Every once in awhile a book turns out to be not just a good read, but an immersive life experience. I cherish, for instance, the memory of staying up all night in a snowstorm with Wuthering Heights, and one Christmas Eve with Great Expectations. Now I add to the list Portrait of a Lady, with whom I’ve just spent an entire weekend.
(That “whom” is intentional.)
Last year I heard Wendy Lesser, editor of the Threepenny Review and author of Why I Read, speak in Berkeley; she noted that she has a long involved relationship with Henry James, as meaningful and real as any she shares with living people. It was Lesser who made me finally crack one of his formidable tomes—only to discover it wasn’t formidable, but all-consuming, and surprisingly relevant to my own life and times.
This is not a book review per se; after two decades I’ve given up reviewing in order to return to enjoying books the way I did before I had to worry what I’d write about them. But Portrait grabbed me by the throat, left me so filled with feelings and impressions, they’re spilling out and over the morning after.
The Lady in question, Isabel Archer, an American woman on the verge of adult life, visits her aunt, uncle and cousin in England. She is clever, curious, pretty and charming, as well as eager for life experience. Her uncle pushes her along by conveniently dying and leaving her half his fortune, at the urging of his own son. Isabel turns down two marriage proposals, wanting to remain free to explore the world. Within a few years she falls in love and marries Gilbert Osmond, only to find herself captured and caged by a scoundrel of the highest order.
That’s pretty much the plot—but it’s the literary style and brilliant psychological insights that make Portrait a masterpiece. Though written circa 1880, the description of Isabel Archer’s cage, i.e., her marriage, isn’t far from my own experience of that institution. And while Isabel has the financial means to free herself, at that time in history women didn’t just up and leave their husbands because they were unhappy—not even for mental cruelty.
On Goodreads, where readers can pose questions about books, someone asked how Isabel could possibly be as clever as she is thought by everyone who knows her, when she turned down two perfect gentlemen and married a psychopath. Hah! It happens every day. Isabel is clever, but not, as we say now, street-smart. She is also, despite her seeming originality, a woman of her time, conditioned by the society around her. She recognizes, long after the fact, that she’d kept much of her personality hidden from Osmond during their courtship, and that once he discovered she had her own ideas and opinions, which frequently clash with his cynical and superficial beliefs, he comes to despise her—and treats her accordingly. In addition, there are secrets and horrifying deeds in his past that only come to light towards the novel’s end.
The end of Portrait is a major bummer. Defying Osmond, Isabel leaves him and their house in Rome to visit her dying cousin in England; her husband tells her not to go, threatening repercussions. Isabel goes, not sure if she will return. But she does, at which point James ends his story, leaving us to wonder at the outcome. Will Osmond kill her? Up the ante on mental cruelty? Or simply leave her? I hope he did. But I so resent Henry James for leaving me, and Isabel Archer, in the lurch.
Some interesting articles on Portrait: