Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Portrait of a Lady / by Henry James

If ever an author marginalized his homeland in favor of other, more fashionable places, it was American Henry James (1843-1916). Any slight was largely unintended however. With regard to his lifestyle, it seems only practical that James would concentrate his literary efforts on the settings and subjects at hand. Born to a wealthy New York City family already well-regarded for their intellectual prowess--James' father Henry Sr. and his brother William were both accomplished philosophers and his sister Alice's posthumous diary would influence later feminists--James received a classical (if informal) education . For much of his early life, he lived abroad traveling extensively with private tutors through England, France, Italy and Switzerland. It was during this formative period that James garnered a great appreciation for the art and culture of some of Europe's most cosmopolitan settings. His only sustained residence in the United States came when he briefly attended Harvard Law School after which he resumed a semi-permanent home abroad in England for the remainder of his life. His novels, short stories and varied prose, much of it heralded as classic 'American' Literature, is predominately set in Britain and continental Europe where it almost exclusively depicts a society and class of people who could well-afford to devote themselves to the refinements of life. Consequently, critics of James have said his fiction is unrealistic and have derided the author as an unapologetic anglophile with eurocentric tendencies. His 1881 serialised novel The Portrait of a Lady follows a young American girl as she takes up a residence with relatives in England and subsequently grows into womanhood.

American Isabel Archer is only 19 when her father dies and her Aunt Touchett comes from England intending, upon request from Isabel's late father, to take the girl back with her to the Touchett estate of Gardencourt. It is settled that a life lived here in proximity to a more sophisticated social element can give Isabel a better chance to "blossom" into a well-refined, cultured woman. Almost instantly upon her arrival, Isabel is courted by several suitors, among them an older, well-off gentleman named Lord Warburton and a younger American man, Caspar Goodwood, whose been in love with Isabel previously and has followed her from America. Though both men are of able means and come well-recommended, neither can win Isabel's hand in marriage and each graciously depart from her company. It is also during this time that Isabel forms a close attachment with the Touchett's son, Ralph, whose terminal illness both prevents and dissuades him from pursuing Isabel romantically. But Ralph is a kindhearted, affectionate man and while it's never explicitly stated, it is he who perhaps loves Isabel in the purest, most unselfish way. As the elder Mr. Touchett, stricken with a similar illness, lies dying it is Ralph who persuades him (anonymously) to bequeath a legacy to Isabel, an inheritance large enough so that the girl may have the means to cultivate her higher faculties through travel and association with European society's more sophisticated set.

Though surprised at her good fortune, Isabel suspects that Ralph may have had a hand in it. And as anticipated, the young woman does indeed flourish with aid from her newfound wealth, first in the salons of Paris then the courts of Italy where along the way she procures the friendship of one Madame Merle, a thoroughly "complete" woman polished in every sort of way and a person Isabel hopes to emulate. Consequently, it is Madame Merle who introduces Isabel to her "friend" Gilbert Osmond, a man as impressed with Isabel as she is with him. Before long the two are in love and, despite the warnings of others that Gilbert is a fortune hunter, Isabel agrees to marry him. But what she doesn't know, what she doesn't even fear as she succombs to the affable and gallant wiles of Mr. Osmond is that dangerous secrets have been witheld from her concerning Gilbert and his charming daughter Pansy, a girl much in the same strangely limited situation as Isabel formerly had been.

The Portrait of a Lady is popularly considered to James best novel. It could also be said that it is his most 'Jamesian' novel, the author portraying a world, his own little microcosm of parlors, drawing rooms and galleries, where his brand of literary realism is given room to thrive. Of course no one who regards this James novel (and many of his others) would say that his mode of portrayal, a realm absent of anything but the wealthy elite stiffly going about their lives, is in any way realistic. And it's not, at least in the sense that the 'real world' and the cross-section of society contained within it are not only disregarded, but that any activity relegated to the mundane aspects of life are ever within the scope of the story. Much of it does seem like pomp and circumstance. But that's just it. James' "realism" is never intended to encompass such aspects which he feels, perhaps justifiably, aren't necessary to elucidate the ideas, themes and 'realities' he aims to render. For his is the kind of style, very acutely rendered within context, which strives to engage the most intimately authentic portions of human life, the conditions, choices and consequences enmeshed therein. An understanding of this concept isn't without contradictions. It is perhaps a bit hard to accept Jame's realism--a motif in which he firmly insisted was intended to oppose romanticist elements in fiction--when such a flourishing type of life as Isabel aspires to carries such exclusive, largely unobtainable means. (FIC JAMES)

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