Monday, August 15, 2016

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY” by Henry James (first published in 1881)

            I am sometimes embarrassed by the way I handle classics and other venerated books in the “Something Old” section of this blog. Often, I give a detailed synopsis and then feel abashed at the thought that people who read this section are probably fully aware of the general drift of the book in question anyway; and that therefore I am probably teaching them to suck eggs. Occasionally I avoid this process by taking the great book as read and simply making some general remarks [see my postings on Don Quixote and War and Peace]. Yet recently, when reading a selection of the critical writings of an eminent New Zealand critic, I was heartened to find that his basic method in writing a critique of a book is simply to synopsise it, add a few critical comments as he goes, and then produce a couple of paragraphs of verdict.
So here I go once again serving you up my own synopsis of a classic, which you might know as well as I do.
Given that this particular classic is by Henry James (1843-1916), I will forbear from repeating the sermon I have preached twice before (see postings on Roderick Hudson and WashingtonSquare) about how I like early- and middle-period Henry James, but find later-period James almost unreadable.
 The Portrait of a Lady is generally regarded as the masterpiece of “early” James and as inaugurating his “second” period.
As I summarised it, it goes thus;
Isabel Archer is the youngest and most intellectually inclined of three American sisters. While visiting the United States, Isabel’s aunt, Mrs Lydia Touchett takes Isabel up as her protégée and takes her to Europe to “polish” her. Mrs Touchett is largely estranged from her wealthy banker husband and spends a small part only of each year at the English residence Gardencourt, where her husband lives with their grown, but consumptive and sickly, son Ralph Touchett.
When Isabel comes to live at Gardencourt, Ralph is impressed with her. So is the
neighbouring nobleman Lord Warburton, whose fine mansion is called Lockleigh. Lord Warburton (family name – Molyneux) is esteemed as a radical and progressive-minded chap. Having met Isabel only a few times, he proposes marriage to her. She turns him down. From America there arrives Caspar Goodwood. He courted Isabel in America and has now crossed the Atlantic to propose to her. She turns him down too. She notes (Chapter 17) “the enjoyment she felt in the exercise of her power”. She wants to see and experience the world – not to be tied to conventional notions.
Old Mr Touchett is dying. Before he dies, Ralph persuades him to leave a large sum of money to his cousin Isabel. Ralph does not see himself as made for marriage, and his influence in this matter of the bequest is kept secret from Isabel.
So now Isabel is a woman of property and independent means.
She travels through Paris to Florence and Rome. In Italy, Lord Warburton again proposes to her and again is turned down. Caspar Goodwood makes a second journey and is again rejected. Partly through the influence of the experienced Madame Serena Merle, Isabel gets to know the American widower Gilbert Osmond, who has an adolescent daughter Pansy; and whose sister Amy, Countess Gemini, is married to a Florentine nobleman and is notorious for her extra-marital affairs.
Isabel is fully aware that Gilbert Osmond is penniless, but is attracted to him by his apparent indifference to convention, his artistic (dilettante?) impulses and so forth. Although everybody warns her that he is much inferior to an English noblemen as a marital catch, Isabel marries Gilbert anyway. Without fully articulating it, she believes she is thus rebelling from society’s expectations.
Whereupon the story (whose total time-range is six or seven years) jumps forward three or four years, but remains in its Roman setting. Pansy is now an attractive young woman aged about 19, and clearly becoming eligible for the marriage market.
There is a major shadow hanging over Isabel’s life. She finds her husband Gilbert is far more conventional and domineering than she anticipated. He expects her to obey him and endorse all his opinions.  Slowly – very slowly – she comes to the obvious conclusion that he has married her mainly for her money; and she is disturbed by his relationship with Madame Merle. Are they in fact lovers? Is there something about them that she does not know? Sometimes she has returned home to find them in the type of attitudes that should be reserved for intimates.
Ned Rosier, a young and almost impecunious art-collector, wishes to marry Pansy Osmond. Gilbert disapproves of him. Lord Warburton comes to Rome. He too wishes to marry Pansy. Gilbert Osmond (and Madame Merle) approve; but for Isabel it is clear that Lord Warburton would merely use marriage to Pansy as a pretext to be close to Isabel herself; and that if she approved of such a marriage for her step-daughter, she would in effect be buying into the type of casually adulterous arrangement of (for example) her sister-in-law Countess Gemini. Ned Rosier sells all his art works to have enough money to be acceptable to Gilbert Osmond as a suitor for Pansy; but Gilbert makes his daughter go into a convent until she sees things his way.
At this juncture, Mrs Touchett telegraphs Isabel with the news that Ralph Touchett really is dying. Isabel wishes to visit him, but Gilbert Osmond refuses to let her, saying that this would be a breach of their marriage vows. Now fully aware of Gilbert’s totally mercenary attitude to marriage (his own; and Pansy’s), Isabel is extremely distraught. She expresses her anxiety to her sister-in-law Countess Gemini, who at last lets Isabel in on the true relationship of Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle. They were lovers for many years, and Pansy is their illegitimate daughter, not the daughter of Gilbert’s late wife…
…Isabel feels a mixture of horror and pity when she meets Madame Merle at the convent where Pansy has been sent to cool her heels. Pansy has decided to obey her father’s wishes and marry into wealth…
…Isabel goes to England despite Gilbert’s wishes. She is present as Ralph’s death-bed, now aware that he was her true benefactor. Before Ralph dies, they agree that it might have been better if she had never come into money at all…
…Lord Warburton is now going to marry an English noblewoman. Although it is not clearly stated, the implication is that Lord Warburton now knows that marriage to Pansy would not place him close to Isabel, as the breach in Isabel’s marriage has become common knowledge.
Caspar Goodwood is present at Ralph’s funeral. He now presents himself to Isabel as her true and disinterested lover: somebody she can now turn to after tragedy has struck her marriage. He embraces her and passionately kisses her.
And Isabel flees from him back to Rome. End. With us knowing that her life has not ended and that she still has much experience ahead of her.
Thus did I summarise the novel in my reading notebook, adding the remark that my synopsis deliberately omitted the character of Henrietta Stackpole, a rather crass American journalist and bluestocking who gains entry into Isabel’s social milieu in order to “expose” it. Henrietta, who eventually marries the Englishman Mr Bantling and is a beneficiary of Ralph Touchett’s will, seems to be Henry James’ satire on less perceptive Americans, who trumpet democratic American values only until they succumb to European comforts. However, like Harold Skimpole in Dickens’ Bleak House, she is really detachable from the mechanics of the plot.
Now what are we to make of this mass of narrative matter? A woman I know well once told me, forthrightly if a little crudely: “I hated The Portrait of a Lady when we had to read it in 7th Form. When Isabel Archer farts, it takes ten pages before anyone smells it.” There is indeed some of the dreaded Jamesian ponderousness in this novel, although it is not as bloated as the later James of The Golden Bowl or The Ambassadors. Indeed, parts of it are positively sprightly.
The Portrait of a Lady could provoke me into making the obvious comments about the leisured and moneyed classes with which James habitually deals. Save for the banker Mr Touchett (who is mainly a “noise off”) and the journalist Henrietta Stackpole (who is largely held up to ridicule) nobody works for a living. In an age when travel (except in steerage) was prohibitively expensive, nobody gives a second thought to setting off on journeys across the Atlantic, to London, to Paris, to Florence, to Rome. And (though there is a passing note to say that Isabel’s and Gilbert’s baby died) nobody seems to have any children. So people have time to cultivate their fine perceptions and intuitions while somebody else keeps the social engine running. In passing, I am [not for the first time in reading James] forced to wonder if it is the social conditions depicted that make James’ novels congenial to a certain class of modern reader – in an age of contraception (= no children); labour-saving machines (= no physical labour) and – at least for middle-class Westerners – unprecedentedly widespread affluent leisure. What do we now do in our spare time but refine our feelings and welcome a writer who encourages us in this attitude? Thus much for my knee-jerk negative reactions – to which I would add the sense of an hermetically-sealed world of expatriates. Note that most of the novel is set in Rome, but there are no significant Italian characters.
Of course it would be very easy to give a feminist reading to the novel. Independent Isabel Archer, by the conditions of society and the conventions of marriage, is reduced to being dependent on her husband. Marriage is a commercial transaction – a transfer of power and money – and hence adultery is taken for granted as a necessary outlet for the passions. In this sense, then, the novel is about what it takes to be regarded as a “lady” – it is to have money; to be a marketable commodity; to give away any ideas of intellectual independence; to shut your mouth and to play along with conventions. When Isabel reflects on her unsatisfactory marriage, we are told:
The real offence, as she ultimately perceived, was her having a mind of her own at all. Her mind was to be his [i.e. her husband’s] – attached to his own like a small garden-plot to a deer-park. He would rake the soil gently and water the flowers; he would weed the beds and gather an occasional nosegay. It would be a pretty piece of property for a proprietor…” (Chapter 38)
There would be much truth to my hypothetical feminist reading. Certainly the novel’s title – much as we sympathise with Isabel – strikes me as ironic. Isabel Archer is not a “lady” to begin with. She becomes one only when she is bequeathed money and marries. In the same way, perhaps, Mrs Touchett is a “lady”, and James seems to have consciously brought the novel back to its beginning in the final chapters. Mrs Touchett, as we knew to begin with, was estranged from her husband and attempting to influence a younger woman (Isabel); just as Isabel at the end is estranged from her husband and attempting to influence a younger woman (Pansy).
OR is the title NOT ironic? Is Isabel Archer genuinely a lady, in the sense of a moral and compassionate person? She does not play the social game of adultery and deceit, and chiefly feels pity, rather than anger, for the woman (Madame Merle) who has most systematically deceived her.
Or am I deluded in both readings? The fine stirrings of taste and conscience among people who aren’t willing to address the basic injustices of the society they inhabit? How much is James conscious of this as a theme? Surely, when we first learn that Isabel regards Gilbert as “unconventional” we are allowed to chuckle, knowing that it is the people most immured in convention who can play at being unconventional in those matters that don’t touch their bank balances.
Most essentially, I read The Portrait of a Lady as the tale of a young woman’s education through systematic disillusion. Isabel begins with the illusion that she is independent and has free choice when she is in fact consistently manipulated by “players” who are more experienced at the social game than she is. Then there is her long disillusion with her married state. [Insert here, if you will, the inevitable reflexions one gets at this point on Henry James’ perspective as a closeted homosexual looking at the married state with a jaded eye as an outsider.] Even without the discovery of Pansy’s parentage and Madame Merle’s relationship with Gilbert, this long disillusion would have been conveyed by the second half of the novel.
Regarding the process of actually reading this novel, the worst of James continues to be what is under-dramatised and left as interior musings and monologues. Twelve pages of intellectualisation might divert when one is reading them, but they are never as memorable as a single dramatic action. For this reason I find the second half of the novel, when Isabel moves from her tentative state into a state of discovery, to be much the stronger and more readable. I admit, too, that some things which I at first took to be weaknesses in style prove on reflexion to be strengths. For example, we are often told that Isabel Archer is intellectual and reads very much; but we hardly ever hear what she either reads or thinks… but then had we been told, the novel might now seem much more dated, like the novels of George Meredith. Though Isabel marries Gilbert, there is no wedding scene – but then this is a deliberate artistic elision, so that the novel’s psychological focus does not blur. In this respect it reminds me of the masterly way Theodor Fontane leaves offstage the crucial duel scene in Effi Briest.
Having picked tentatively at the novel and its meaning, how do I evaluate it?
When I last read The Portrait of a Lady, I filled by reading notebook with deft and ironic and witty quotations from Henry James’ text – often as funny as could be devised by Jane Austen. I have been tempted to quote some of them in this notice, but my conclusion would be an obvious one. The Portrait of a Lady was written before James’ style ossified – before he became the “hippopotamus rolling a pea” that H. G. Wells cruelly called him. Along with The Bostonians, I would simply call The Portrait of a Lady the best long novel by Henry James that I have been able to finish.

Cinematic footnote: As far as I know, there has only ever been one film version made of The Portrait of a Lady, and despite the cold admiration that it received in some quarters, it was not the greatest of successes. This was Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady, released in 1996-97. Campion had already made her three best films, Sweetie, An Angel at My Table and The Piano, the last of which had earned Academy Awards and briefly made her a hot property as a director. So she was given Hollywood’s blessing to film a respectable literary classic. She also had a big-name cast. Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer, John Malkovich as Gilbert Osmond, John Geilgud as Mr Touchett etc. Campion said she and her fellow scriptwriter were giving the film a “feminist sensibility”, but alas – this caused problems. Perhaps the film-makers didn’t notice that, in his elusive way, Henry James had already given the novel a feminist sensibility. As presented in the film, Isabel Archer is already a knowing and assertive modern woman when the story begins, which renders much of the story nonsensical on an emotional level. Why should this aware woman marry Gilbert Osmond when, as played by Malkovich, he is clearly a conniving poseur from the start, with none of the charm and culture that the novel’s Isabel initially sees in Gilbert? The film has its moments and is faithful to the novel’s storyline, but it fizzles badly on every dramatic level and was a box-office flop. To be cruelly accurate, it was really the end of the golden weather for Campion’s directing career, which has been less than stellar ever since.

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