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Touchett × Osmond

Reading the The Portrait of a Lady is like walking in a large, well-kept garden. Although rarely boring, it at times can make one complacent, happy to stroll its paths, to absorb its presence in appreciation; at other times, as when a corner is turned to reveal a remarkable fountain, or a bed of flowers embarrassing in their fragrance, it makes one notice. There are two such corners in the following paragraph:

Ralph Touchett, in talk with his excellent friend, had rather markedly qualified, as we know, his recognition of Gilbert Osmond’s personal merits; but he might really have felt himself illiberal in the light of that gentleman’s conduct during the rest of the visit to Rome. Osmond spent a portion of each day with Isabel and her companions, and ended by affecting them as the easiest of men to live with. Who wouldn’t have seen that he could command, as it were, both tact and gaiety?—which perhaps was exactly why Ralph had made his old-time look of superficial sociability a reproach to him. Even Isabel’s invidious kinsman was obliged to admit that he was just now a delightful associate. His good-humour was imperturbable, his knowledge of the right fact, his production of the right word, as convenient as the friendly flicker of a match for your cigarette. Clearly he was amused—as amused as a man could be who was so little ever surprised, and that made him almost applausive. It was not that his spirits were visibly high—he would never, in the concert of pleasure, touch the big drum by so much as a knuckle: he had a mortal dislike to the high, ragged note, to what he called random ravings. He thought Miss Archer sometimes of too precipitate a readiness. It was pity she had that fault, because if she had not had it she would really have had none; she would have been as smooth to his general need of her as handled ivory to the palm. If he was not personally loud, however, he was deep, and during these closing days of the Roman May he knew a complacency that matched with slow irregular walks under the pines of the Villa Borghese, among the small sweet meadow-flowers and the mossy marbles. He was pleased with everything; he had never before been pleased with so many things at once. Old impressions, old enjoyments, renewed themselves; one evening, going home to his room at the inn, he wrote down a little sonnet to which he prefixed the title of “Rome Revisited.” A day or two later he showed this piece of correct and ingenious verse to Isabel, explaining to her that it was an Italian fashion to commemorate the occasions of life by a tribute to the muse.

Why Gilbert Osmond is a villain was at first unclear to me, although I see it now: he’s a collector, fond of claiming he wants to make an art of life. As such, he is concerned not with character but with appearance. He has erased, for example, all traces of nationality—he speaks as fluently in Italian and French as he does English; he forsakes passion in favor of the cold gaze of an aesthete. His interest in Isabel Archer, therefore, is not for her sake, but for his. He sees her as a masterpiece, someone to add to his collection. In the paragraph above, those characteristics are made clear through one really excellent metaphor: “he would never, in the concert of pleasure, touch the big drum by so much as a knuckle: he had a mortal dislike to the high, ragged note, to what he called random ravings.” It’s that he avoids the flourishes of a symphony, the tympani or the soaring soprano, that gives him away. His villainy is not so crude and unoriginal a desire as to take Isabel’s virginity and honor; worse, it is to take her vitality, her desire to learn and to grow, to make her into a masterpiece, frozen in time and space, sequestered, to be enjoyed by no one but himself.

Structurally, too, the paragraph is marvelous. It would form a perfect chiasmus if it concluded with Osmond’s thoughts on Touchett, but such perfection would be in itself too much of a flourish and could betray the paragraph’s secondary purpose (especially egregious since it begins a chapter), to prepare a reader for the paragraph that follows. Besides, the brush past Touchett’s perception of Osmond is a necessary reminder that the plot first turned upon Touchett’s interference in Isabel’s fortune. (It was his desire to see what she would make of herself that made her rich and drew Osmond’s interest.) An imperfect chiasmus suffices: the object of the paragraph’s first half becomes the subject of its second. It also serves as a rhetorical connection between Touchett, whose actions have been, while not evil per se, not necessarily innocent either, and Osmond, who will prove to be neither innocent nor good.

 

Comments

I read The Portrait of a Lady about ten or eleven years ago, one summer during college, as I recall, and despite the excellent snippets you’ve been providing, I must admit that my memories of it are a bit dim. My dim recollection, though, is that I liked Touchett rather better than I liked any of the other men in the book (although I can’t say I’d wish to make a boon companion of any of its characters). Well, here I go, discussing such lowly things as likes and dislikes while you’re making brilliant rhetorical points. (“Do you mean to say, Mr. Graves, that you prefer some books to others?”)

Alas! If anyone else were reading it now (K, like you L, read it some years ago but doesn’t remember a thing), I’d be more prone to be gossipy about it. I like Ralph Touchett, too: there’s a certain abandon about his fragile life, and of course what Isabel does with the money he caused to be put in her hands is really her doing, not his. Someone must get the story going, after all.

Lord Warburton is so far good like Touchett, but he’s so far just a stand-in for nobility and hasn’t had much so far chance to be more than that.

(besides, the passages I’ve been writing about don’t really lend themselves to inspire remembering, I know)