|"Out Of The Frame"|
A New Portrait of Henry James's "The Portrait of a Lady" The New Yorker
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!