Henry James: Portrait of a Lady

portraitMost readers of novels probably re-read some of them, often more than once. The novel I have most often re-read is Henry James’ novel, The Portrait of a Lady; I’ve probably read it four or five times, at intervals of five years or so, long enough to have forgotten many of the details, although retaining a memory of the overall structure. For those of you who haven’t read it, the story is of Isabel Archer, a young American woman who comes to England and Europe in a spirit of discovery. To discover herself. She is taken up by her aunt, who wants to see her make something of herself, and by her cousin, Ralph Touchett, a man who comes to love her, but whose chronic illness unfits him for any active role. She is not rich, but Ralph engineers a remedy for that by persuading his father to leave her a very substantial amount of money in his will from the portion that would otherwise have gone to him. She has suitors, but they come for her, not for her money, except for one man, the man, Gilbert Osmond who she so disastrously marries. She is warned against him by all of her friends, except, again, one, Madame Merle, who she later discovers to have played her false. Ralph intended to put wind in her sails, he said, but what he did, loving her, was to put disaster in her path.

Why have I re-read this book so often? It is largely, I think, because of the subtle way in which Henry James shows the development of Isabel’s understanding of her mistakes, and the way in which the other characters, often minor characters, reveal what Isabel has not understood. Gilbert Osmond’s sister, a silly, frivolous woman married to an impoverished, unpleasant, Italian Count, opens Isabel’s eyes. It is the justification for her place in the novel, and something we never expected.

The novel contains, in chapter forty-two, a scene that changed not only the course of this novel, but the course of literature forever. Isabel sits through the night, the oil lamps and the candles burn down, and she faces what she has done. If you ask what happens, the answer is ‘nothing’, nothing active, that is. Isabel sits and thinks, and finally faces how false her husband has been to her. He expects her to use her influence with her former suitor, Lord Warburton, to persuade him to marry his daughter, Pansy, and he believes she can do this because he believes she still has an affection for Warburton, and that he does for her. It is, perhaps, the most insulting thing that a husband could intimate to a wife. Soon after this Isabel learns that Ralph, who has returned to England, is dying, and announces her intention to go to him. Osmond tells her that she should not, tells her that it is disgraceful that she should think so, but Isabel goes. While at Ralph’s house, and after his death, she is visited by Caspar Goodwood, another of her suitors, and there follows a scene of love-making that astonishes us, something we thought Henry James would never be able to write, cautious, sexually innocent man that he was. Goodwood kisses her, tells her not to return to her husband, that he will care for her, but in the morning he learns that she has left. We are not told what happens, and we are left to our own surmises. James leaves things like this several times in this novel. We suddenly realise that Isabel is to marry Osmond, but we are not told so in the way a novelist would normally recount the story. The marriage ceremony is not described. We realise that the marriage is a failure, but it is dropped into the story. It is the antithesis of what writers are taught. Show, don’t tell, they are told, but James neither shows nor tells, he drops the understanding into the pages, and it would be all too easy to miss the revelation.

The characters surprise us. We think we understand Isabel, and then realise that we do not. We are suspicious of Madame Merle, uneasy about what role she is to play, and we are shocked when we discover. There is a remarkable scene where Isabel comes upon Gilbert Osmond, seated, and Madame Merle, standing, not saying anything, the talking evidently finished, but there has clearly passed some understanding between them. Isabel hardly understands the import of this at the time, but later comes to understand it all too well.

I re-read The Portrait of a Lady this time, alternating the chapters with chapters from Michael Gorra’s book Portrait of a Novel, which discusses the making of this American masterpiece. I don’t read as much literary criticism as I might, and Gorra’s book was a revelation, opening my eyes to things I had never noticed or understood before. It is a major undertaking to read not only The Portrait of a Lady, which runs to 626 pages of quite small type in the Bodley Head edition, but also over 300 pages of Gorra’s book. Normally I would read two or three novels a month, but it took me a month to re-read this novel, not so much because of the words, but because I had to keep stopping to think about what I had read. And it was well worth it.

This isn’t the only novel I’ve re-read, of course. I’ve re-read many of Margaret Drabble’s novels, for much the same reason that I’ve re-read The Portrait of a Lady. And probably like almost everyone who has read Jane Austen’s novels, I’ve re-read them, as well, although, I realise, not for a long time. Perhaps what I now no longer care for is the sense that in the Austen novels, we are all hastening towards the happy ending. As I grow older, I am learning that life isn’t like that. Life is like The Portrait of a Lady.

What novels have you re-read, and why?


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