The Public Humanist

Reading Henry James

A couple of hundred pages into reading The Portrait of a Lady for the first time in at least twenty years, I worried that I was going to end up furious at Henry James, who wrote it. I really didn’t want to be mad at Henry James. That was not only because it would make the reading the book less enjoyable (and it’s a long book), but also because I was organizing an evening inspired by him as the kick-off event for the 2012/13 Local History/Local Novelists series at Forbes Library in Northampton. The evening (Wednesday, November 7, 7 pm) features Michael Gorra, author of Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece; Carole DeSanti, author of The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R; and Elise Bernier-Feeley, Local History and Genealogy Librarian at Forbes.

Henry James spent some time in Northampton and set the first couple chapters of his 1875 novel Roderick Hudson in the town. The wealthy protagonist of Roderick Hudson discovers a talented young sculptor here, and brings him to Europe to develop as an artist. Part of developing as an artist means to look for “the complete antipodes of Northampton.” In the course of the novel, James directs some less than flattering comments toward Northampton and its people. One woman, for instance, had three misfortunes: she had lost her husband, she had lost her money, and “third, she lived in Northampton, Massachusetts.” In Italy, the young sculptor sees a stunning young woman: “’If beauty is immoral, as people think at Northampton,’ said Roderick, ‘she is the incarnation of evil.’” And so on.

It’s an unfair charge that Northampton Calvinists found beauty immoral. Jonathan Edwards, Northampton’s famous eighteenth century preacher, for instance, made beauty central to his theology. In his preface to the 1908 edition of Roderick Hudson, James claimed that he had not “pretended so very much to ‘do’ Northampton Mass.” He also wrote that, on rereading, the first chapters of this novel published early in his career reminded him not of “the umbrageous air of their New England town” but of a piazza in Florence, Italy.

Be that as it may, in Roderick Hudson, James explores the relationship between a young male artist whisked away to Europe who degenerates into vice and inactivity and the man whose beneficence created the opportunity for that sad turn of events. The ending is melodramatic, but, as a novelist myself, the treatment of the self-centered temperament of someone whose work justifies his selfishness--if he does work that is--engaged and amused me. The theme is not dissimilar to the attention James brings in The Portrait of a Lady to the inner life of Isabelle Archer, a young American woman who is brought to Europe by her aunt. Isabelle is made wealthy at the urging of her cousin Ralph, who persuades his dying father to split half of his own bequest in the older man’s will with her, and she makes a disastrous marriage.

I worried that I would end Portrait angry, in part, because Isabelle has so much good fortune. Both of her parents are dead, it’s true, but not only do her sisters love her, but her long-lost aunt literally wanders in and brings her to Europe in order to expand her opportunities. She isn’t a beauty, but she’s attractive to everyone around her, and has a surfeit of marriage proposals. She’s got a big imagination and is full of ideas, if a trifle entranced with her good opinion of herself. All of that is before she becomes, quite unexpectedly, very wealthy.

I was tempted to feel envious, rather than charmed and sympathetic, which is clearly the intention of the author. I could feel Isabelle merging within me with my mental portrait of Henry James: a successful writer of widely-acknowledged genius--like me, homoerotic in desire--whose characters tend to live intensely privileged lives as American expatriates in Europe. When I was young, I had experienced reading James as very slow. Now, I was finding his sentences witty, sharp and full of life. I remembered reading the wonderful poet Judy Grahn’s essays in her 1979 book, Really Reading Gertrude Stein, in which she urged readers to consciously set aside envy of Stein’s privileged circumstances in order to more fully enjoy her work. That helped, and so did reading Michael Gorra’s exquisitely attentive new book, which brings much nuance and insight to both the life of the writer and also to all that he accomplished in his Portrait of a Lady.

Still, I remembered enough from my early reading of Portrait to know that things were about to go hideously wrong for Isabelle. As soon as she receives the money, she experiences it as a burden. Since the money is a central factor in attracting her malignant husband, Gilbert Osmond, to her, the case is there to be made that giving this young woman access to financial independence and the means to explore all that she wishes to do (Ralph says, “I call people rich when they’re able to meet the requirements of their imagination. Isabel has a great deal of imagination.”) comes close to being the ruin of her. It seemed to me that if the arc of the book were to destroy her through her inability to handle the abundance put before her, that this could be a very damaging image in a world where women still face major barriers to equal opportunity and compensation for work; to autonomy in our bodily lives, especially our sexual lives; and, simply by virtue of being women, to being recognized in our full humanity.

I did not, however, end up furious at Henry James. Through the strength of his writing and the depth of inner life that he gives Isabelle, he achieves what Gorra calls “a drama of the perceiving mind.” I believed in Isabelle’s perceptions as her own, that of a fully developed, powerful human being, and that made all of the difference. The portrait, too, of her controlling husband Gilbert Osmond is masterful in its evocation of how violent and terrifying the demand that one give up the self to another can be. “Her mind was to be his--attached to his own like a small garden-plot to a deer park.” The horror of this is evoked through Isabelle’s own insights:

It was the house of darkness, the house of dumbness, the house of suffocation. Osmond’s beautiful mind gave it neither light nor air; Osmond’s beautiful mind indeed seemed to peep down from a small high window and mock at her. Of course it had not been physical suffering; for physical suffering there might have been a remedy.

Gorra identifies the great crime in James as “that of imposing your will upon another person, of using him or her to implement your own desires.” Osmond does this. His former lover Madame Merle does, as well. Gorra makes the case that, in persuading his father to give Isabelle her damning fortune in order to “see her going before the breeze!,” Ralph commits a dangerous imposition, as well. I am not, however, convinced by the last act as an imposition of will.

Throughout the novel, Ralph, who is ill, is as ambivalent as Isabelle is about the prospect of his inheritance. Ralph receives that same amount of money that Isabelle does. His bequest from his father is traditional and socially sanctioned. Does that put him in the same kind of moral danger in which it seems to put Isabelle? And he does with half of his inheritance (before he receives it) exactly what Isabelle does with all of hers: he turns it over to another sensibility. He chooses her like she chooses Osmond, absent only the element of manipulation of Ralph by Isabelle. Is that immoral or is it not? There are questions under that question about the distribution of wealth and whose lives and wills matter. If I were having a heart-to-heart talk with Henry James, I would ask him about Isabelle’s maid, who is described as “discreet, devoted and active.” She helps Isabelle leave Italy against her husband’s will to go see Ralph on his deathbed. This “excellent person,” Isabelle’s maid, is not given a name. Has she been used to implement James’s desires for Isabelle? Gorra says that James “also and always suggests that his secondary characters have a case and a claim of their own; they are valuable in themselves, and not for what one can get out of them. People are an ends, not a means, and the novel as a form explores the gap between that ideal state in which they are not to be used and a world in which they always are.”

At least, it’s something to try to achieve.

Carole DeSanti’s novel, The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R., with its story of a goose girl forced into prostitution in Second Empire Paris, is instructive in the matter of how the world looks from a different place in the class hierarchy. Her Eugénie might be a less respectable sister to Portrait’s Madame Merle, both of them with daughters they cannot claim, fighting tooth and nail to keep in some kind of contact, and to work for the advantages of those children they each lost to more or less formal social rules, ruthlessly enforced. Madame Merle keeps a knife ready in her mind as surely as Eugénie keeps one in her boot.

Isabelle takes her insights, her growth as a person, her autonomy, and, finally, an experience of her own physical desire into the difficulties of her future. Gorra is eloquent on Isabelle’s experience of desire when Caspar Goodwood kisses her after he attempts to persuade her to stay away from her husband to be with him. Gorra writes movingly about James’s extraordinary revisions to Portrait, as well as much of the rest of his work, in 1908. He gives a rich, satisfying study of all that James must have needed to read, consider, experience and brave in order to revise the kiss to affect Isabelle as it does. Gorra’s examination of that response is a gift of time spent with his book, and with James’s book as well. I won’t try to summarize it here. I do want to say, though, that Gorra writes that one of the reasons that Isabelle, in the famous open ending to the novel, goes back to Rome where her husband is, is to get away, not only from Goodwood, “but also from her own desire.”

I read it differently. I see Isabelle taking her desire with her, alive in her body, along with her own mind and her powerful ability to choose. She may or may not express that desire in the future, but she has it and knows it. I was not angry when I finished The Portrait of a Lady. I was engaged, with my sensibilities aroused. It is a promising state in which to turn back to the world.

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