Monday, June 6, 2011

book review: the portrait of a young lady

*Warning: Here be spoilers for Henry James' novel The Portrait of a Young Lady.  Do not read if you don't want the novel ruined for you*

Henry James is a writer unto himself- I doubt there was one like him before his time, and I haven't seen one like him since.  His plots are so simple, but his words are so complex, that one is bound to get a headache after an intensive reading session of one of his works.  For the third James story that I have read in four months, The Portrait of a Young Lady did not deviate from his methods of storytelling, raising suspense, and then twisting the story unexpectedly at the end, disappointing the reader in the realistic, human endings of his characters' own chosing.

image source: Campaign for 
the American Reader
This novel focuses on one Isabel Archer, a 23-year-old American traveling through Europe in the company of her aunt, Mrs. Touchett.  Her journeys take her from Gardencourt, the English abode of the Touchett family, where she becomes acquainted with Mrs. Touchett's husband, her sickly son Ralph, Lord Warburton, an aristocratic neighbor, and Madame Merle, an accomplished widow.  Isabel determines to make her trip to Europe an exposure to the human experience- to suffering, pain, joys, and all of the little things in between.  She rejects two marriage proposals to preserve her independence, and everyone generally thinks that she is going to make something of herself.  What an American woman can make of herself in the nineteenth century is never made clear, but one of the characters, Isabel's friend Henrietta Stackpole, is a successful journalist.

The elderly Mr. Touchett dies, leaving Isabel with a large inheritance.  Unbeknownst to her, Ralph had asked his father before he died to bequeath half of his inheritance to his cousin so he could enjoy the creative and imaginative ways in which he expects she will use it.  

Now a "made" woman, Isabel continues to travel throughout Europe with her aunt, where Madame Merle introduces her to an American living in Florence named Gilbert Osmond.  Eventually Osmond proposes marriage to Isabel as well.  After rejecting him, Isabel roves for one year before finally returning to Italy and accepting the offer, to the chagrin of her aunt, her cousin, and her American friends.

Fast forward three years, and Isabel is now Mrs. Osmond, the matron of a lavishly decorated house in Rome, hostess of exclusive house gatherings on one night of the week, with a 19-year-old stepdaughter who is herself starting to receive the attentions of men and a husband who despises her.  In no uncertain terms does James paint the misery of the unspoken hatred of Osmond for his wife, of his belittling of her, of his controlling behavior,, of his irrational expectations of her behavior and his accusatory confrontations with her when an expected marriage proposal of Lord Warburton to Pansy, the stepdaughter, does not materialize.  Isabel herself begins to suspect that her good friend Madame Merle had more of a hand in arranging her marriage to Osmond than she at first expected, and discovers discomfort with the idea of the widow and her husband together.  Her friends- Ralph, Lord Warburton, Henrietta Stackpole, and Caspar Goodwood- attempt to come to her rescue, but she is determined to keep the details of her unhappy marriage all to herself. 

After a disturbing conversation with Madame Merle and an argument with her husband when he tries to prevent her from responding to a summons to come to her cousin Ralph's deathbed, unknown truths begin to pour out from the mouth of the Countess Gemini, the sister of Osmond.  Her husband did, indeed, marry Isabel for her money, and Madame Merle arranged the entire occurrence due to the fact that Osmond was her former lover.  

Isabel escapes to England and her cousin's deathbed, reflecting the entire time on whether she wants to continue to pursue an unhappy future with her husband or divorce him and continue to pursue the dreams of her single days.  In the end she does the conventionally moral Victorian thing and rejoins her husband and her dismal marriage.

There are quite a few repeating themes and characteristics of characters in this story.  For one, James fills it throughout with unconventional nineteenth century women.  Mrs. Touchett constantly separates herself from her husband and her sickly son, choosing instead to lead an independent life and separate households in other parts of the world more often than not.  Henrietta Stackpole is a "career woman" who often travels alone and disparages the idea of marriage when confronted with the topic.  The Countess Gemini has a track record of a long string of lovers and openly criticizes her husband and marriage at times herself.  With all of these independent female influences, one would suppose that Isabel would have a better chance of escaping the male-dominated aspects of Victorian society, including her controlling husband.  In the end, however, Isabel sacrifices happiness for propriety and a husband who does not approve of her.

The story is also filled with tales of failed dreams and expectations.  Madame Merle, despite her drawing room accomplishments, has many unfulfilled ambitions- one of which seems to be a desire to be the wife of a great man.  Isabel has unknown ambitions that are destroyed when she marries.  Henrietta Stackpole herself finally gives in to the business of marriage at the end of the book.  Osmond is disappointed in Isabel for her lack of propriety and his suspicions that she is not obedient to his wishes.

The Portrait of a Lady paints the various the turns of fate in Isabel's life that were controlled by others.  Mrs. Touchett brings Isabel across the Pond to introduce her to European society as an act of charity for her poor niece.  Ralph then gives Isabel a fortune in the hopes that Isabel will use it in a way that will fulfill both her dreams and amuse Ralph.  Madame Merle, meanwhile, arranges the marriage between Osmond and Isabel with the expectation that the acquisition of a rich wife will make her former lover happy .  The latter two cases, which were done without Isabel's knowledge, prove to be the nails in her matrimonial coffin despite their relatively good intentions.

As with most of James' work, is that there is very little action throughout the majority of the story, with a rush of climax after climax in the last portions of the novel.  It took me one month to get through the first 500 pages and two days to finish the last 100 pages due to this fact.  I think I can safely say that no action really occurs in the first 150 pages- just reflections of the past and the various inner thoughts of the characters introduced in the first 20 pages.  Then the scenes chance, situations are set up, but nothing earthshaking happens for so long that you begin to wonder where the story is going.  That is, until the last 100 pages of the book.  James is a master of the explosive ending, the revelation of all he has been so carefully built up in those pages of inaction that I have just skirted in my description above.  If you have the patience to see him paint the outline of the picture through 500 pages, it is well worth the 100 pages he takes to fill in the holes with vividly agonizing color and precision, only to finish the painting before you even realize it is done.  

Henry James is truly an artist in formulating words and images that expose the dark thoughts of the relatively well-to-do and the quashed dreams of humans, even those who began with the best opportunities and the highest hopes.  The Portrait of a Lady is a challenge to read but mind-boggling in its precise construction of the simple plot and the realistic results expected of men and women when they handle very human situations, rather than the happy ending that rarely occurs in real life.

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