Sunday, May 20, 2012

So as to choose.

The Portrait of a Lady...where to start? I finished this book the other evening, sitting on the front porch in the light of a beautifully dying day. The lighting was strangely in company with the bittersweet ending. My favorite character died as the sun sank behind a hill and the sunset color spread across the canopy of the sky like a fond farewell.
I also got bit by a spider.
(But that is beside the point.)
I am not much  good at plot summary so I took Wikipedia's words to show you:
The Portrait of a Lady is the story of a spirited young American woman, Isabel Archer, who "affronts her destiny" and finds it overwhelming. She inherits a large amount of money and subsequently becomes the victim of Machiavellian scheming by two American expatriates.
The book begins with young Isabel Archer, about nineteen years of age. A long-estranged aunt "adopts" her as a pet project and takes her home to England where Isabel meets her cousin, Ralph Touchett--a life-long invalid--and her uncle, Mr. Touchett: an American millionaire. She soon wins them over with her charm...wins them and their neighbor, Lord Warburton.
But when Lord Warburton proposes, Isabel do not accept--she has bigger aims in life. She wants to see the world, and though she loves Lord Warburton as a friend, she is not willing to marry him. Another suitor comes to claim her hand--one Caspar Goodwood whom Isabel has known from childhood. However, she is not willing to marry him either.
Instead, Isabel's Uncle Touchett dies, and (through Ralph's kindness) Isabel inherits a large fortune. She goes abroad and ends her two-year "independence" by marrying Gilbert Osmond--a man she is convinced must be the finest, most artistic, and clever man to walk the face of the earth.
But there were many things Isabel had misunderstood about this man and she has not been married many months before she becomes perfectly miserable.
Her friends crowd around her, trying to ascertain that she is happy in her new life, but Isabel is too proud to admit her defeat and misery and hides all from them, realizing only too late who it was that loved her, and whom she loved.

This sounds like a bleak plot for a book. Honestly, I mean, a miserable young woman trapped in a horrible marriage? Nevertheless, in The Portrait of a Lady Henry James showed a stellar knowledge of human nature and great skill in showing it. I found myself constantly intrigued by the...well...portraits of so many different characters...

 Driven, passionate, loyal Caspar Goodwood. 
Noble, beautiful, kind Lord Warburton. 
Weak, clever, gentle, loving Ralph Touchett. 
Scheming, cold, malicious Gilbert Osmond.
Deceptive, manipulating Madame Merle.

They were each distinct, accurate portraits of humanity that cut me to the heart and pieced me back together again. Even Isabel herself surprised me with the way she managed to be submissive and independent all at once. Strong as iron and weak at the same time. She truly was a woman of contradictions, and I loved and pitied her as much as I've ever loved and pitied any character.
The other intriguing element of this book was the fact that the characters you had at first viewed rather as threats to the plot changed after Isabel's marriage. You soon viewed them as her only friends, and valuable ones at that.

The writing of this book ran a little to the philosophic, or rambling side of things now and again, but as a lesson in character-study, it was unrivaled. The ending, however, left me winded. Things come to a head with Gilbert and Isabel. His cruelty and deception, her realization of this...Isabel defies her husband's command not to go to England to comfort her cousin on his deathbed. She arrives at Gardencourt just in time to say goodbye to Ralph. In one of the most touching scenes of the entire book Ralph tells her he loves her and that it was he who had made his father leave her the money...he apologizes for it, knowing that money was the only reason Gilbert Osmond married Isabel. The cousins are finally united in spirit again for the first time since Isabel's marriage, I began to look out for a telegram saying Gilbert had been killed, and then Ralph would get well and they would be wed and then...and then...and then Ralph died. *begins to tear up* It was inevitable, but so so sad.
That same evening Caspar Goodwood comes to ask Isabel to leave her cruel, unfaithful husband and let him take care of her.
Isabel refuses...returns to Italy...and the book ends.

After reading the last words I closed the book and gazed, slightly stunned, at the last embers of the sunset. Was I satisfied? Did the book end well? My heart ached deeply for Isabel, being faithful even to her devil of a husband. For her loss of Ralph...for it all. And yet I was glad Henry James stopped the book when he did. Doubtless there would have been developments that would have disappointed me. It is better this way.

So the final verdict on The Portrait of a Lady? A fascinating picture of trans-atlantic, American life in the 1800's, a stellar character-study, and a touching, sorrowful plot. I would recommend this book to anyone who feels they are up for a well-spun tale despite its lack of a happy ending.

Bits of beauty:

“I always want to know the things one shouldn't do.""So as to do them?" asked her aunt."So as to choose." said Isabel” 
*   *   *

“I don't care about anything but you, and that's enough for the present. I want you to be happy--not to think of anything sad; only to feel that I'm near you and I love you. Why should there be pain? In such hours as this what have we to do with pain? That's not the deepest thing; there's something deeper.” (sniff-sniff)

*   *   *

“She envied Ralph his dying, for if one were thinking of rest that was the most perfect of all. To cease utterly, to give it all up and not know anything more - this idea was as sweet as a vision of a cool bath in a marble tank, in a darkened chamber, in a hot land. ... but Isabel recognized, as it passed before her eyes, the quick vague shadow of a long future. She should never escape; she should last to the end.” 

*   *   *

“For all I know,he may be a prince in disguise; he rather looks like one, by the way- like a prince who has abdicated in a fit of magnanimity, and has been in a state of disgust ever since.” 

1 comment:

Bookworm said...

Recently I just got this book and am already liking it. :)
God bless!