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Imaginary Conversations with Isabel Archer

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!”

Sometimes Isabel’s choice is explained psychoanalytically, by a latent fear of sexuality and conventional marriage, but I just felt that was too tidy of an explanation. But if you were to translate the book’s emotional terms into contemporary lingo, Isabel has a kind of “fear of commitment,” a fear of losing her identity through marriage. That’s a viable interpretation, and there’s plenty of evidence in the text to support it. Marriage is no source of happiness or pleasure in most of he book. One of the most prominent marriages in Portrait is of Isabel’s aunt and American uncle, the Touchetts that bring Isabel over to Europe and later make her rich through inheritance. The Touchetts’ marriage is not a successful one, without much love or affection, and they live largely separate lives — the aunt comes and goes as she pleases, pretty much. Maybe Isabel wants to replicate this structure, unconsciously or otherwise, since it promises to retain her much-cherished independence — her childhood certainly doesn’t seem to offer a model of healthy marriage, with her mother largely gone and her father affectionate but neglectful.

Interestingly, Jane Campion’s film adaptation of Portrait offers another interpretation of Isabel’s marriage. I had actually never seen it before, but after I read it this round, I got the DVD through Netflix. I can’t say it’s an entirely successful movie, though the visuals are beautiful and many of the performances are wonderful — I suspect if you hadn’t read the book, you’d be a bit lost. But what’s fascinating is the “making-of” behind-the-scenes documentary included as an extra. It’s really one of the most interesting behind-the-scenes features I’ve ever seen — it looks and feels more like a French New Wave director was lurking around the set with a camera. It’s really insightful and beautiful in its own right, complete with luminous black-and-white footage. But one thing I found fascinating was how Jane Campion interpreted Isabel Archer as a “romance addict,” a kind of original “woman who loves too much.” Campion said she quite related to Isabel as a former romance addict herself, a woman with a powerful, though sublimated, sexuality who loved the drama of romance, often at the expense of authentic, reciprocal love.

To me, this was nuts, because I had never thought of Isabel as an addict to romance — and wasn’t this a complete opposite to the fear-of-marriage-and-sex interpretation? Sure, she had a lot of suitors and seemed to attract a lot of dramatic scenes in her life, and seemed to soak in the drama of the emotions they inspired. And yet…once I thought about it again, it’s a viable interpretation as well. I went through the book and re-read the scenes of Isabel alone after a big almost-romantic scene with her various male suitors — there’s a lot of quivering and tears, and you could interpret that as a highly repressed sexuality. And it made sense to me in terms of what I’ve observed in my own, contemporary experience, and that of my friends — we entertain ourselves with a parade of unavailable, unsuitable romantic prospects for various reasons. We think we’re not worthy; we’re scared of being hurt; we fear losing our identity; we have lots of fears buried in the nooks and crannies of our psyches. So we chase after these little pretty demon-lovers because, well, aren’t you supposed to be dating? Aren’t you supposed to find love? Aren’t you supposed to want romance and companionship? (Of course, the answer is “No, you should do what you damn well want,” but in real life, nearly everyone I know, male or female, is or has been obsessed with relationships at one point. They’re important to a lot of people’s happiness.)

Through this lens, Isabel is like that girlfriend who likes to flirt, enchant, attract attention — and yet finds herself essentially sabotaging and fleeing what could be solid relationships in favor of romantic, dramatic trainwrecks. She gets the attention of a straight-arrow boringish yet very persistent good guy, but instead goes after James’s milk-soppy, almost androgynous version of a bad guy. I mean, Osmond’s not riding up in a Harley and drinking and whoring at all hours of the night — that would be so declassee for Osmond — but he’s genuinely venal, snobbish, priggish, self-serious, annoying and — worst of all — ultimately cruel and malignant, when he’s not being neglectful. He’s so horrible — and yet Isabel chooses him, and you just want to groan your face off when she does. It’s partly why people get so infuriated with her character — how does someone with such strength of will and vivid intellect make such a bad decision?

Of course, I’m wise enough and old enough now to know that, when it comes to matters of the heart, people are not logical or smart — and sometimes being those things is actually fatal to happiness, if not married to emotional insight and intuition. (“I feel like he’s good on paper, but there’s something missing…but I’m getting older, so should I just marry him anyway?” Logically yes, sure, but emotionally, man, sounds like a recipe for disaster!) And when I squint hard and think about it, I’ve certainly dated a few “sterile dilettante” Osmond-types in their way — people preoccupied with a lifestyle or image looking for a trophy or an embellishment to decorate that picture, which lead to me never feeling quite good enough for their high standards. And luckily, I had the time to acquire enough self-knowledge and experience to realize this — and now I’m like, Whew, I am so lucky those relationships failed. The idea that I could be trapped in a relationship in that dynamic…it makes me shudder.

The disintegration of her marriage to Osmond happens offscreen in the novel, and by the time we pick back up with her, she’s fully the “lady” of the title, the hostess of what sounds like something like a grand salon of snobbery and pretention that Osmond lords over — with the benefit of Isabel’s money. We rarely see them interact, but the few scenes in which they do reveal a hinterland of coldness, fear and contempt — which, if you’ve read enough relationship self-help and psychology in general, you know is one of the deadly sins to sabotage your relationship. Both Isabel and Osmond have a cold contempt of one another. And it makes for a horrific marriage that Isabel cannot easily get out of, and thus sets up the final dilemma: how does such a beautiful bird break out and find her freedom? If anyone knows the ending of Portrait, the novel offers no easy answers…and indeed, is one of the most agonizingly unanswered questions in literature.

A long time ago, I heard a phrase I’ve never been able to get out of my head: the idea that “Marriage is like a country where only two people have the passport.” Perhaps you can expand this more generously to include all romantic/love relationships of a life-long nature: though an outsider can see flaws and make suggestions that ultimately seem smart and sane, only the two people inside of them truly understand why their relationship exists. I’ve been thinking a lot about marriages and other long-term romantic relationships lately, about how that commitment is both vast, daunting and almost unthinkable as an exercise in logic and visualization — its possible totality can only be accessed through emotions and intuition. I’ve been thinking a little bit about a friend of mine who recently confessed to me that the thing she was most ashamed of in her life was her divorce — the public admission that she had, in fact, made a bad marriage, to a man who tried to exert a lot of control over how they spent their money. (There’s a reason why money is one of the top reasons why marriages fall apart.) A smart, beautiful woman who chose wrong, and how hard it was to admit that, because it made her feel sad, angry and fucking stupid. Shouldn’t she have known better? she often berates herself. And perhaps, shouldn’t Isabel have known better?

In the end, sometimes I think what felled Isabel was not her romantic nature, but her lack of social imagination. Why did she have to even marry in the first place? That’s, of course, a question that makes for a rich feminist reading of the book. I do love myself a feminist interpretation of anything, but lately I find myself more interested in a novel’s “moral education,” for lack of a better term. I like to know, now, how a book teaches us to feel and live: to love, to judge, what to do with something we feel attracted to or repulsed by. If novels are in some way emotional experiences, then what I am supposed to take away? As a moral education, Portrait of a Lady poses for me the question I want to ask Isabel, Henry James and whoever else: What is it do we need to know before we take that step of commitment with someone? It’s so easy to slide into marriage, shacking up and all that now — in NYC, most couples I knew moved in with one another to save rent, not to mindfully progress towards a lifelong commitment and shared existence. Did Isabel slide into marriage in some way? No, she deliberately made a choice — but what was she missing that helped her make such a disastrous one?

Interestingly, for a book chock-full of bad marriages, Portrait offers the possibility of one happy life companionship near the end. One of Isabel’s friends is Henrietta Stackpole, a feminist journalist who James employed as a tiny bit of comic relief — or at least a bit of livening gaucheness. Henrietta is frank, straightforward, not really charming — but she’s very forthright. (I always found it interesting why Isabel didn’t really follow Henrietta’s example and become a career woman in some way, but hey, that’s a whole other mystery to ponder, one for a feminist reading, perhaps.) She develops a long-term friendship over the course of a number of years with a British acquaintance of one of Isabel’s suitors, where they go gadding about Europe and gabbing about everything under the sun. They couldn’t be more different, and yet clearly enjoy and are stimulated by those differences and take them with a lot of amiability and good nature.

At the book’s end, Henrietta decides to marry her British friend, which disappoints Isabel — perhaps she is slightly jealous, and perhaps she’s taken on Osmond’s high-minded snobbish mindset without realizing it, I don’t know. (James’ language is so rich yet convoluted, you could extract a million meanings from it!) But in the end, Henrietta makes her match through an long-term audition of her mate’s appetite for adventure and genial nature. “I’ve studied him for many years and I see right through him,” says Henrietta. And yet she admits a bit later that she and her intended both find each other a mystery — and are marrying one another to want to get to the bottom of it. I suppose that may be one of the keys to what could be a happy life-long companionship — a kind of reciprocal radical transparency, an openness and honest air, an abiding interest and enduring curiosity about one another. Certainly, matches have been made on a lot more, and a lot less.

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All Things Glorious and True: Love Letters to Pop Culture, New York, Fashion and Other Objects of Affection is a collection of essays exploring how my crushes on music, dive bars, books, outfits and so much else gave me a braver soul, more open heart and even love. All Things is like a great, stylish mixtape: surprising, kind of punky, fun and often heartfelt.


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3 Responses to “Imaginary Conversations with Isabel Archer”

  1. John says:

    Maybe this is just me reading some of myself into it, but one idea I had was that Isabel sort of had a script in her mind of what kind of person she’d marry. Someone cultured, someone smart, someone with taste, I don’t know. Osmond hit the right notes, with an assist by the awesomely devious Madame Merle (I love how in James people play these subtle games of social chess–maneuvering the pieces the way they want through the slightest indications), and Isabel was too focussed on her plans to sort of realize, hey this guy’s an asshole.

    I do think this is one of the most mysterious novels ever, and not just in terms of character and motivation. As I mentioned to you before, I think, I don’t understand in what way Isabel was “poor” before, and “rich” after, Ralph gives her his money. I don’t understand the social position/class of Henrietta or Mr. Bantling, or really Warburton or Goodwood or anybody at all. And I don’t understand what James was after, what he was doing, what he intended us to think and feel.

    I guess I feel like, despite everyone in the book telling me that Isabel is fascinating and amazing, she is pretty much a complete disappointment, and not just after she gets married. I’ve only read the book once and I’m sure my opinion will change, but my feelign right now is that I find her fascinating as a character in a novel, but an amazingly conventional and boring person qua person. I remember someone–Isabel herself? Ralph? Henrietta?–mentioned she might go to Japan, but of course she doesn’t go to Japan. That’s way too interesting, too actually bold instead of pretend bold, for Isabel Archer. Henrietta is bold and interesting. Mrs. Touchett is bold and interesting. Even Madame Merle is. And Caspar Goodwood at least might be, though it’s hard to say because like all the males he’s kind of a cipher. But Isabel just sits around telling herself she’s really something special, and everyone agrees with her, and then she gets all this money, so she no longer has any excuse not to actually be awesome, and she totally blows it. (Man this sounds harsh. She doesn’t deserve Osmond, certainly. But on the other hand if she doesn’t somehow save Pansy–Pansy’s life is absolutely terrifying to me–then I can’t really forgive her.) I’d much rather hang with Kate Croy.

  2. John says:

    By the way, I love this book, though it probably doesn’t sound like it above!

    • Kat Asharya says:

      ha ha!! that makes sense re: isabel and osmond…she likely wanted to see herself with more of an “artistic” person and osmond talked a good talk. but i still don’t quite see it, but maybe that’s because we’re guided by james to see osmond as just a two-dimensional snake from the onset. which is such an odd narrative strategy, both for osmond and how we experience isabel.

      the class/money stuff can be hard to read because james is so veiled about nearly everything, but warburton is definitely old-money rich…like obscenely wealthy and well-off. he’s likely the “top” of the pyramid as a legit aristocrat, but that pyramid is quickly eroding with the growing economic might of the americans, etc…his world is pretty much going to vanish, and the novel is a bit oblique about it through veiled references to his support of “social reform.” the touchetts are wealthy but “new money” and of course, mostly americans, which means they will never quite wholly fit in. goodwood is an american capitalist type in the making: think carnegie, rockefeller, etc., someone who is going to be quite wealthy through industry, not inheritance. you can do a class reading of Portrait and say isabel doesn’t want to be subsumed by both the old order and the new one rising…so she picks osmond, who of course we know is a narcissistic snake, but an upscale bohemian-ish one maybe?

      isabel’s status is obliquely handled mostly in her backstory, and you have to quite read between the lines to get a bead on it. but essentially she is poor (esp. in relation to the circles in which she finds herself) with no real way of improving her station and no awareness of it, either. she grew up with negligent parents with what was likely a good degree of wealth and likely grew up with the complacence and blitheness that privilege allows for. but her father has essentially lost or spend (or likely gambled away) the money and died. i’ll have to look it up, but i believe it’s implied that her sisters help her out (though very invisibly) and she has some money left from her parents to live on, but that will run out. so isabel quite thinks of herself as privileged and wealthy still, and hasn’t taken any steps to get a real education, learn a trade or otherwise support herself, since she might likely assume she’ll be genteel forever. she is, in a way, in a bubble but has no idea she is in a bubble…the blithely unaware bubble of a princess mindset, perhaps. she perhaps thinks of herself as “above” henrietta in terms of station (since henrietta works for a living, after all.) but in reality she is probably closer than she thinks. and of course, in america there is no class (ahem), not like there is in england or europe, where people are keenly aware of such things.

      the thing about isabel is that she starts off as an american “girl,” which is definitely mostly by her potentiality and possiblities of growth and change. it’s what she is capable of doing that intrigues so many people. i mean, imagine if she really did become a feminist journalist…but like you said, she is more pretend-bold than real-bold, and you wonder actually if she is capable of struggle and hard work. and of course james makes very sure to note that she has a large capacity for imagination, fueled by her love of reading and her romantic imagination. but she never has the capacity for effort or action, for better or for worse, and never really strikes out to do something. in that way, you can read the book as a kind of feminist cautionary tale, which plenty of people have…a girl with a neglected education who was never taught anything of real value, in a world where ladies are primarily ornamental still despite changes in social position and generally prone to fantasizing instead of actualizing. i think she’s probably a disappointment to herself, really, so your characterization isn’t that far off!

      xo k.