Sunday 27 September 2015

Experience and reading (P.2); the readers in The Portrait of a Lady

1/ Prejudice against novel readers: 
The prejudice that we care more about books than about life and live too much in the mind.
The prejudice that we see literature as escapism or a substitute for experience, that we don't really live.
The prejudice that we don't have a social life, spending more time with dead authors and fictional characters than with living people.
The prejudice that we are immature and unrealistic, talking about things that never happen and wasting emotions on people that never exist.
The prejudice that we read to fantasise about what we cannot have and imagine being who we cannot be.
The prejudice that we should do something useful instead.
This I have experienced. How am I to explain aesthetic bliss? 

2/ Who else is surprised to learn that Isabel Archer is a reader? 
See Gwendolen: 
"'Oh, no!—'die Kraft ist schwach, allein die Lust ist gross,' as
Mephistopheles says.
'Ah, you are a student of Goethe. Young ladies are so advanced now. I suppose you have read everything.'
'No, really. I shall be so glad if you will tell me what to read. I have been looking into all the books in the library at Offendene, but there is nothing readable. The leaves all stick together and smell musty. I wish I could write books to amuse myself, as you can! How delightful it must be to write books after one's own taste instead of reading other people's! Home-made books must be so nice.'
For an instant Mrs. Arrowpoint's glance was a little sharper, but the perilous resemblance to satire in the last sentence took the hue of girlish simplicity when Gwendolen added—
'I would give anything to write a book!'
'And why should you not?' said Mrs. Arrowpoint, encouragingly. 'You have but to begin as I did. Pen, ink, and paper are at everybody's command. But I will send you all I have written with pleasure.'
'Thanks. I shall be so glad to read your writings. Being acquainted with authors must give a peculiar understanding of their books: one would be able to tell then which parts were funny and which serious. I am sure I often laugh in the wrong place.' Here Gwendolen herself became aware of danger, and added quickly, 'In Shakespeare, you know, and other great writers that we can never see. But I always want to know more than there is in the books.'
'If you are interested in any of my subjects I can lend you many extra sheets in manuscript,' said Mrs. Arrowpoint—while Gwendolen felt herself painfully in the position of the young lady who professed to like potted sprats.
'These are things I dare say I shall publish eventually: several friends have urged me to do so, and one doesn't like to be obstinate. My Tasso, for example—I could have made it twice the size.'
'I dote on Tasso,' said Gwendolen.
'Well, you shall have all my papers, if you like. So many, you know, have written about Tasso; but they are all wrong. As to the particular nature of his madness, and his feelings for Leonora, and the real cause of his imprisonment, and the character of Leonora, who, in my opinion, was a cold-hearted woman, else she would have married him in spite of her brother—they are all wrong. I differ from everybody.'
'How very interesting!' said Gwendolen. 'I like to differ from everybody. I think it is so stupid to agree. That is the worst of writing your opinions; and make people agree with you.' 
This speech renewed a slight suspicion in Mrs. Arrowpoint, and again her glance became for a moment examining. But Gwendolen looked very innocent, and continued with a docile air:
'I know nothing of Tasso except the Gerusalemme Liberata, which we read and learned by heart at school.'..."
A charming flatterer who now and then betrays her ignorance and philistinism. Gwendolen's kind of fun is in gambling, music, archery, riding and hunting. She does not read- she is shallow and frivolous, and too restless. 
Is Dorothea a reader? It's hard to say. Some readers apparently overestimate her mental abilities, seeing her as more intelligent and admirable than I believe George Eliot sees her. Everything about Dorothea, for a large part of the book, is general and abstract and unspecific and vague and theoretical. Her cottage plans sound vague and her devotion to them seems little more than a fad as Celia says. Her pleasure in the jewels cannot be pure pleasure, she must give it meaning by associating it with religious symbols. Her wish to be good and do good seems to be directed at everything and nothing, she fails to see individuals and to notice details, she dislikes it when people don't say what she likes. No, Dorothea is perhaps a reader, "Dorothea knew many passages of Pascal's Pensees and of Jeremy Taylor by heart", but I can't help fearing that perhaps she doesn't truly admire Pascal and Milton as much as she enjoys the idea of marrying a Pascal or a Milton and becoming something. 
A. V. Dicey observes that Dorothea "has little taste for knowledge". "Her admiration for Casaubon's supposed learning really arose, as George Eliot is more careful to point out, from the idea that his wide knowledge would give her an insight into the problems of life which affected her personally. How to make and act upon to a noble theory of life for herself was what she thought she wanted to achieve. [...] But for knowledge in itself she cared as little as was possible for any person gifted with keen intelligence."
Now we come to Isabel: 
"Her reputation of reading a great deal hung about her like the cloudy envelope of a goddess in an epic; it was supposed to engender difficult questions and to keep the conversation at a low temperature. The poor girl liked to be thought clever, but she hated to be thought bookish; she used to read in secret and, though her memory was excellent, to abstain from showy reference. She had a great desire for knowledge, but she really preferred almost any source of information to the printed page; she had an immense curiosity about life and was constantly staring and wondering. She carried within herself a great fund of life, and her deepest enjoyment was to feel the continuity between the movements of her own soul and the agitations of the world. For this reason she was fond of seeing great crowds and large stretches of country, of reading about revolutions and wars, of looking at historical pictures—a class of efforts as to which she had often committed the conscious solecism of forgiving them much bad painting for the sake of the subject. While the Civil War went on she was still a very young girl; but she passed months of this long period in a state of almost passionate excitement, in which she felt herself at times (to her extreme confusion) stirred almost indiscriminately by the valour of either army. Of course the circumspection of suspicious swains had never gone the length of making her a social proscript; for the number of those whose hearts, as they approached her, beat only just fast enough to remind them they had heads as well, had kept her unacquainted with the supreme disciplines of her sex and age. She had had everything a girl could have: kindness, admiration, bonbons, bouquets, the sense of exclusion from none of the privileges of the world she lived in, abundant opportunity for dancing, plenty of new dresses, the London Spectator, the latest publications, the music of Gounod, the poetry of Browning, the prose of George Eliot." 
Even though the narrator says Isabel isn't writing any book as is rumoured to be, even though she hates being thought bookish, even though she prefers "almost any source of information to the printed page", all the lines about the library and Isabel's interest in reading and her question about books vs reality (European life) still produce the impression that she's more of a reader than Dorothea, 
Is it important? Gwendolen not reading shows that she lacks depth and rarely engages in the solitary act of contemplation, that she has the misfortune of having a sketchy education and no authority figure and also the misfortune of getting no lessons from books. Isabel reading demonstrates that reading cannot be a substitute for experience and she doesn't understand until she sees for herself. Having "the prose of George Eliot", she probably knows about Dorothea and Gwendolen, but that doesn't prevent her from making a terrible mistake. 

3/ Consider this speech by Lord Warburton: 
"One's right in such a matter is not measured by the time, Miss Archer; it's measured by the feeling itself. If I were to wait three months it would make no difference; I shall not be more sure of what I mean than I am to-day. Of course I've seen you very little, but my impression dates from the very first hour we met. I lost no time, I fell in love with you then. It was at first sight, as the novels say; I know now that's not a fancy-phrase, and I shall think better of novels for evermore..." 
Have you read Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice or Middlemarch, my dear lord? I'd like to ask. 
This can't be random. Henry James must like to stress a point. 

4/ Warburton speaks of Henrietta Stackpole: 
"I never saw a person judge things on such theoretic grounds." 
The theoretical way of thinking that is tolerable and forgiveable in Isabel is pushed to the extreme in Henrietta. She has no tact. She has her own theories and generalisations and wants to confirm that things correspond to them instead of taking things as they are and preparing for surprises, contradictions and counter-examples. She imposes her opinions on others and forces her ideas down others' throats. She has a strong personality and very little doubt of herself, and thus she is stiff, inflexible and narrow-minded, unable to consider different points of view, unable to accept Isabel's change, unable to see individuals, unable to recognise the diversity and richness of life. 
Henrietta is imprisoned by her own ideas and way of thinking. 


  1. No, Gwendolen reads! She "was conscious of being sufficiently acquainted
    with through novels, plays and poems" (Ch. 4). Well, okay, maybe she does not read as much as she thinks she reads, but she at least kills time with novels. And she at least knows who Tasso is. How many people can say that.

    Jeremy Taylor by heart is nothing to sneeze at either - "perhaps" a reader! Dorothea wouldn't waste her time with novels, though. What trash.

    Isabel Archer is not just a reader but a bit of a bookworm. Many current readers will identify with the picture of the child Isabel on the worn sofa reading everything.

    1. Oh that, I missed that, but I still don't think she's much of a reader, or if she reads a lot, in terms of quantity, she neither sounds like a good reader nor a serious reader. Look at those lines:
      "I wish I could write books to amuse myself, as you can! How delightful it must be to write books after one's own taste instead of reading other people's! Home-made books must be so nice"
      Or "Being acquainted with authors must give a peculiar understanding of their books: one would be able to tell then which parts were funny and which serious. I am sure I often laugh in the wrong place."
      Regarding Tasso, she says "I know nothing of Tasso except the Gerusalemme Liberata, which we read and learned by heart at school." So that doesn't count.
      It's not that I think Gwendolen doesn't read anything at all, like some people I know who never touch a book, but that she's likely to read for amusement only. Should have put it differently.

    2. I greatly doubt that Gwendolen read Tasso, actually. She is joking.

      That entire passage is pure mockery, tweaking the nose of a boring snob, someone much like me, perhaps. So it is hard to use as a source of evidence. It is full of funny lies.

      But I am like Gwendolen, in that I often laugh in the wrong place.

      Yes, Gwendolen just reads for idle amusement. Dorothea reads as part of some self-improvement project.

      I feel sorry for Henrietta Stackpole. She comes to England only to find herself trapped in the most boring house in the country.


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