Saturday, 10 October 2015

The Portrait of a Lady: the signs

As I'm reading The Portrait of a Lady (behind almost everyone else in the read-along I organised myself), a question arises: Would I have seen what I saw if I had not known beforehand?
E.g.: That Isabel Archer would make a terrible mistake and end up badly?
Yes. Right from the start we have been told that Isabel lacks experience and guidance, asks if life is like books, and has her own theories about life. We don't need to have read about the novel, nor to have read some other work by Henry James, such as "Daisy Miller", to see that Isabel has an innocence and naivete that would make her fall victim to something, someone.
Not only so, there is lots of foreshadowing.
In chapter 15, Ralph says:
"There's no more usual basis of union than a mutual misunderstanding."
He later says in the same chapter:
"What I mean is that I shall have the thrill of seeing what a young lady does who won't marry Lord Warburton."
Then Isabel remarks:
"I don't understand you very well but I do so well enough to be able to say that if you look for grand examples of anything from me I shall disappoint you."
In chapter 16, Isabel tells Caspar Goodwood:
"... I try to judge things for myself; to judge wrong, I think, is more honourable than not to judge at all. I don't wish to be a mere sheep in the flock; I wish to choose my fate and know something of human affairs beyond what other people think it compatible with propriety to tell me."
"You're so kind as to speak of being afraid of my marrying. If you should hear a rumour that I'm on the point of doing so—girls are liable to have such things said about them—remember what I have told you about my love of liberty and venture to doubt it."
Caspar says:
"One would think you were going to commit some atrocity!"
To which she responds "Perhaps I am. I wish to be free even to do that if the fancy takes me." And then says:
"And remember too that I shall not be an easy victim!"
In chapter 19, Madame Merle says:
"I'm glad you've done nothing yet—that you have it still to do. It's a very good thing for a girl to have refused a few good offers—so long of course as they are not the best she's likely to have. Pardon me if my tone seems horribly corrupt; one must take the worldly view sometimes. Only don't keep on refusing for the sake of refusing. It's a pleasant exercise of power; but accepting's after all an exercise of power as well. There's always the danger of refusing once too often..."
And in chapter 23, Ralph ponders:
"Meanwhile he was quite willing to admit that the conversation of the elder lady was an advantage to the younger, who had a great deal to learn and would doubtless learn it better from Madame Merle than from some other instructors of the young. It was not probable that Isabel would be injured."
Those are just some random examples. Even though Gilbert Osmond doesn't appear till about half of the book, before that Henry James drops lots of hints and suggestions that point to only 1 thing: Isabel will contradict herself and something bad is about to happen. As James takes a long time to prepare the readers for that "something bad", he pushes it even further than the way Tolstoy uses foreshadowing in Anna Karenina. At the same time, as Barbara Hardy has written, James holds fast to the principle of relevance and most of the narrator's comments and most of the conversations (when Isabel's the participant or the subject) are about a couple of core ideas: that Isabel is young, natural, artless and inexperienced, that she doesn't want to marry, that she has ambitions and wants to be free, that she may have some means but may make a bad mistake, that people want to see what she will do. On the 1 hand, we see other characters attempt to read her and figure her out and create theories about her and shape her the way they see fit, which suggests that she's larger and more complex than all that. On the other hand, there is a vague impression that the portrait of Miss Archer is not a complete study of all of her facets and complexity, but merely a portrait of a young lady that lacks experience and insight and, because of that, will make a mistake.
Regarding the connection and comparison between James and George Eliot, who was it that told me James rewrote Daniel Deronda the way it should have been written and thus The Portrait of a Lady was created? That reminds me of what I wrote the other day about James and Turgenev. Tom wrote a comment that forced me to question myself what I really meant. I still don't know what I meant. However, I now see what Tom meant. James doesn't withdraw- he sometimes passes by and shows his face, makes some remarks, refers to Isabel as "our heroine", draws our attention to this, to that, etc.
The Portrait of a Lady seems less like James's attempt to correct George Eliot than James's dialogue with George Eliot, specifically Daniel Deronda. If Gwendolen suddenly loses almost everything, Isabel inherits a fortune. If Gwendolen is poor and Grandcourt is rich, Isabel is rich and Osmond is poor. Or put it this way, if Gwendolen is a victim because of her poverty (otherwise she wouldn't marry Grandcourt), Isabel is a victim because of her wealth. Does the inversion mean that James wants to say, a woman in a patriarchal society has many disadvantages and limitations imposed on her and often suffers, whether rich or poor? Or does he argue against female writers critiquing gender inequality and lack of opportunities for women, by showing that the Touchetts provide Isabel with the means to do whatever she likes and yet she gets nothing out of it? No, forget that, I'm going too far and that's not the way to read a novel. 
Perhaps in a few days I will retract everything I wrote in this post. Who knows. I'm on chapter 26. 


  1. I was genuinely surprised how long it took Osmond to appear.

    Excellent quotes about the foreshadowing of Isabel's decision. A reader who does not know the story at all should develop an increasing feeling of dread. That reader should say, like I did, at the moment Ralph drops all of that money on Isabel, "Oh no!" I think you are right that James is deliberately inverting Daniel Deronda there.

    My guess is that, as far as correcting DD - and now I think Middlemarch as well - James had just one plot element in mind, but it is a big one. He thinks Eliot let her heroines escape too easily. No, that is not quite right- he thought "What if the heroines had not escaped so easily? What would that story be like?"

    I have been flying along recently - less than 200 pages left -might even finish this week. Writing will begin soon after, but not immediately after. 80% of what I write will be on the subject of technical innovation in fiction.

    1. I've been having some ideas, but oh gosh my laptop doesn't work. It's at the store now.
      Have you finished it?

    2. Yes, I have finished and will start writing on it soon. I will enter the novel via the Appian Way. In a sense I have already started the writing. But you will have to suffer through Carducci and Walter Pater first.


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