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The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady is brutal. It’s no mistake that Ralph Touchett is likeable. He’s a wit; dying from tuberculosis, his conversation and charm works in inverse proportion to his body. Yet his initial gift to Isabel Archer, a fortune of 70,000 pounds, wreaks havoc on her, makes her prey to Madame Merle and her husband, Gilbert Osmond. Because he is the catalyst of her dismal fate, he shouldn’t get off as easily as he does. She, however, claims herself always to have been free to choose, so Touchett is blameless. Where he was author of a part of her fate, he was merely a reader of it through the rest—an interested one, to be sure, one who voiced my own desires to see what would happen.

What would happen is not difficult to say. She would disobey her husband. When Touchett is on his deathbed, Osmond refuses to allow her to visit her cousin. She goes anyway. Yet it is that she disobeyed her husband, not any husband, that makes it significant. Marrying her husband was her real mistake. Osmond is, as Touchett describes him, “the incarnation of taste.” He looks up to no one; his belief in himself and his own judgment is so severe that no one could live up to it, not even Mrs. Osmond, though she does try. When she leaves to visit Touchett, she declares dramatically that she is a woman independent of him.

Even so, Isabel refuses to take her friends’ offers of divorce or infidelity with the stiff, passionate Caspar Goodwood. But her fidelity doesn’t belie the fact that it’s a feminist novel, a fact that is most apparent in the novel’s emphasis on choice. Though Touchett sets Isabel’s fate in motion, and though he knows she is making a mistake with Osmond and says as much to her—too late, other than that initial plotting, he bows out of the authoring business. Compound Touchett’s abdication of plotting with the narrator’s own embodied omniscience, which allows him simultaneously to know everything his characters think and do but not to act on them—like a worldy observer watching the world from a table at a coffee shop—and the effect is to give Isabel an illusion of control: a door is opened to her, and she walks through it of her own volition. The novel complicates her volition and illustrates both how little and how much her choices are her own, and because of it all, it allots to Isabel Osmond more power than the virtue of her station would say she has, regardless whether she grasps that power or not. It is a feminist novel not because of what she does; it is a feminist novel because of what she has.

There’s much more to say, to point out, to marvel at. I feel I ought to read it again right away to savor it again. I think I might like to try to understand better a note scrawled in the margins of my copy that says surprisingly, “fellatio.” (I jest. I understand it perfectly, even the fact that in the scene there is no actual fellatio taking place.) I’d like to explore the ways James extends metaphors, such as that which describes Osmond as a candle-snuffer: it’s masterful, and always well-placed. (I dream of writing so well.) I’d like to contemplate Osmond’s peculiar brutality and his severity constructed as one wholly sold to taste, how James not only makes his falsehood and pettiness stand out in contrast to others’ trueness and warmth, but also does it via true, warm characters that I initially disliked for their naiveties and exuberances. (Reading the book thus implicates my own prejudices: for example, the irony of Henrietta Stackpole’s redemption is that she is such a flat character, the only way that my estimation of her could change from the novel’s beginning to its end is that I changed in the process. That is, my perspective for criticism, which at the end has widened to include Osmond in view, forces me to judge her less a busybody and more Isabel’s truest friend.) All these things I’d like to do, but I won’t, not soon anyway. I’m moving on to other James, maybe not The Golden Bowl next—although it and Washington Square are the only other two of his novels I own (my copy of The American collapsed): anything else I’ll be hitting the library for—but something else, anyway. I can’t recommend this novel enough, however, for those of you casting about for something to read.



I must confess that I have not read this book.

Bobby Valentine

Now—or anyway, after your move to AZ—is as good a time as any to rectify that blight on your record!