THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY by Henry James: From the Lakeview Book Club

Notes from The Lakeview Branch Library Book Club's discussion of The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, a gripping psychological novel of kindness, manipulation, betrayal and the strength to deal with this in an American expatriate world in Europe during the last half of the 19th century.

The Portrait of a Lady Henry James's grandfather immigrated to the United States in 1789 and was a successful venture capitalist, who owned a canal and made a fortune. The grandfather had 3 wives and 16 children.

Henry's father inherited wealth and was a philosopher. There were five children in the family. Henry was the second child. His sister was an invalid, who only lived to her early 40s. Henry traveled extensively with his family.

Henry was not the only famous James from that family. His brother William was the very famous psychologist. It is said that William wrote psychology as if it were fiction, and Henry wrote fiction as if it were psychology. Both William and Henry were Calvinists, but we didn't see evidence of a religious point of view in this novel.

Portrait of a Lady is considered to be the best of the novels of Henry James. Henry's insight into the lives and emotions of his characters is stunning. His use of language is lyrical. Susan cited where Isabel sees a private conversation taking place between Ms. Merle and Mr. Osmond as the peak psychological scene of hidden meaning where the reader is left in suspense to figure out what the two villains were plotting.

That observation launched us into a discussion of Ms. Merle. We all had mixed feelings about her. Yes, she was evil, but since James didn't really explain all the steps that led her to be that way, we wondered if she were driven to her malevolent choices by her lot in life. Some thought she was a sad character.  In fact, we noted that James leaves us with many, many questions. One person pointed out that James used an ellipsis plot device of skipping over steps in the plot, leaving them unaddressed intentionally. One of the plot points we wanted to know more about was Isabel’s relationship with Goodwood before she moved to Europe. Also, why did she reject him before the book even started? What happened to Ms. Merle’s husband? Was he alive or dead? How did Pansy end up in Osmond’s care? What were the circumstances of Osmond’s and Ms. Merle’s affair? How did the death of Isabelle’s child affect Isabelle and Osmond? After hundreds of pages of delicious writing and detailed description, we wanted to know more!

One person mentioned that Ms. Merle's name meant black bird. That observation led us to Ms. Gemini, who was described as a bird with a beaklike nose, which led us to the deliberate and descriptive choices of names. Mr. Goodwood, who we all liked, seemed the most masculine of Isabel's suitors and his name gave rise to chuckles. Another example of a name that has a meaning is Isabel, who "is a belle."

We found Ms. Gemini very interesting. Though she seemed like a dimwit at times with her scattered conversations, she knew the dirt and had lived through difficult times with her philandering husband. She eventually laid out the truth to Isabelle regarding Ms. Merle and Osmond.

The character of Ms. Stackpole was interesting to us. She truly was an independent woman, self-supporting and free to travel, yet her character, though perhaps less flawed in some ways than Isabel’s, seemed somewhat superficial. She provided some comic relief and insights that were ignored by Isabel.

The history and politics of the world at the time did not intrude on the insulated world of the wealthy and near wealthy expatriates. The Civil War in the United States was taking place during James’ life, yet there is never a reference to that upheaval and carnage. That surprised us.

We also wondered why James chose a female to be a protagonist for his novel. One member of our group thought that James identified with the lot of the female world. For men at that time, the typical choices in life were business, military or religious life. James, a writer, was in the world of the arts, often perceived as more feminine choice.

We wondered about Osmond’s courtship of Isabel. Did he really find her desirable for anything more than her money? Though we get to know Osmond as a miserly, controlling and an emotionally abusive husband and father, we noted that he had charm when he needed it. In fact Isabel thought he was “poor, noble and lonely.”  He thought that Isabel would settle into a submissive role after marriage. Though Isabel certainly tried to be a submissive dutiful wife, ultimately, we thought she would break with Osmond in a stark and final way.

We discussed how the major characters were introduced to us through descriptions of their homes. The description that felt the most unsettling was Osmond’s house. It was dark and filled with his collection of art work and left one with the feeling that once inside, there was no escape. Isabelle became a piece of property of Osmond's, the same as his valuable pieces of art.

We noted that Pansy’s true love, Rosier, was also a collector of fine art. In order to prove to Osmond that he had enough wealth to marry Pansy, he sold his entire collection. Instead of being impressed by the wealth, Osmond was pleased that those pieces of art were now available for purchase!  Pansy was also part of Osmond’s collection.

Isabelle changed considerably from the beginning to the end of the novel, a span of around five years. She was self-centered, independent and naïve. Over time she learned to distrust Merle, upon whom she relied to show her the way of the European world and society. She came to understand that she was used by Merle and her husband. She was strong enough at the beginning to reject suitors who did not appeal to her, but was naïve enough to not understand the malevolent nature of Osmond and Merle, even after being warned about them. Ultimately she understood that Osmond truly hated her. We thought that Isabel needed the betrayal in order to grow. By the end of the novel Isabel defied Osmond by seeing the dying Touchett. She was her strongest there. 

It was interesting to us how James resolved the lives of the suitors. Goodwood, who never stopped loving Isabel, ultimately married  someone else, much to the chagrin of our heroine. Warburton, who was probably 40 years older than Pansy, courted her. We thought he did this to be near Isabel, perhaps putting a subtly incestuous vibe on the possible union.

Ralph Touchett and the narrator seemed to understand the most about all aspects of the story. Ralph loved his cousin Isabel and perhaps was in love with her, but he seemed to be asexual, perhaps because of his illness. He set into motion all the possibilities in Isabel's life by seeing that she became wealthy through inheritance. He lived long enough to see Isabel marry Osmond and to provide Osmond with the funds he needed to continue collecting art and to support the lovely Pansy. In other words, ironically, Isabel helped Osmond the same way Ralph helped her.

This novel was serialized in The Atlantic Monthly. Every chapter ended in suspense and anticipation for the reader. The novel ended the same way, frustrating all of us. In spite of two different endings in different editions, we will, alas, never find out if Isabelle regains her independence, rescues her stepdaughter and at long last finds true love. Perhaps James’ unresolved endings are more realistic than our desire for closure and happy endings. After all, we are all flawed. Fate intrudes. We make poor decisions. We reap the consequences of those decisions and move on. None of us ever really knows what comes next. Do we really want to know?

Obviously this novel struck a harmonic chord with us all. Many  We were all moved and caught up in this gripping story. Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady confirms why a classic earns that name.


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