Sunday, May 8, 2011

Felled by folly or foe

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (originally published by Macmillan, 1880-81; reprinted 2003 by Penguin Books) 656 pages

Henry James' oeuvre is filled with hapless men who watch the women in their lives be destroyed either by their own ambitions and weaknesses (The Wings of the Dove, Daisy Miller) or by the insidious, evil people around them (The Portrait of a Lady, Washington Square, The Golden Bowl) many of whom are, unfortunately, men. The girls and women are often superior creatures felled by folly or foe.

Here, the consumptive and gravely ill American Ralph Touchett watches helplessly as his beautiful cousin Isabel Archer is seduced and nearly destroyed by Europeanized Americans intent on sucking every last material benefit out of her. Isabel has been plucked from her staid American life in Albany, NY (where James himself was raised in his early years) to live in England with her aunt's family who admires her independence of mind. The Touchetts are greatly  enamored of Isabel and determined to have her forge her own path:
Most women did with themselves nothing at all: they waited, in attitudes more or less gracefully passive, for a man to come that way and furnish them with a destiny. 
It is significant that Isabel's last name is Archer - she brings to mind the Roman goddess Diana the goddess of hunting, in physical description and action. Diana was a virgin goddess who also protected virgins (this will signify later) and who swore never to marry.

Isabel is determined to live life on her own terms - rejecting the advances of a handsome, if overpowering, American industrialist named Caspar Goodwood who pursues her to England and then Italy, warding off the gentle advances and offer of marriage from Lord Warburton, Ralph's friend, and even the gentle solicitude of her cousin Ralph. None of the candidates seem suitable to Isabel.

Goodwood (such names Mr. James!) "seemed to deprive her of the sense of freedom". He represented "a kind of grim fate" and "the idea of a diminished liberty was particularly disagreeable to her at present." Goodwood is often imagined as a sort of warrior, armored, helmeted, a valiant knight of sorts. He is also associated with "hardness", with immovability and intractability - it is the thing which both repels and attracts Isabel. Goodwood presses her for a reason as to why she chooses not to marry either of them:
I'm not in my first youth - I can do what I choose - I belong quite to the independent class. I've neither father nor mother; I'm poor and of a serious disposition; I'm not pretty. I therefore am not bound to be timid and conventional; indeed I can't afford such luxuries. Besides, I try to judge things for myself; to judge wrong, I think, is more honourable than not to judge at all. I don't wish to be a mere sheep in the flock; I wish to choose my fate and know something of human affairs beyond what other people think it compatible with propriety to tell me.
With Lord Warburton Isabel reasoned that, "If she wouldn't do such a thing as that [marry Warburton] then she must do great things, she must do something greater."
The rejection of Goodwood exasperates her close friend, the American journalist Henrietta Stackpole, who connives to throw the two together in England although her plot fails:
"Do you know where you're drifting?" Henrietta pursued, holding out her bonnet delicately.
"No, I haven't the least idea, and I find it very pleasant not to know. A swift carriage, of a dark night, rattling with four horses over roads that one can't see - that's my idea of happiness."
"Mr. Goodwood certainly didn't teach you to say such things as that -like the heroine of an immoral novel," said Miss Stackpole."You're drifting to some great mistake."
Isabel presages the "New Woman" of the late 19th c. She is intelligent, admirable, independent. She is certainly sympathetically portrayed by James and beloved by all around her. The journalist Henrietta Stackpole represents a more shrill example of the same type - shockingly traveling through Europe alone, having a career (unusual for a woman at that time), speaking her mind regardless of how it will be received by her American friends. Henrietta is sometimes presented as slightly disagreeable and not quite proper. Where Isabel inspires love and admiration, Henrietta's presence and pronouncements are greeted like the sound of nails upon a chalkboard. Does James admire the new, modern woman? What then does it mean when Isabel allows herself to be ensnared by the treachery of Gilbert Osmond if she is the vastly superior creature that we, the readers, perceive her to be?

Nicole Kidman in the 1996 film with her  
nemeses John Malkovich (Gilbert Osmond) 
and Barbara Hershey (Serena Merle) ...

Enter Madame Serena Merle (her name hearkens back to the devious Marquise de Merteuil from the 1782 novel Les Liaisons dangereuses and her role is not dissimilar here). Madame Merle is a close friend of Isabel's aunt, Lydia Touchett, who joins the household while the elder Mr. Touchett lies dying in his country estate at Gardencourt. When Serena Merle learns of the bequest that Isabel receives from her uncle she throws the impressionable girl in the path of slithery Gilbert Osmond.

The reader observes Osmond's overbearing solicitude towards his daughter, the sweet Pansy (an apt name for such a flower - sweet, vulnerable and easily trampled), with mounting trepidation. Osmond values the submissiveness of the convent educated Pansy and it makes us shudder anticipating the meeting between Isabel and Osmond orchestrated by Madame Merle. What will he make of Isabel? What does Serena Merle gain from the encounter - mere amusement or a more sinister satisfaction?

When the Countess Gemini, Osmond's sister, observes Isabel being courted by Merle and Osmond she immediately senses that Isabel is in jeopardy: "... together you are dangerous - like some chemical combination." How close to the mark this observation is!

Aunt Lydia's opposition to, and assessment of, the match is correct - Isabel just might marry Osmond for his exquisite taste and impoverished circumstances because it would be the thing for a wealthy, beautiful young heiress not to do. Neither aunt nor friend (Henrietta or Goodwood) nor cousin dissuade her (Ralph thinks Osmond a "sterile dilettante" and a "villain" at heart yet lacks the proof he says). Aunt Lydia breaks her relations with Serena, feeling that she and Isabel have been duped.

Unfortunately nothing dissuades Isabel - all the arguments against him strengthen her resolve. Osmond's lack of wealth, connections, his ultra-refined, some might argue effete, tastes prove irresistible to Isabel. I wonder at the paralysis that the male characters in James' works exhibit. Ralph sets a plan in motion to have Isabel inherit a substantial sum from his father and yet when she falters with Osmond he fails to forcefully intervene - like a deistic god who has set a clock in motion but will not alter the course of events - is it because he is ill, because he loves her too much, knows that his words or actions will have no effect upon the strong-willed Isabel?

Fast forward a few years ... without specific details except for the information that Isabel has borne and lost a child at the age of six months and has not conceived since, we know that the marriage has not been a success. We know this through Madame Merle's speech to a young suitor, Edward Rosier, who has his eye on Pansy, now nineteen. His suit is not likely to be successful - he is moderately well off but not fabulously wealthy which is what Osmond desires for his daughter. We see how the tables have turned. Isabel is shown as defenseless against Osmond's wishes.

Henry James in his relative youth
The Osmonds live in an enormous palazzo called Palazzo Roccanera (literally translated in Italian as "black rock") near the Palazzo Farnese in Rome which sounds much like a mausoleum, crammed with Osmond's objets d'art and about as inviting as its host. Isabel is still beautiful, elegant and much admired, hosting evenings on Thursdays for their friends. Madame Merle comes more to the forefront, clearly managing Pansy's affairs as much as Osmond. Isabel does not enter into their consideration at all. Although she loves the young girl, she is powerless to protect her or forward her interests and realizes this clearly.

Isabel has a revelation - a presentiment - one day she sees Madame Merle and Osmond together. They are not being intimate, not even touching; however, there is something she senses in their relationship to each other. Something disturbing.

At one of her evenings, Isabel is surprised to see Lord Warburton who comes bearing the news that Ralph, now gravely ill, is back in Rome. The Lord has also become smitten with Pansy. Isabel hurries to see Ralph the next day. Ralph sees enormous changes ... not in her beauty but in her very being:
Her light step drew a mass of drapery behind it; her intelligent head sustained a majesty of ornament. The free, keen girl had become quite another person; what he saw was the fine lady who was supposed to represent something. What did Isabel represent? Ralph asked himself; and he could only answer by saying that she represented Gilbert Osmond.
Isabel realizes that Osmond feels that she has failed him: "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 an occasional nosegay. It would be a pretty piece of property for a proprietor already far-reaching."

But Isabel does not comply to his ideal of a submissive wife and he soon suspects that Isabel is attempting to thwart his plans to have Lord Warburton marry Pansy and not Edward Rosier. Osmond wishes her to use her influence over Warburton to push the plan forward.

I always lose heart when I reach this particular section ... why has Isabel become so passive, so reluctant to challenge Osmond? Where is the free spirited girl who turned down marriage offers from industrial magnates and lords? Where is the girl who defied family and friend to marry a penniless man? Her spirit appears broken, her confidence shaken. Was it the loss of her child? The realization of what a profound error she has made?
She knew of no wrong he had done; he was not violent, he was not cruel: she simply believed he hated her.
If you don't know the ending I will not spoil it for you ... suffice it to say Mr. Rosier is defeated and we soon learn why Madame Merle is interested in Pansy's fate. Isabel makes fateful decisions: to remain Pansy's protector, to be with Ralph at the last when he is conquered by his consumption. Isabel is complicated and perverse at times. Her fidelity is heart-rending. Her turning away from possible escapes from Gilbert is maddening.

The final appearance of Goodwood in the last pages still intrigues me - Isabel's rejection of Goodwood seems inexplicable at times. And yet it is consistent with Isabel's nature. She has made her proverbial bed and is adamant that she will lie in it. That is her tragedy and beauty.

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