It is perhaps considered backward and narrow-minded, even sexist, to speak of the gender of a writer and of their creations, as though the differences between men and women are unbridgeable, as though writers are generally unable to portray convincingly characters of the opposite sex. I should look at the characters, the individuals, you may say. Why should gender be more significant than race or culture or class, you may ask. I don't think writing characters of the opposite sex is more difficult than writing the point of view of someone of another race or from another culture or another class, but there are still differences between men and women- I don't mean stereotypes like men are rational and women are emotional, or men like sports and women like fashion, or such bullshit, I mean, whether it's because of brains or genes or upbringing or the environment or personal experiences or everything, there are differences between men and women in thinking, observing people, perceiving the world, reacting to things, in concerns and interests, in habits, and so on. Charlotte Bronte doesn't see men, for example. Her male characters don't have the same vividness and vitality as her female characters (even though, as Virginia Woolf says, we don't read her for psychological insight, we can see Jane Eyre, Lucy Snowe, Shirley Keeldar, Caroline Helstone), and when she attempts to write from a man's point of view (Louis Moore) in Shirley, it's a total failure.
Now, on chapter 42, I'm thinking about the characters in The Portrait of a Lady and the author's sex.
In his review of Middlemarch, Henry James complains that Will Ladislaw is a woman's man. I don't quite know what that means- how often do you find characters as excellently portrayed as George Eliot's Casaubon and Lydgate? But let's say the problem with Will is that he's a woman's man, I think the problem with Gilbert Osmond is that he's seen by a man. Perhaps that isn't it. All characters in The Portrait of a Lady seem vague, abstract, blurry, unclear. There is too much analysis; too much confusion. James, I'm afraid, doesn't quite capture the voices of his characters, when writing dialogue and when entering his characters' consciousness. There is lots of dialogue, but the dialogue doesn't seem real; one asks oneself if anyone speaks that way and thinks not; his characters' ways of speaking are strange. There is lots of- what? interior monologue? stream of consciousness?, but something is off, James doesn't get the "inner voice" of his beings; one looks at what he's doing and thinks he can't compare to Jane Austen and her mastery of the free indirect speech. All characters are vague. Yet I still feel that the problem with Osmond is that he's seen by a man. He is a villain, a bad boy of sorts; I compare him to the bad boys written by women- Jane Austen's Willoughby and especially Henry Crawford are utterly charming, Charlotte Bronte's Rochester, in spite of everything, can be fascinating, but it's hard to see how Osmond can charm Isabel Archer. An Osmond seen by a woman may let the readers see how a woman falls for him despite her earlier determination to be single, despite him having nothing whatsoever. Seen by a man, he is, as Walter Allen has put it, robbed "of a certain sexual magic".
Am I being unfair to James? Perhaps I am. Because now I will venture to say, I'm afraid that the problem with Isabel may be that she's written by a man. Take the chapter I'm reading. Putting aside Caspar Goodwood, a woman who rejects a man for not feeling interested in marriage and for not knowing him well and then goes for someone only to find herself in an unhappy marriage is less likely to have the thought process as James describes Isabel as having, than to reconsider the man, see him differently and wonder what might have happened if she had chosen him. She doesn't have to love him or think highly of him, she doesn't even have to regret her decision, but the experience of marriage and the realisation that she has been mistaken in choosing her current husband would make her see that man in a different way, even if it's a slight difference, and would force her, at some point, to imagine a different path, a different scenario. We see that in Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway. Of course people are not the same, we think and act and react in different ways- I'm talking about what seems to me likely, and natural, though if you keep pushing I could be at a loss for words and end up saying it's personal. Maybe it is personal- all I can say is that Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina, no matter how irrational and stupid and frustrating, never seem contrived and unnatural, and many other female characters by Tolstoy such as Natasha, Marya, Sonya, Hélène... are natural, vivid and full of life (except the bit about Natasha's changes in the epilogue), and Isabel is not only blurry and hard to describe but also a bit unnatural now and then, the the-author-doesn't-understand-women kind of unnatural.
However, as written in an earlier post, the vagueness of Isabel is interesting and apparently deliberate, which invites us to be involved in the painting of her, in the solving of the puzzle named Isabel Archer. Others see her and try to read her and have their own theories about her and plans for her; others try to shape her the way they see fit; but she is never seen, even by the readers; she is larger than those perceptions and interpretations and discussions, larger than those theories and plans, larger than them all. Is that what James Wood say, in How Fiction Works? That she exists in spite of the abstractness, in spite of the lack of definition and depth, in spite of the inability to say exactly what she's like? Because she vibrates only because of James's anxious concern for her?
The question is whether she is seen by James.