Review: The Portrait of a Lady

After slogging through it for an entire semester, I finally finished reading Henry James’ monumental novel The Portrait of a Lady. This is the fifth major Victorian novel that I have read – in the last few years I have gone through Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Pride and Prejudice as part of my plan to read classic novels. I also read James’ shorter horror novella The Turn of the Screw back in high school near the beginning of my fixation on classic literature, but I only vaguely remember what it’s about.

The Richness of James’ Portrait

The Portrait of a Lady is truly unique among the previous novels I’ve read, in that it has a strong focus on establishing the traits of the main character. In the first few chapters, James attempts to truly create a “portrait,” detailing Isabel’s initial appearance, social interactions, and personal history. The result is a rich, complex figure with multiple, paradoxical layers that is just cannot be shoehorned into one of the usual character tropes. Isabel is described as being confident and lively, but also a little haughty and unrefined (as when she initially doesn’t approach Ralph’s infirm father introduce herself, expecting him to approach her instead). She is somewhat of an intellectual, being a diligent reader and having an “immense curiosity about life and was constantly staring and wondering.” But despite her intellectual interests, Isabel did not have a truly profound mind at all. It’s quite interesting how James makes a deliberate effort to clarify this, as if to prevent the reader from gaining a misunderstanding:

She had no talent for expression and too little of the consciousness of genius; she only had a general idea that people were right when they treated her as if she were rather superior…she was in the habit of taking for granted, on scanty evidence, that she was right; she treated herself to occasions of homage.

(Chapter VI)

While this brings a hint that Isabel had vain tendencies, she still retained a dependency of what other people thought of her. Her intellectual habits made people (especially men) afraid of her compared to her prettier sister Edith, and as she also had an “unquenchable desire to please” (Chapter IV), she used to “read in secret and, though her memory was excellent, to abstain from showy reference.” Ultimately, I think the core of Isabel’s being is her energy and enthusiasm for life, expressed through interactions with wider society, thus creating this peculiar blend of a strong ego and a strong concern of the outside world.

She carried within herself a great fund of life, and her deepest enjoyment was to feel the continuity between the movements of her own soul and the agitations of the world.

(Chapter IV)

This combination of free spirit and intellectual hubris is presented as a natural outcome of her upbringing: she was never formally schooled, and her father brought her and her sisters traveling frequently around Europe. Isabel’s self-centeredness is also responsible for her refusing to obey the wishes of her aunt several times throughout the novel. Her character is I think deliberately contrasted with that of Osmond’s daughter Pansy, who is schooled in a convent since young and turns out as an extremely obedient daughter, to the point of extreme timidity and ridiculousness.

Understanding Isabel’s Sudden Shift

Why are we interested in the character of Isabel? A major question that irked me was how do we explain Isabel’s sudden shift in attitude towards marriage in the middle of the book? In the first volume, Isabel is proposed marriage by two illustrious men: Lord Warburton, Ralph’s friend who is a rich English nobleman, and Caspar Goodwood, a rich American cotton mill owner. She refuses both, stating that she does not want to marry at all. She had different plans for her life.

She couldn’t marry Lord Warburton; the idea failed to support any enlightened prejudice in favour of the free exploration of life that she had hitherto entertained or was now capable of entertaining.

(Chapter XII)

As she then said to Warburton, the reason is “It’s that I can’t escape my fate.” She expressed similar sentiments to Goodwood. At this point, I was thinking that this is some sort of proto-feminist statement, a profound subversion of the typical Victorian trope that a good ending is when the main female character manages to get married to a rich, noble, handsome and powerful man. In fact this is the trope of many modern romance novels! At this point I was expecting the rest of the book to be an interesting account of Isabel’s travels, quests and projects, funded by this inheritance. But like a turn of the screw (pardon the pun), the plot changes radically from this point.

In volume 2, after she has inherited 60,000 pounds from Ralph’s father, she meets Gilbert Osmond through Madam Merle, a friend of Mrs. Touchett’s. This man is described as the antithesis of her two former suitors: even Merle describes him as having “no career, no name, no position, no fortune, no past, no future, no anything” (Chapter XIX). Osmond is not exceedingly poor either; he has sufficient money to keep living in a mansion-like place in Rome and owned an art collection. However, his most striking deficiency is that he does nothing – he had no serious hobbies, interests, plans, nor achievements, in contrast to Warburton, a Lord involved in the British government, and Goodwood, a Harvard-educated businessman who owned a cotton factory and invented a new type of cotton-spinning process.

Thus Isabel is presented as having rejected both the illustrious power and nobility of the Old World (as exemplified by Warburton) and the industriousness and innovation of the New (as shown in Goodwood). Her decision to marry Osmond is baffling to many of the characters – Ralph, Warburton, Goodwood, and her writer friend Henrietta Stackpole. Her cold, rational aunt Mrs. Touchett is not surprised however, being aware that this was the plan of Madam Merle all along (Chapter XXXIII), something that readers don’t realize until the very end. James recognizes the oddity of the decision. He fleshes out two separate conversations for Isabel to explain it: first with Goodwood and then with Ralph. These conversations are of crucial importance to understand her logic.

Isabel freely admits that Osmond is lesser than Warburton or Goodwood, but this is part of the very reason why she likes him. The latter two men trotted out their qualifications and riches that made them desirable as a husband, but Osmond doesn’t even attempt to one-up them. As Isabel says, Osmond doesn’t care about worldly measures of success or prominence.

He’s not important—no, he’s not important; he’s a man to whom importance is supremely indifferent. If that’s what you mean when you call him ‘small,’ then he’s as small as you please. I call that large—it’s the largest thing I know.

(Isabel to Ralph, Chapter XXXIV)

I realized that this trope of subversion of common societal expectations is one that is much more commonly used in more contemporary stories – the allure of the “bad boy,” a favorite role model among rebellious teenagers – but perhaps this was new in James’ Victorian time. Does Isabel’s decision make sense in light of the established portrait, though? As we have mentioned previously, Isabel is indeed a free spirit of some sorts, full of self-importance and a measure of arrogance, but she is not completely detached from society. Maybe it is this very thing that causes her to be susceptible to Osmond’s charms: he is the ideal version of what she wants to be. At least in her perception, Osmond has successfully escaped society’s strictures, being the single father of a young daughter and having no clear occupation in life.

Apart from this though, it’s also made clear that her sudden windfall of inheritance is the final catalyst for her shift in attitude:

I’ve fortunately money enough; I’ve never felt so thankful for it as today. There have been moments when I should like to go and kneel down by your father’s grave: he did perhaps a better thing than he knew when he put it into my power to marry a poor man—a man who has borne his poverty with such dignity, with such indifference. Mr. Osmond has never scrambled nor struggled—he has cared for no worldly prize.

(Isabel to Ralph, Chapter XXXIV)

Thus, in the greatest of ironies, Ralph’s desire to make Isabel “fulfill her potential” has made her instead do a conventional thing that she previously avoided (marriage), but “badly” – choosing an unconventional man regarding whom Ralph and others thought it would be better for her not to marry at all. Looking back, however, this seems to be an amazing fit for her character: Isabel is a self-important person with some ideas about what made her different from normal society, but lack of riches had made her unable to act significantly on them. By giving her a large sum of money, Ralph misjudged her intellect to be greater than what it really is: instead of truly revolutionizing or perhaps transcending society’s norms, she only goes halfheartedly against them. Worse, it turns out that her perception of Osmond was woefully incomplete – he is nowhere near the truly contrarian gentleman he presented himself to be. This would be her downfall, as revealed in the latter part of the book. But for the moment, Ralph admits that he had been duped:

She was wrong, but she believed; she was deluded, but she was dismally consistent. It was wonderfully characteristic of her that, having invented a fine theory, about Gilbert Osmond, she loved him not for what he really possessed, but for his very poverties dressed out as honours.

(Ralph thinking of Isabel, Chapter XXXIV)

From a literary point of view, it is also remarkable how James does not explicitly spell out the conversations that they had when Osmond is trying to seduce Isabel or propose marriage to her, unlike the case with Warburton and Goodwood. Instead, James simply alludes to it in an elegant aside:

Suddenly she remembered it to be just what he had said to her the morning he came to Gardencourt to ask her to marry him. Mr. Osmond’s words had brought the colour to her cheek, and this reminiscence had not the effect of dispelling it.

(Chapter XXVII)

In the first volume of the book, Osmond is never portrayed as self-effacing or subservient, unlike the two other suitors: he is always assured and open about himself. Goodwood, on the other hand, keeps declaring his love to Isabel multiple times in the novel to the point of creating very cringe-inducing scenes. Perhaps this confidence was also crucial in enchanting Isabel, compared to the desperate conduct of the two more powerful men.

Isabel’s Disastrous Marriage

After Isabel marries Osmond, the book skips three years, to a point when Isabel has miscarried a child, and is getting further and further away from Osmond, being very unhappy. Instead of being the revolutionary man that she perceived him to be initially, Osmond is actually an obstinate traditionalist, with very different ideas of freedom and happiness compared to Isabel.

Her notion of the aristocratic life was simply the union of great knowledge with great liberty; the knowledge would give one a sense of duty and the liberty a sense of enjoyment. But for Osmond it was altogether a thing of forms, a conscious, calculated attitude. He was fond of the old, the consecrated, the transmitted; so was she, but she pretended to do what she chose with it. He had an immense esteem for tradition; he had told her once that the best thing in the world was to have it, but that if one was so unfortunate as not to have it one must immediately proceed to make it.

(Chapter XLII)

One thing which Isabel seemed never aware of was the crucial fact that Osmond married her for her money more than anything else. At the core, he is merely a self-serving, greedy man, who wishes to use his friends and family to acquire even more wealth. This is seen in the case of the marriage of Pansy, which truly exposed Osmond’s terrible character. Osmond wishes Warburton (who is in his forties) to marry his 19 year old daughter. It is revealed however, that despite her immense desire to please her father, she genuinely loves the much younger and poorer Ned Rosier.

The interesting conduct of Ned Rosier is a topic to write about in itself. Like Warburton and Goodwood before Isabel, he also goes to desperate lengths to attempt to obtain Pansy’s hand in marriage. He is somewhat of a junior Goodwood. The difference is that Rosier doesn’t have the amount of power and wealth as the other two. He tries to plead his case with Madam Merle, and for a while we see her acting as an interesting double-agent, trying to placate both Osmond and him. In retrospect, it becomes clear that Rosier never had a chance, as Merle is ultimately subservient to Osmond’s desires, and he wanted nothing to do with Rosier. It’s almost stupefying how Osmond flatly declares that Rosier is not rich enough for Pansy.

Not only is Osmond literally a proud gold digger and traditionalist, he is also egoistic control freak, completing the total reversal of his initial perception as a fellow free spirit, detached from the conventions of Victorian society.

The real offence, as she ultimately perceived, was her having a mind of her own at all. Her mind was to be his—attached to his own like a small garden plot to a deer park…he expected her intelligence to operate altogether in his favour…He had expected his wife to feel with him and for him, to enter into his opinions, his ambitions, his preferences…

(Chapter XLII)

At this point, Ralph (and Warburton) had been curiously relegated to the background of the plot, perhaps a conscious effort by James’ to underline Isabel’s rejection of Ralph’s original hopes for her. He does visit Isabel in Rome as a very sickly man, but Osmond barely tolerates him. He returns back to England, with Henrietta and Caspar accompanying him. Some time later, the climax of Isabel’s unhappiness occurs after she receives news that Ralph is dying. In a tense confrontation, Osmond forbids her to visit him in England, but she decides to defy him anyway. Interestingly, Osmond doesn’t try to use any physical force to actively prevent Isabel going away. Instead, he tries to reason with her, in a long monologue outlining how he has certain expectations for what his wife can or cannot do, and that her close relations with her cousin was uncomfortable for him. Despite the growing distance between them, Osmond still strongly believes in their marriage, because it was of their deliberate making.

Because I think we should accept the consequences of our actions, and what I value most in life is the honour of a thing!

(Osmond to Isabel, Chapter LI)

This statement rings surprisingly hollow, as it’s difficult to see how Osmond may or may not adhere to his own maxim. As it is later revealed by Osmond’s sister the Countess right before Isabel leaves for England, Madam Merle is Osmond’s former lover, and Pansy is her daughter with Osmond. Everything so far has been the machination of Madam Merle, who is basically trying to secure a brighter future for her daughter through Isabel’s riches. Is Osmond’s greed merely a reflection of his acceptance of the consequences of his earlier actions, namely his past affair with Merle? But the Countess explicitly says that he also refused to marry Merle after his first wife died, because she didn’t have enough money. This seems like a direct abrogation of responsibility (although to be fair, it’s also because Merle doesn’t think of Osmond highly enough to be her husband). Overall, it’s almost a meaningless question.

This scene concludes Osmond’s role in the story; and it shows that Osmond, while being quite cunning and mischievous, doesn’t really have a compelling ideology underpinning his actions at all. Ultimately he is the character who is most attached to conventional society, being occupied with obtaining money and power through shortcuts like marrying. But he is also inactive and powerless to stop Isabel from going away. This makes us relieved for Isabel’s sake, but it damns Osmond even further. He’s a naive amateur, a wannabe, a failure, not an Iago or Richard III or Marc Anthony, who all either completely succeeded in bringing their plans about or died fighting when things turned sour. Osmond simply returns to his drawings (Chapter LI).

The Convent Scene

After the revelation of the truth by the Countess, Isabel is horrified, and her perception of Pansy and Merle undergoes a rapid shift when she visits the former in her convent for the last time before leaving. This scene ties up two character plots in the novel, that of Pansy and Merle. Pansy doesn’t want Isabel to leave; it’s unclear whether she’ll ever come back. Isabel tries to persuade her to go with her, but ultimately Pansy chooses to go back to her father. This is a tragic conclusion to the cold war over Pansy’s soul which has been occurring between Isabel and Osmond through volume II. For a modern reader, it’s crazy how Pansy’s behavior is closer to a 10-year-old girl rather than a full-grown, 19-year-old young woman fit for marriage. For Isabel though, this conclusion is simply a revelation of Pansy’s “true” nature and allegiance. She’s just hopelessly lost in Osmond’s clutches.

…the collapse of the girl’s momentary resistance (mute and modest thought it had been) seemed only her tribute to the truth of things. She didn’t presume to judge others, but she had judged herself; she had seen the reality.

(Chapter LII)

Isabel also meets Merle at the convent, also visiting Pansy. At this point, her plans having been revealed, Merle’s power is defeated. Before this, she had been a woman without a clear position in their society other than being a family friend, yet she seemed to hold sway in various negotiations about Isabel’s and Pansy’s futures. Now that her true relation is revealed, ironically her power is lost. She’s just another mother trying to fight for her child – no longer a rational, disinterested wise woman who is advising Osmond of what would be in his best interests. James’ narration of this powerful change of background assumptions on the part of the characters is simply masterful and elegant:

She had not proceeded far before Isabel noted a sudden break in her voice, a lapse in her continuity, which was in itself a complete drama. This subtle modulation marked a momentous discovery—the perception of an entirely new attitude on the part of her listener. Madame Merle had guessed in the space of an instant that everything was at end between them, and in the space of another instant she had guessed the reason why. The person who stood there was not the same one she had seen hitherto, but was a very different person—a person who knew her secret. This discovery was tremendous, and from the moment she made it the most accomplished of women faltered and lost her courage. But only for that moment.

(Chapter LII)

But Merle does manage to wield her last weapon against Isabel, in that she reveals to her that her inheritance had gone to her as a result of Ralph asking his father to do so. It’s unclear how she knows this, but this puts an asterisk on Isabel’s victorious final confrontation with her.

The emotional climax of the book is no doubt Ralph’s death scene, which recreates the other turning point of the book (Ralph’s father’s death, which caused Isabel to inherit the large amount of money). She reveals everything to Ralph, including how she now knew of Ralph’s actions, and how she was never able to thank him. However, Ralph reveals his regret for having “ruined” her by giving her such a large sum of money. He assures Isabel that despite her unhappiness, many people had loved and still did love her, and she would be able to recover from her mistake as she is so young.

Caspar’s Final Attempt

Ralph dies the night after their final conversation. A final meeting with Goodwood occurs, including a famous scene where Goodwood kisses Isabel against her will, activating some sort of primal desire inside of her:

He glared at her a moment through the dusk, and the next instant she felt his arms about her and his lips on her own lips. His kiss was like white lightning, a flash that spread, and spread again, and stayed; and it was extraordinarily as if, while she took it, she felt each thing in his hard manhood that had least pleased her, each aggressive fact of his face, his figure, his presence, justified of its intense identity and made one with this act of possession.

(Chapter LV)

It’s quite interesting how this passage was apparently praised for its adherence to Victorian standards of propriety while still vividly describing a scene of great sexual passion, yet by today’s standards, Caspar is committing sexual assault via forceful kissing. This makes the scene uncomfortable to read. Furthermore, Isabel’s reaction doesn’t seem to make sense. So far, Caspar has been acting like a desperate and pathetic man, unable to let go of Isabel even after she was married and pouncing on her instantly only a few days after the death of Ralph, who was the closest thing she had to a brother. By these standards, she should be completely repulsed by him instead of feeling inadvertently drawn. But perhaps James is hinting that Caspar, despite being a successful, proper gentleman so far, is actually closer to Isabel’s free spirit than Osmond’s ever was, as he has the courage to physically transgress Victorian societal norms, as opposed to just pretending to do so.

Even if this isn’t James’ actual intention, Caspar’s final act seems to be presented as a sort of redeeming ending instead of the “final straw.” (I was expecting Isabel to run away and call the police to report him or something like that.) This is seen by how Caspar is featured in the final scene of the whole novel, asking Henrietta where Isabel went. Instead of her angrily asking him to go away, she simply tells him to be “patient.” In the end, it’s ambiguous what happened to Isabel. It’s unclear whether she went back to Rome to go back to Osmond, or to break free from his clutches. Henrietta’s utterance to Caspar seems to give him hope, indicating that maybe Isabel will eventually leave Osmond. It’s also ambiguous what Caspar’s action is supposed to mean. Did it scare Isabel and make her want to return to Osmond after all? Or did it secretly win her over? We never know.

Final Reflections

One of the main points of reading fiction is to learn something profound about the human condition by observing, understanding, and sympathizing with the characters and their interactions. Victorian fiction is especially suited for this as almost all of them focus on middle-to-upper class characters who all have some sort of income through their property, such that they don’t need to do day-to-day work. It’s no wonder that they have time to go out for casual walks and drives, visit each other’s mansions, and travel all over Europe all year round! But this also makes Victorian literature so effective in analyzing social interactions, as in the absence of the drudgery of work, they become the focus of everyday happenings. Without things to do or projects to look forward to, problems arising from gossip, betrayal, anxiety, and loss or gain of social status are all blown up beyond normality – the 19th century version of first world problems. The Portrait of a Lady fulfills this criterion, as Isabel, Ralph, Merle, Osmond all never have to work – even Henrietta has an occupation which necessitates her in travelling around and interacting with people, as a writer.

So what have we learned about the human condition from The Portrait of a Lady? As we have seen, Isabel’s character has a striking blend of strengths and limitation. She is free-spirited and somewhat arrogant, but she is also still susceptible to conventional charms of society like marriage, as long as they are presented appropriately. She is clever and intellectual, but not clever enough so as to be able to escape Merle’s machinations on her own. She is described as physically attractive, but not exceedingly such that her captivating personality is overshadowed.

(It’s interesting to me that most of the major heroines of the Victorian novels I’ve read are never the most attractive – Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennett, and now Isabel Archer. It seems that a story focusing on a woman so attractive that that quality overshadows everything else is simply not interesting enough.)

In other words, Isabel is much more like the average woman (or man). She’s special in some ways, and likes to think of herself as so, but not special enough that society submits to her. Isn’t this what Americans are often accused of, of making everybody think of themselves as unique or special while in reality their capacities are limited? Portrait thus reminds us of the dangers of having an over-inflated view of the self, of the dangers of giving power to a young person who isn’t ready for it yet. It makes me want to think more deeply about my future plans and dreams, and be aware that if a few million dollars were to suddenly drop into my lap right now, my trying to realize those dreams immediately might leave me in personal ruin, not success and happiness.

At the same time, the greatness of James’ novel is that it is not a simple morality tale. It takes no clear stance on whether Victorian society is too restrictive or too oppressive. It doesn’t even explicitly judge Osmond, Merle, nor Warburton or Goodwood. Instead, it just presents us with what happens when a particular personality is given power to do something: what made her think something could work, how this thinking was deficient, and its disastrous effects.

In other words, it’s about the mechanics of the human condition. The physics of it.

And this is perhaps why reading Victorian novels is beneficial for a physicist.

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