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Innocence Abroad

October 20, 2008
The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady
By Henry James

It’s called his masterpiece and while I am unqualified to judge that assessment, I think it fair to say the novel is certainly Russian in scope (and length, weighing in at a hefty 580 pages in my edition) and dazzling in execution. So if that recipe makes a masterpiece, go ahead and give it to him. James, heralded master of character psychology (and appropriately so, given his brother), ensures that his readers will remain transfixed not so much by his plot but by his changeable characters.

It’s the people that charm, the difficult, selfish, manipulative people. We like Isabel and Ralph and Mme. Merle and Osmond because they remind us of ourselves or at least people we know well. I first read this book when I was sixteen, which was perhaps a precarious age to read such a book. (It was at least highly entertaining to re-read it now and look over all of my insightful pencilled remarks. “I LOVE Lord Warburton!”, “She’s so DUMB!!” and “Marry him, you blithering idiot!”) And when I read it then, I fancied myself uncannily similar to Isabel Archer. Looking back now, from her self-professed brilliance to her blinding pride, I suppose we were rather alike. Regrettably.

Mercifully, I’ve grown up a little, just a little. But the disappointing part of this book is that Isabel never seems to grow up herself. At the end of the novel, she is certainly chastened by her poor decisions, but I’m not sure if I’d call her mature. She is far too miserable to be wise.

But I think that’s why I still like Isabel Archer: because she is miserable. I don’t think I like her as a person, but I certainly like her as a character. James keeps one engaged in this epic novel because he knew precisely how to create sustainable people. Keep them always full of surprises, avoid predictable molds for men and women and let them speak their own thoughts. His frequent use of free indirect discourse (FID) suspends the narrator’s judgments while allowing us to make our own. The characters prove themselves through their own words and so we are permitted to evaluate them freely. My favorite authors (Woolf, Austen, Joyce) make liberal usage of FID. And even though I love it as a narrative technique tremendously, I hate having to write about it; my prose always gets so muddy. So I’ll evade an explication on that one and rather let James show you how effective it is:

Isabel remembers her cousin Ralph Touchett cautioning her about marrying Gilbert Osmond:

“It lived before her again–it had never had time to die–that morning in the garden at Florence when he had warned her against Osmond. She had only to close her eyes to see the place, to hear his voice, to feel the warm, sweet air. How could he have known? What a mystery, what a wonder of wisdom! As intelligent as Gilbert? He was much more intelligent–to arrive at such a judgment as that. Gilbert had never been so deep, so just. She had told him then that from her at least he should never know if he was right; and this was what she was taking care of now. It gave her plenty to do; there was passion, exaltation, religion in it. Women find their religion sometimes in strange exercises, and Isabel at present, in playing a part before her cousin, had an idea that she was doing him a kindness.”

It’s smooth, that effortless transition between Isabel and the narrator; it’s what makes James survive, what keeps the novel pulsing. We understand her far better than we could if a detached, third-person narrator described her to us; we post-modern readers want the truth straight from her mouth, unfiltered by a secondary source. And James promptly delivers.

Even though he sometimes uses too many, James really knows how to use words. I’m not sure why this example has stuck with me, but I think it notable: In a passage describing the beauty of architecture in Rome, James notes “the plash of the fountains.” The fact that he left out the customary ‘S’ makes that description that much more powerful. “The splash of the fountains” is nothing exciting, we’ve heard it all before; but a plash of the fountains… Now, there’s something memorable, audible. It’s the little things that count, even–or perhaps, especially–in a book of this size.

So. You have to read it if you haven’t already. It’s an essential component in the history of American fiction (more specifically, American fiction that wants to be British fiction) and we are much the better for it. Somehow Isabel Archer, that vulnerable and conceited American girl abroad, never gets old.

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