Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

Edition: The Portrait of a Lady (Penguin Classics)
Portrait of a Lady was published in twelve parts in Macmillan's Magazine and the Atlantic Monthly in 1880. Book publication followed both in England ad America in 1881. The New York Edition (1907) of the work contains a number of revisions. F.O. Matthiessen summarizes many of these changes as amplifications of character in late-Jamesian style. Relatedly, James also changed the language to heighten the eroticism of the men who wish to possess Isabel. Ralph's deathbed scene was also amplified for emotional effect. Some other major changes include: the addition of Chapter 51, in which the Countess Gemini tells Isabel of Merle and Osmond's relationship and the deletion of a passage in Chapter 29 which spelled out aspects of Osmond and Merle's relationship. (Source: Pat Righelato, Litencyc).

The novel opens with Daniel Touchett, a wealthy American banker who has bought an old English property (Gardencourt), in conversation with his son Ralph, and his son's friend Lord Warburton, a young English nobleman. Touchett's estranged wife, Lydia, has returned to England from America with her niece Isabel Archer in tow. Her aunt felt that Isabel's intelligence and curiosity were too constrained in Albany, New York, and wished to give Isabel an opportunity to "see the world," so to speak. Of her three sisters, Isabel had always been considered to be the most intelligent. When Ralph asks his mother what she plans to "do" with Isabella, his mother answers that Isabel will do as she wants, revealing Isabel's independent streak. At Gardencourt, Isabel discusses Warburton with her uncle, whom she greatly likes. Her uncle thinks of him as a liberal radical who doesn't do much because he is so well off; he merely has good theories but won't act seriously on anything. Warburton soon takes a liking to Isabel, but she rebuffs him.

Henrietta Stackpole, a dear friend of Isabel's from and a lady journalist who works for the New York Interviewer, arrives in England as well. She comes to Gardencourt, hoping to report on the "inner life" of European aristocracy. Ralph misunderstands Henrietta's intrepidness as a marriage proposal, and Henrietta is momentarily offended. She, unlike Ralph, views herself as intensely and patriotically "American" in her candor and ambitious attitude; she doesn't like Ralph for his not "taking hold" of anything in his life. Meanwhile, Isabel receives a letter from Caspar Goodwood, a suitor who had tried to win her hand back home in Albany--Caspar will be arriving to see her shortly.

Isabel doesn't know why, but right after Warburton proposes to her, she knows that she cannot accept him. She senses that the life which he would bring her into--of material well-being, and social-well being--would curb her independence and desire to discover the world on her own. Henrietta tells Ralph that she is afraid that Isabel is losing her American idealism, and succumbing to Old World cosmopolitanism, and pushes him to invite Goodwood to Gardencourt. Goodwood refuses the invite for the time being. Ralph, Henrietta, and Isabel go to London, and Goodwood chooses to intercept her there.  Of course, Isabel rejects Goodwood too, and also confronts Henrietta for her duplicity in encouraging him. For Henrietta, Goodwood, heir to a cotton mill, is the perfect "American" man for Isabel: he is forthcoming, manly, and will treat her well. This, however, Isabel also sees as a constraint on her freedom. The only character who seems to understand her is Ralph, who secretly talks to his father (who has fallen ill and soon will die) and convinces him to give half of his own inheritance to Isabel in order that he might watch what she would do with her freedom.

Before Daniel Touchett's death, Isabel meets a woman named Madame Merle, a friend of her aunt's. Madame Merle is a polished, independent, and intelligent woman whom Isabel takes to immediately. When Touchett dies, Isabel finds out about the seventy-thousand pounds that she has received upon the death of her uncle. At first, she feels constrained and doesn't know how to use the money. Henrietta worries too that the money will take her away from the "realities" of human life and suffering and that she will be caught up in the cheap cosmopolitan thrills on the Continent. Isabel first trip as a heiress will be to go to Florence with her aunt. Here, the narrative breaks and shows a scene between Gilbert Osmond (an American who has lived all his life in Italy and a mediocre painter) and his meek and obedient daughter Pansy. He has been considering taking her out of the convent where she had been studying and speaking with Madame Merle, ostensibly an old friend of his. Madame Merle suggests that Osmond marry Isabel and thinks that he will be fascinated by her. Isabel makes the acquaintance of Osmond through Madame Merle and she indeed takes to him immediately. She is fascinated by his "connoisseurship" of life, his wide-ranging tastes, and the sense of indifference that makes him seem so independent of everything. At Osmond's, she also meets the Countess Gemini, his sister, who sees through Madame Merle's plan and disapproves. She does nothing to hinder the connection between Isabel and Gilbert, however.

When Isabel has plans to go to Rome with Ralph, Henrietta, and Ralph's English friend Bantling (a kind but not particularly bright man who already seems to be under Henrietta's thumb), she suggests that Osmond come along. In Rome, Isabel encounters Lord Warburton; their meeting is strained. Osmond decides to come to Rome as well, and in this setting, he wants Isabel even more, thinking of her as something he would like for his "collection," because she is rare and an original. Before she is called back to Florence by her aunt, Osmond confesses to her that he is in love with her. He does not propose to her for the time being, however, and merely asks if she would visit with Pansy while back in Florence.

A year later, during which time Isabel's sister Lily had visited her and Isabel had traveled with Madame Merle in Turkey and Egypt, Caspar visits Isabel back in Florence. She has told him of her engagement to Osmond. When her aunt and Ralph learn about the engagement, they are both disappointed with her decision. Mrs. Touchett blames Madame Merle. Ralph confronts Isabel with her choice. She says that she is marrying Osmond because he doesn't care for money or position, and is therefore free. Ralph sees in Osmond nothing more than a selfish, "sterile dilettante." Isabel settles in with Osmond, taking responsibility for Pansy as her stepmother. Time passes: Isabel has a miscarriage, and Pansy receives a suitor, Ned Rosier, an American art collector living in Paris. Osmond doesn't want Rosier to marry his daughter because he deems Rosier too poor, and would prefer for his daughter to marry Warburton. Warburton seems to make some overtures towards Pansy, but it is soon revealed that he is only thinking of marrying her in order to get closer to Isabel. Meanwhile, Isabel becomes more and more estranged from her husband, who turns out to be controlling and paranoid. She also discovers that he and Madame Merle seem much more intimate with one another than she might have thought. Isabel's friends, Henrietta, Ralph, and Goodwood all go to Rome in order to be nearby should Isabel need any help. When Warburton leaves Rome, his hopes for Isabel dashed once again, Osmond accuses Isabel of ruining Pansy's chances.

Eventually, Henrietta, Goodwood, and Ralph return to Gardencourt on acccount of Ralph's failing health. Before leaving, Henrietta tries to get Isabel to leave Osmond, but she says she will not because she has made marriage vows. Isabel soon learns the truth about Madame Merle and Osmond: Pansy is their child together, and she had been conspiring to win Pansy a fortune by fixing Isabel with Osmond. Rosier, who had left Rome for a period of time in order to sell his art to make enough money to win Pansy, now returns but in a rage, Osmond sends Pansy back to the convent. Ralph sends for Isabel because he is on his deathbed. Osmond won't let Isabel go, but she does anyways. Before going to England, Isabel stops in to visit Pansy: though the girl is still obedient to her father's wishes and in every way the innocent and perfect little specimen that he has crafted her to be, she begins to see that something is wrong between Isabel and her father. Boldly, Pansy also declares that she doesn't like Madame Merle, who has just also been visiting her. At the convent, Madame Merle tells Isabel of Ralph's role in bringing about her fortune.

In London, Isabel is met by Henrietta and Mr. Bantling, whom she will be marrying: despite her vows to  be American through and through, she will be settling down in London. Isabel goes to Ralph on his deathbed. They reconcile, and confess their love for each other. Isabel realizes her error but feels that she can do nothing but to return to Rome after Ralph dies. She rejects Caspar one more time before doing so. The novel ends oddly not with Isabel but with Henrietta reassuring the distraught Caspar: "She walked him away with her, however, as if she had given him now the key to patience."
There's a lot to tackle in Portrait of a Lady but for my own interests in changes in journalism during the late nineteenth century, I'm going to focus not on Isabel Archer, but on Henrietta Stackpole, who is a sort of foil to Isabel Archer. Indeed, since her judgments turn out to be right, and since she does the novel, she seems a rather critically underestimated and unexamined character. A notable exception is Elise Miller's essay, "The Marriages of Henry James and Henrietta Stackpole" (1989) in the Henry James Review.

Miller points out that Henrietta Stackpole's name signals the wielding together of traditionally masculine and feminine traits. "Henry" is embedded in Henrietta, and Stackpole suggests a rigidity and strength which is as unbending as Goodwood's. Her profession as a "lady journalist" too is a contradiction in gender values: in an era during which journalism was defined more and more as a male endeavor, requiring an intrepid aggression and an adventurous, investigative spirit, she achieves professional success. In the end, she even gets money from Ralph to start her own newspaper. As Miller also points out, however, Henrietta is not really interested in traditionally masculine subjects for her paper: she wishes to behold the "inner life," of the societies that she visits. This, Miller argues, is her feminine side--though she is intrepid and aggressive (Ralph describes her as going through doors without knocking), she is also open and sensitive to psychological complexities of those she encounters. Miller writes: "Henrietta's brash journalism combined with her feminine nosiness, her aggressive integrity combined with her flair for melodrama, make her an amalgam of male and female, rebellion and convention.

To build on Miller's discussion, I argue that Henrietta's staunch Americanism is important. It seems that her success as a lady journalist has much to do with her nationality: to be American is to be frank, idealistic, and free of the social conventions and distinctions that characterize the Old World. As other characters have admitted, there is something about her that is fresh, and which signals the future. Though she is a lady, her candor, free spiritedness, and her intrepid crossing of boundaries is distinctly American: thus, to say that she is a lady journalist might not be such a contradiction in terms. She isn't necessarily male, but properly American. In the end, she does make concessions--both with respect to her freedom as a woman, and as an American--by marrying an Englishman. He is, however, the most benign of Englishmen, a man who is duller than her, kind, and will not oppose her on anything important such as her ideals and her career.

Thus Henrietta seems to embody a kind of independence which Isabel fails to achieve through embracing some conventions--loving her nation, engaging in a "profession," and finally marrying--but on her own terms. It is perhaps Isabel's insistence on independence from all of these things that brings about her ruin: this isn't the kind of independence that was available, least of all for women.

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