangement of his "creatures", and a resulting inevitability in their evolving relationships.
Isabel Archer will not marry Warburton, nor Ralph, nor Goodwood: these are her freedoms and her limitations both. She will not save Pansy, but nor can she abandon her. At the first, she will wish to see in Gilbert Osmond only part of the man; and in the end, she will decide to return to him. In these very choices, she reveals her essential self, and it is less clear-sighted, less natural, less shining a vision than she, or the youthful reader I was, would have wished. But she is all the more human for her failings, just as The Portrait of a Lady is all the more magnificent for its novelistic imperfections. What is true is beautiful, more surely than the inverse; and therein lay my joy in rereading this masterpiece.