Monday, 26 October 2015

The Portrait of a Lady: the characters and the author's sex

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.


  1. Di,

    Suppose Isabel had a martyr complex. She deliberately makes bad choices because she believes that's her destiny. Would you see her any differently?

  2. Fred is on to something there.

    I find Isabel reasonably well-defined and real. True Jamesians seem to go a lot farther than that. They have perhaps read the novel more deeply than I have.

    It is certainly hard to see Isabel, or any James character, setting, object, landscape, etc. Not his thing. I was almost shocked when after two or three hundred pages James mentions Isabel's "thick, dark braids" - I had not included those in my picture of her.

    But of course Anna Karenina is only barely described, too. Just the essentials.

    In general, James characters seem real enough to me within their odd James-world. Their speech is mannered, their surroundings almost bizarre - an Italy with no Italians, the wealthy obsessed not about money or work but their collections. Odd. But given the constraint of the fantasy world, real enough.

    I like this sentence a lot: "Because she vibrates only because of James's anxious concern for her?" That could lead in some interesting directions.

    Jane Campion plays up the sexual angle in her film. There is no doubt that Isabel is sexually attracted to Osmond, and that sickly Touchett and dull Goodwood do nothing for her. I don't remember Warburton at all. How much of this is in the novel? I don't know.

  3. Fred,
    That's interesting. I was thinking: Isabel gets lots of money and thinks "this doesn't belong to me, and shouldn't be, I have to spend on something important, have to give it to someone else".

    I wasn't only thinking of physical descriptions though.
    I haven't seen the Jane Campion film. Have to look for it.

  4. Di,

    I think it's more than that.

    "Sometimes she went so far as to wish that she might find herself some day in a difficult position, so that she should have the pleasure of being as heroic as the occasion demanded." (Vol. 1, Chapter VI)

    "'I can't escape unhappiness,' said Isabel. "In marrying you I shall be trying to."
    Isabel to Lord Warburton (Vol. 1, Chapter XIV)

    Later, there are several incidents in which she seems happy that her friends and relatives disapprove of her marrying Osmond because this gives her an opportunity to show how strong she is, that she makes her own decisions without regard for what others may think, "of being as heroic as the occasion demanded."

    Her comment to Lord Warburton is very enlightening, for she says she can't escape unhappiness and in marrying him she would be trying to escape unhappiness and she doesn't want to do that. Why?

    That seems to something like a martyr's complex to me and explains why she marries Osmond--deep down she realizes this marriage will be the unhappiness she is expecting. The Beast in the Jungle? perhaps

  5. Or even the unhappiness she desires, as strange as that sounds. Maybe she prefers the struggle. Warburton would give no opportunity for heroics.

    I think I'm thinking more broadly than physical description when I think about the lifelikeness of Isabel and other characters - speech, action, psychology. The usual stuff. The difference may be that in this post - I know you have moved on - that you are comparing James to Tolstoy or Austen, the best, and I am thinking about where he goes on the entire continuum of literature. So in terms of real, living characters, James is way up near the top.

    Lots of great literature is built out of unreal, unnatural characters. Nothing necessarily wrong with that.

  6. There's also the theme of the female helpmeet from Genesis--It is not good that Man should be alone, I will make him a helpmeet for him." Isabel spends more time talking about how she and her money can be helpful to Osmond than she does about her love for him. In a way, she reminds me of another similar pairing in literature:

    Dorothea and Casauban

    Isabel and Osmond

  7. Fred and Tom,
    Oh that. Right. Indeed. *thinking*
    That means both of you think Isabel would return to Osmond in the end?
    I noticed that part too, Fred, she didn't talk much about love. She's theoretical, like Dorothea.
    George Levine has a very interesting essay comparing Isabel to Dorothea and Gwendolen.

  8. Yes, Isabel returns to Osmond in order to engage in open warfare over Pansy.

  9. Di,

    Yes, I wasn't surprised when she went back, disappointed, but not surprised..

    There's also another Eliot novel (think it was her) that was set several centuries back. Her father was a scholar, and she marries his assistant? It turned out badly and she had actually packed her bags and left him. She meets a priest? on the road, and he persuades her that it was her duty and her obligation to stay with her husband, regardless of how bad he was. She also went back, but she surprised me when she did.

    At least that's what I remember. I may be confusing it with another novel.

    1. I don't know that one. Do you know which novel that is, Tom?

    2. That's Romola, which I have not read. Rohan Maitzen has written a good apology for it.

    3. Yes, that's the novel, Romola. A good commentary. The major problem, and all in the group agreed, I remember now, was the massive historical detail. I did a fair amount of skimming, but I did finish it.

    4. Ah, that essay I've read. (I'm firmly on Jane Austen's side).


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