"We are what we believe we are."
C.S. Lewis

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Mop Philosophy Book Club


"Out Of The Frame"
A New Portrait of Henry James's  "The Portrait of a Lady" The New Yorker
Henry James
For anyone who managed to read through 600 pages of Isabel Archer's ideals and angst... thank you.  At one point I found myself struggling with the reading and it occurred to me that this book was an ambitious project for our first book club.  But this struggle soon passed and in the end I enjoyed the challenge and the time constraint, it forced me to sit down with the book in the afternoons and just plod through.

For though I love the book it did occasionally feel like a bit of a labour, and a frustrating one at that.  I think we can all agree that Isabel's choices are a puzzle even in the framework of the deception orchestrated by Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond.

(I should note at this point that anyone who has not read the book but would like to... go read it and come back!  I think it is essential to the build-up of feeling and interest as a reader that the ending not be spoiled.)

Time and Place

One of the thoughts behind revisiting Classic novels (that we've perhaps not read for a couple of decades) is the feeling that we each take away from the book depending on time and place.
The first time I read this book, at age 25, the effect was searing.  I was in the middle of my first marriage which was a very unhappy one.  I remember distinctly the feeling I had setting down the novel, that I was in fact "doing an Isabel Archer" and not willing to admit that my marriage was a horrible mistake.  Reading the book certainly didn't cause my eventual separation and divorce but it did stick with me, this knowledge of what I was doing, and the fact that in doing so I was keeping unhappy company with a literary heroine no woman in her right mind would emulate.

This time around I found myself enjoying the thought processes, the stunningly beautiful language, the extremely long yet well-constructed sentences!  It felt like a luxury to read this book, as though I were in a room from the past that was flooded with a warm and soothing light, in a comfortable chair surrounded by parlour ferns...

However it has to be noted, and as a friend said to me this week: the ending is brutal!  Any thoughts on the ambiguous nature of Isabel's final journey (was it permanent?  was she merely going to arrange things for Pansy and then making good her escape?) will make for a good discussion.

Who was your favourite character?  Do you think Isabel could have made a better love match with Caspar Goodwood or Lord Warburton?  Were you surprised at the secret behind the relationship between Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle?

Did you notice that most of the main characters were in fact Americans?  With the exception of Lord Warburton and Mr. Bantling, the characters were transplanted Americans (even Gilbert Osmond was American though he was raised in Europe) which illustrates the fascination Henry James held for layering American values into an English and European social construct.  Do you think he did this effectively in this novel?

Why, Isabel, why?

"Isabel Archer was a young person of many theories; her imagination was remarkably active.  It had been her fortune to possess a finer mind than most of the persons among whom her lot was cast; to have a larger perception of surrounding facts and to care for knowledge that was tinged with the unfamiliar." Chapter VI

How did Isabel Archer's personal characteristics help lead to her downfall?  Isn't it ironic that her longing for freedom, which led her away from two fine marital options, eased her instead to a loveless cage of cold duty and rich appearance?

What did you think of the highly feminist nature of Henrietta Stackpole?  Didn't you think she was completely "before her time" and so refreshing?  Wasn't it wonderful that she did in fact end up making a love match quite unexpectedly, resulting in a fine marriage, without ever giving up her own ideals?

Are you having alternate-ending fantasies?  Me too.  They usually involve poisoning Gilbert, I'm very sorry to admit.

Let's have a discussion!

xoxDani

38 comments:

  1. I haven't read it, but I'm here to be the wine waiter and pass canapes around. Yes, it's funny how books speak differently to us through the ages, Mr Ives Christmas is one that sticks out that way for me.

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    1. Tabs Wine Waiter, welcome I was hoping you'd show up!

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  2. Hi Dani!

    Well first of all - thank you for picking this novel - I had never read it and feel all the better for having done it, despite that at certain points it seemed slower than others (was it just me or is the section of the first meetings with Gilbert, etc slower going than the latter part of the book?)

    I loved it!

    And I know I will jump in several times today!

    I was fascinated at the beginning by all of the discussion of Isabel's independence - it is certainly a foreshadowing of what is and is not to come... In Chapter IV, her brother-in-law Edmund says "Oh, Moses! I hope she isn't going to develop any more!"

    I felt Isabel was a terrible romantic who didn't see herself as such; she even romanticized her desire to live alone, which I think is often the case of young people who forswear marriage or children or anything traditional.

    I wanted to slap poor old cousin Ralph at many point in the book - he was ill yes, but he hid behind his illness as a way to avoid getting hurt, I thought. And he makes the most critical decision in the book in making her an heiress, but a simple conversation with her as to why, instead of being so silently noble, might have saved a LOT of heartache!

    it did become a bit of a thing at one point, all of the suitors coming along, didn't it? This was where Isabel did prove herself a bit shallow - I did have the feeling in certain placed "I think she doth protest too much", but maybe that was me?

    I loved Henrietta, who romanticized all things America and lived in a method that was considered almost entirely "unladylike" and yet was freer ans true than the shackles that Isabel bound herself to. I found Isabel's choices infuriating at times; the decision to stay with Gilbert and then return in the end, the decision to care about propriety when throughout the book and especially in the earlier parts of the book she is forever assuring herself of the independence of her mind and character.

    One thing I would like others' thoughts on especially is the last scene between her and Caspar. Is she feeling passion and running away from it to the safe house of Gilbert's complete indifference?

    And how the hell did she fall in love with Gilbert? I found him so smarmy from the start. And her admiration for Madame Merle is so much for the latter's perfect "correctness" - it is as if Isabel, for all her protestation of having this great thirst for experiential knowledge. I was struck by her love at the beginning of the book for the civil war and the bloodiness of the fighting and her own decision to return to her own civil war...

    Okay I will shut up now - can't wait to read the other comments!

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  3. Wendy excellent points all. I was really struck by the feelings of power that refusal gave Isabel, and it occurred to me more than once that is was the only power she had as a woman living in society, and it was such a false one because she then didn't refuse the one man she absolutely should have... and yes how did she fall in love with Gilbert? His "fine mind"?! I found the scenes of the courtship quite removed, I don't think Henry James really provided an answer or explanation for her acceptance, though I think we are to understand that she was heavily under the influence of Madame Merle, who perhaps took on a sort of parent figure for the orphaned Isabel...

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    1. I think you may be right. You don't have the sense of her love for Gilbert. She was obsessed with her high ideals, which didn't seem to jive with a traditional life being married to a Lord or a cotton mill owner, but the assumption that giving a smart man money will make him a great man is so nairve..

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    2. So much of Isabel is exactly that WMM, thinking she has done this generous, noble thing and yet she's "in reality ground in the very mill of the conventional."

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  4. CHARACTER STUDY Sorry, I was in the corner virtually noshing and sipping with Tabs. First up, I admit I was as bothered by the ending as much as when I first read POTL. And I'm not necessarily a fan of neat and tidy plots. However, perhaps with James, the conclusion wasn't necessarily important; it’s the journey, the mystery, how well the manners and deceptions are played out. Is my wanting resolution (or to shake/ clobber more than one character) a 21st century thing? Off to ponder you and WMM's great questions and will pop back to the circle later.

    Not only do we get the difference of a classic at different periods, but also lots of really different perspectives as well. Can't wait to read who picks up on what.

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    1. GF I was also just as disturbed by the ending as the first time I read it and I found reading the last part of the book very exciting, getting to the resolution, even though I did know what happened! There was a kind of genius in the long build up to the final scenes...

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    2. One question I have - did she love Ralph? I thought she might have but then her last line when he dies is "Oh, brother!" so I wondered.

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    3. Make that TPOAL and your - clearly haven't had a enough coffee to manage a tablet yet. Also, a big thing that stuck with me is how well James' ability to create a vivid scene and backdrop informs the mood. The early chapters at Gardencourt provide that sense of "cultivated leisure" later contrasted with the gloomy villa and "splendid sadness" of Rome.

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    4. I think she did love Ralph as a brother, he was her closest family member, she seems completely alone otherwise and doesn't seem to have much of a relationship at all with her own sisters.

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    5. And it is funny, because she looks at her sister's as having this conventional, unknowing kind of life and yet she chooses the same, except in a more cultured locale...

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  5. Wendy I do think she felt some passion for Caspar which made her running back to Rome all the more brutal... giving up her life for appearance and adherence to her own values which she thinks are so fine...

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    1. And so shocking, since she is going back to a man who has all but imprisoned his own daughter to punish Isabel. Oh lord!

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    2. I think the fact that she promises Pansy she will return plays hugely... and it was a clue that she would be going back, perhaps to do her best to arrange Pansy's love match with Rosier, giving her the marriage that she herself had missed!

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    3. Not sure exactly how I would describe it, but think Isabel has a big streak of the "masochistic" in her, preferring dark and perverse to gallant but dull.

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    4. I like to think she went back to Rome to get her money, bung a bit to Pansy whilst knotting the sheets for her to make her escape from the convent and run off with Rosier. THEN she goes back to Casper having finally realised she loves him. Otherwise, as you say, it's very brutal.

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    5. Victoria I'm with you, let's take that ending!

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  6. Great recap Dani! Ok there is a lot to discuss here so like Wendy I may go in and out during the day also because I am in the middle of packing.

    So this may come out odd or disjointed bc I am typing fast.

    (Tabitha, sorry but I did ask for margaritas on the rocks...Ta!)

    But this book was on my to read list.

    This was odd to read because some of the issues seemed so modern! I didn't think that women in fact had the choice but then again this was a certain social class with certain circumstances.

    I related to it because I also got married late ( 36 ). I needed my independence more than a partner and it took ages for me to realize those two can get along and aren't at odds with one another. The ending however seemed very "of the time".

    But endings are never going to be good by virtue of the word. I don't know if I have ever been satisfied with an ending both good or bad. In fact I wish Mr James would have been more ambiguous a la Before Sunrise or Sunset ( one of those ).

    But now I am desperate to watch the movie version!!

    Be back later :)

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    1. CSW, it is funny - I know what you mean - but I thought that it was still relevant - how many people "settle" because they wonder what their parents, their friends, etc, would think if they left? In certain classes, I think that is more acute. I think in some cases, middle class would be easiest for this - poorer people often feel "stuck" not just because of money, but because their entire cohort is in the same circumstance as them, The same can be said of the upper classes, though maybe I am stretching this too much.. I think he alludes to her obligation to pansy when they are saying goodby and that she will choose this form of mothering. Then I wonder - how did her relationship with Madame Merle proceed from there?

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    2. Yu're right except I suppose marriage had even more of a significance back then as it was not only choosing a partner but your life calling and profession in one. I see a lot of Merle's in urban areas, I have met a lot of Merle's - perhaps not in the same karmic ties but in that they replace absent family and help/meddling/ruining is a hair width's of a nuance...

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  7. Naomi I started watching the Jane Campion version of the movie last night, I only managed about half an hour or so but it was thrilling to watch after just finishing the book... I also have the BBC version from the 60's? 70's? I'll be watching that this week.
    I agree the issues seem very modern and the whole thing about divorce just not being done, well this book is a good argument for divorce... and for pre-nups! Imagine if Isabel could have had both...

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    1. I have to find them movie - isn't available on netfleix or apple tv

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    2. Wendy I ordered them both from Amazon, actually I found the entire Henry James BBC collection on Amazon for a pretty good price.

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    3. Sorry to be so late, but Tabs over-served me last night.

      I had not previously read this, nor had I seen a movie adaptation, so the unfolding of the story was quite engrossing. I too found Henrietta refreshing as a woman with real opinions, unafraid to voice them. The author's affection for her shines through, I think, as does his intention to deepen our dislike for Gilbert when he provides such an unflattering description of her, that she reminds him of a new steel pen and may not be a woman. Well!

      Isabel is a contradiction, even or mostly , to herself. She has pursued an admirable course early on ( to us) in seeming to make choices that will preserve her idea of herself as somehow free. Even though we are all yelling, marry Lord Warburton, for chrisakes, and live in a manner few can dream of, we understand her wish to fashion her own life. But "freedom" is a hard thing to manage-- and such potent theme for us still-- and often derails us. Isabel was derailed all right, into a bondage of her own choosing.

      I was drawn into all the 19th illness, too, of course, when gout was a truly awful condition with no treatment and TB raged unchecked. Illness and its results in character intrigue me.

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    4. Lane I also loved that description of Henrietta by Gilbert... and yes more reason to dislike him. That derailment was so painful to watch, and yes I was hollering to marry Lord Warburton as well, he is described as a flawless man too, it was like Henry James was torturing us!
      I can understand you would have been interested in the illnesses! I didn't know a person could die from gout. And what was Ralph's lung condition, was it TB?

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    5. Yes gout can kill you, by kidney stones inducing renal failure. More frequently, sufferers probably wished they were dead as the inflamed joints are exquisitely painful. And no ibuprofen/prednisone/colchicine! Can't imagine this!

      Yes tuberculosis was Ralph's ailment. 19th century lit is littered with descriptions of TB, its long course, the endless coughing, wasting away, sometimes romanticizing the victims. Ralph and everyone else were aware that he was going to die; it's hard for us to imagine such a world.

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    6. Oh Lane - that is so interesting! I assumed it was TB - no one could romanticize consumption like a victorian author!

      Gilbert was cruel in his analyses of the flaws of all of Isabel's group, wasn't he? And so passive aggressive! and yet he liked Caspar - I found that fascinating, since Isabel herself believed that of all her suitors, only Caspar well and truly loved her!

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    7. Caspar-- tall, dark, blue eyes, strong jaw. Sign us up! He seemed to get under her skin as no one else did. "It had been horrid to see him, because he represented the only serious harm that ( to her belief) she had ever done in the world."

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    8. It's funny Dani bc one thing my mother indoctrinated into me more than anything was - DO NOT EVER GET DIVORCED! It was considered the worst fate of a woman, there was some respect in being a widow but being divorced was your fault goshdarnit. While I didn't heed her advice in general I do think that in certain countries ( My mother is full Korean )it is a huge stigma. I personally don't get it but then again I am quite liberal in most things so a lot of things confuse me like that. I can only imagine back then more so than now, it was a binary path. The third option was just too scary.

      Prenups have a way to go. I was going to get into Family Law until I was warned against it. 50% divorce rate but guess what the prenup rate is? .001% ish. Ironically in the middle ages the prenups for the average woman seemed a lot better than what most women get now. Plus I was wondering what the legal implications of a divorce for women was back then?

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    9. Yes I wonder, I think she would lose everything she brought into the marriage, be penniless, shunned from society.... divorce is still the pits but we've made progress. And this was good advice from your mother even if it sounds a bit strict!
      Family law would be utterly depressing.

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  8. Oh, and Dani, there is even evidence of planning travel packing!
    "I shall go tomorrow," Henrietta said. " I think I better not wait"

    "Dear me, I'm sorry; I'm having some dresses made," the Countess cried.

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  9. I've been following the discussion with interest. I find it extremely frustrating to read about imprisonment - same reason I get antsy reading HJ's good friend Edith Wharton. So I read TPOALin little bites, growling at all the lines that could not be crossed, all the doors,that should not be opened. And I began to find the novel scary, I felt like I too was hiding with Isobel in a prison she had chosen. I also wonder if HJ really preferred his narrow world, ignoring women like Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale.

    In quiet we had learn’d to dwell --
    My very chains and I grew friends,
    So much a long communion tends
    To make us what we are:—even I
    Regain’d my freedom with a sigh.


    Are we freer today? We think we are.

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    1. Fred - wow - excellent points. I often think that there are social constraints that bind us still, but often wonder if our perceptions of loss or gain of freedom are also the product of realizing that the choices we have made often close doors on other choices. No one has it all, and it is one of the great joys and frustration of this life that that is so...

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    2. Fred I agree the novel is scary. The feeling of being trapped definitely enters the mind as a reader, the involvement is complete. The long sentences and vivid and constant descriptions really add to the effect, well HJ was certainly a master of psychological realism wasn't he! And yet at the same time there were moments when Isabel's interior life was not well-sketched... especially when she married Gilbert.

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  10. Better late than never .... I'm glad I took up your challenge to read Portrait, Dani, and like you I both enjoyed the level of language and writing and occasionally found it a chore. The second half of the book certainly picked up speed. The only new thing I can add to the discussion at this point is a comment about the point of view. We spend a lot of time in Isabel's head in the first part of the book and get to know her reasonably well and then James makes us into outsiders (like all of Isabel's suitors) in the second book. We don't see her perspective or see her express any kind of emotion about the death of her infant son - it's mentioned only as an aside. This might be significant in adding to her strong attachment to Pansy, and also ties in with Isabel's consistent reluctance to express or deal with emotion until the crisis scenes at the end - Ralph's death and Caspar's passionate kiss. The book's titled 'portrait' of a lady - it seems that Isabel in some ways is just a facade to us and to the world.

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    1. Lily excellent thoughts on the book! You're so right Isabel does become a facade to us, an almost unreadable portrait!

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