Longtime readers know that Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady is one of my favorite novels. Like the big English major dork that I am, I’ve re-read it many times in my life. I never fail to become fascinated by what is essentially a deep psychological study of one of the greatest characters in English-language literature. That’s a big claim to make, but James captures his heroine Isabel Archer’s transformation from a quicksilver, independent, intelligent ingenue into a “lady,” entombed in societal convention in the worst way possible — through her marriage with a venal, gold-digging gentleman and her own hubris, idealism and egotism. He does it with such genius, precision and deep insight. As you read Portrait, you truly feel as if you are deeply intimate with a character and the movements of her emotions and mind — though she retains an essential enigmatic nature that keeps me coming back to her story again and again.
I most recently picked it up while I was hiding out in my apartment, wandering through my late-summer odyssey of minor yet constant physical pain, during a totally gross, yucky heat wave — which is a really strange time to read The Portrait of a Lady. I always read Portrait in the strangest of times, like at night during the trek through the Thai countryside. I always get something new from it when I read it again — maybe that comes from reading it in the strange contexts, I don’t know.
I had always been fascinated by Isabel’s girlishness, by James’ wonderful characterization of what it means to be an American girl full of vitality, freshness and a willingness to throw off convention to chase after some vague vision of self-determination. But this time around, I became fascinated more by her toxic marriage to Gilbert Osmond, a man of genteel poverty who essentially marries Isabel for her money — unbeknownst to her. He’s highly refined, an aesthete and incorrigible snob, though he can turn on the charm and intelligence enough to convince Isabel he is a viable romantic choice. We’re privy to Osmond and his accomplice’s intentions before Isabel becomes aware of it, which I always thought was an interesting narrative decision. What did Henry James intend by this? The result is that you just can never see the appeal of Osmond — you’re always suspicious of him.
And what he did intend by Osmond? Because Osmond is just not hot. I never understood why Isabel went for him; he’s not sexy by any stretch of the imagination. Even his charm is so thin! I just could never quite picture him, you know? He was more than an idea than a real, living man, but strangely, I feel like this is often true of Henry James’ male characters. (His women are rich, vivid and fascinating, inspiring a lot of different, often conflicting emotions — but his men are sort of just pale toast for me.) Though I’ve read, studied, wrote papers on and discussed to death Portrait, the whole fulcrum of Isabel’s marriage to Osmond has always eluded me in terms of its meaning and my personal understanding of it. It’s like that girlfriend of yours who marries someone of whom you wonder, “Dang, what does she see in him? Ugh!” I often just wanted to shake Isabel and be like, “Girl, you can do better! Don’t settle for that dumbass!”