Had she been a Jane Austin heroine, Isabel Archer surely would have married Lord Warburton. It is Isabel’s consciousness that Henry James relentlessly explores in his classic ThePortrait of a Lady. Though published in 1881, the novel is set a decade earlier, when Isabel is in her early twenties, when the idea of diminished liberty was particularly disagreeable to her. James informs us that the source of Isabel’s beauty and charm is her abundant liveliness of mind. She refuses Lord Warburton: “A certain instinct, not imperious, but persuasive, told her to resist – murmured to her that she had…an orbit of her own.” Yet without doubt, Warburton, is an impressive sample of the English aristocracy, as rich and landed as Austen’s Mr. Darcy – and as handsome, well-mannered and congenial. Isabel is an American living in Europe for a planned one-or-two-years of sight-seeing. Her chaperone is her aunt, Mrs. Touchett, whose wealthy husband resides in style at Gardencourt, a country manor house in rural England. One of his neighbors is Lord Warburton, and it is at Gardencourt that Warburton falls unrequitedly in love with the “quickly-moving, clear-voiced” Isabel.
Warburton’s proposal is not the first one for Isabel. Before leaving her home in Albany, New York, she receives a marriage proposal from the delightfully named Caspar Goodwood, the son of a wealthy mill-owner. Though she is attracted to Goodwood, Isabel instinctively defers her answer because she does not want to compromise her precious independence. So besotted and so importunate is Goodwood that he follows her to England and Gardencourt where he once again pleads for her hand in marriage, and she again refuses. On some level Isabel understands the enormity of her refusals; it was, after all, an era in which marriage was a woman’s lifetime prize. In addition, marriage was a huge component of social propriety. James attributes to Isabel, along with this insight, a vague determination to accomplish something significant in her life.
As the novel unfolds Mrs.Touchett introduces Isabel to Ralph, her invalid son and Isabel’s cousin. Ralph is seriously ill with a lung disorder. Cousins or not, he, too, falls in love with Isabel, and she grows to love him like a brother. With romance out-of-the-question, the two form an intense, mutually supportive friendship. By the time we have experienced this much of the plot, it is clear to us that James is exploring his favorite theme: the conflict between American innocence and European sophistication. Still, at its core, The Portrait of a Lady is a psychological novel, one that consistently renders true-to-life, three-dimensional characters. James conjures the complex interplay between the minds of his characters at a level few other novelists have achieved.
The character of Isabel is certainly one of English literature’s outstanding achievements. Never shallow or easy to fathom, she is an ambiguous woman; in other words, Isabel is human. Early in the novel we become anxious about her fate, and when her uncle, Mr. Touchett, dies and – at Ralph’s urgings – leaves her half his vast fortune, we worry all the more. Though she will now never be forced to marry for money, she is an all-too-conspicuous target for fortune hunters.
When James introduces one of Mrs. Touchett’s socialite friends, a sophisticated European woman named Madame Merle, readers will almost immediately sense something sinister about her. It appears that Merle is a perennial houseguest at Gardencourt and similar residences and that she is a manipulator. Mrs. Touchett and Isabel fall into her clutches, and she arranges for them a trip to Florence where she will also be staying.
Once they are in Italy, Merle introduces her two companions to Gilbert Osmond, telling them he is one of the finest gentlemen in all of Europe. He is, in fact, merely a failed watercolorist and a connoisseur and collector of beautiful art objects – a man without social standing or wealth. More significantly, he is a determined fortune hunter. Isabel learns that his wife is dead and that their daughter Pansy lives in a convent, and she notes that he and Madame Merle have a curiously close relationship. Eventually, readers will learn that not only is Madame Merle Osmond’s lover, but she is also Pansy’s mother.
There is something about Osmond that attracts Isabel. Yet with the exception of Merle, who seeks to deliver Isabel’s fortune into Osmond’s hands, everyone Isabel knows, especially her cousin Ralph, disapproves of Osmond. Ralph is a staunch advocate of Isabel remaining independent. An American journalist who is a close and loyal friend of Isabel’s, the memorably named Henrietta Stackpole, also weighs in on Isabel’s options. She encourages Isabel to marry Goodwood.
Disapproval from all sides goads the vulnerable young Isabel to an even greater fondness for Osmond. All too soon, Osmond wants to marry Isabel, not only for her wealth, but also for her beauty. She is, to him, another beautiful object. The two see one another at intervals over a period of a few years. Osmond’s inevitable proposal forces her to once again confront the conflict between her desire for personal independence and her commitment to social propriety. Tragically, Isabel heeds no one’s advice and makes the choice to marry Osmond – one of literature’s famously wrong choices. The couple’s wedding takes place “off-stage” as does the birth and death of a son. James often informs readers of an event, even such major ones, by having his characters talk about it in later peripheral conversation. Known as ellipses, this literary technique was a favorite of James’s.
For Isabel, after only one year of marriage, disillusion sets in:
“It was not until the first year of their life together, so admirably intimate at first, had closed that she had taken the alarm. Then the shadows had begun to gather; it was as if Osmond deliberately, almost malignantly, had put the lights out one by one.”
Predictably, three years into the marriage, Isabel and Osmond despise each other. Because in James’s fiction, the action of the plot never becomes melodramatic, there are no pots and pans hurled, no mirrors shattered. Here he writes instead about the progress of the inner life. Isabel’s silent recognition that she has made a commitment fatal to her happiness is all the drama a discerning reader requires. James intends Isabel’s plight to impact us emotionally; he subtly instills in readers feelings of pity and even terror for his heroine.
Isabel and Osmond reside in Rome. As the years pass, Isabel’s cousin’s health deteriorates. When she receives word that Ralph is, indeed, dying, Osmond cruelly forbids her to travel to England to be with Ralph during his final hours. Isabel, however, uncharacteristically does not defer to her husband. At the moment she is overcome with intense hate for him because she has just learned the truth about his relationship with Madame Merle and about Pansy’s parentage. Isabel defies Osmond and travels to England.
With his brilliant prose and restrained style, James unsentimentally depicts Ralph’s funeral:
“It was a solemn occasion, but neither a harsh nor a heavy one; there was a certain geniality in the appearance of things. The weather had changed to fair; the day, one of the last of the treacherous May-time, was warm and windless, and the air had the brightness of the hawthorn and the blackbird. If it was sad to think of poor [Ralph], it was not too sad, since death for him had had no violence. He had been dying so long; he was so ready; everything had been so expected and prepared. There were tears in Isabel’s eyes, but they were not tears that blinded. She looked through them at the beauty of the day, the splendor of nature, the sweetness of the old English churchyard, the bowed heads of good friends.”
Following Ralph’s death, Isabel struggles to decide whether or not to return to her husband. A part of her wants to return to Rome, not only because she has grown fond of Pansy, but also because social propriety impels her to remain in her marriage. A part of her is tempted by Goodwood’s request, proffered at Ralph’s funeral, that she run away with him.
Usually readers are dissatisfied with the ending of The Portrait of a Lady . But because along with exquisite prose, James’s stock-in-trade is variation on the theme of the inherent disappointment of life, Isabel’s fate should not come as a complete surprise.
Biographies tell us that ideas for novels came to Henry James through a single chance remark made to him, for example, at a party or a detail relayed to him over luncheon. As soon as the idea struck him he made an effort not to hear any more details surrounding the actual incident being related. He then gave free rein to his imagination, letting it fill in details and connections. Thus he came up with his version of the truth.