It’s 1880. Henry James publishes ‘The Portrait of a lady” as a serial in a magazine to portray Isabel Archer, an American lady travelling in Europe to affront her destiny. The book has been considered a masterpiece ever since. Here are my top 20 reasons why this novel will always stay with me as a book of reference for outstanding fiction.
1. Its opening line: “Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” Sets the tone. Englishness, aristocracy, leisure: a comedy of manners. Between the lines, though, you can’t fail to notice an implied sinister touch -or, is it just me?- putting “agreeable” into question.
2. The visual clarity of the description of a “splendid summer afternoon” in its “perfect middle”: “Part of the afternoon had waned but much of it was left and what was left was of the finest and rarest quality.” Henry James’s prose makes sure from the first sentences you know what you are about to experience: literary language of the rarest quality, just like his splendid summer afternoon.
3. The exchange of pleasantries between the characters. Witty, literary crafted, not minimal neither redundant, natural enough but not prosaic, lively indicators of the characters’ rank and complexity.
4. Isabel Archer’s description of happiness as “a swift carriage of a dark night, rattling with four horses over roads that one can’t see-that’s my idea of happiness.”
5. The description of Madame Merle being “a woman of strong impulses kept in admirable order.”
6. The portraiture of Americans in Europe as free agents. Uninhibited, self-reliant and adventurous spirits, the new world in contrast to the old-established world, a cast of people their European peers feel inclined to look up to and shame at the same time.
7. Mrs. Touchett, being a “person of many oddities”, “a woman with an extreme respect for her own motives”, as Henry James would inform us early on. For having a way of her own “of which she was so fond, a way not intrinsically offensive- just unmistakably distinguished from the way of the others.” And as Henry James would have Madame Merle describe her to her niece: “Having no faults for your aunt means that one’s never late for dinner-that is for her dinner. It means that one answers a letter the day one gets it and that when one comes to stay with her one doesn’t bring too much luggage and is careful not to be taken ill. For Mrs Touchett those things constitute virtue.”
8. THE kiss between Gaspar Goodwood and Isabel Archer. It had to be given some two pages before the end of the novel. And it had to be as passionately hopeless and helpless as ever. This is as overtly carnal as Henry James’s literary and puritan conscience and his restraints of prudery would let him go, concerning the depiction of love scenes in the book. “His kiss was like white lightning, a flash that spread and spread again, and stayed; and it was extraordinarily as if, while she took it, she felt each thing in his hard manhood that had least pleased her, each aggressive fact of his face, his figure, his presence, justified of its intense identity and made one with this act of possession. So had she heard of those wrecked and under water following a train of images before they sink. But when darkness returned, she was free.” An eloquent scene of cinematic precision from the master of psychological realism.
9. Pansy. That “diminutive”, fragile girl- one of the most gracefully passive and subdued literature’s female characters.
10. Chapter 42, Isabel Archer’s vigil. “Sitting by the fire in the soundless saloon and long after the fire had gone out, hearing the small hours strike but with no danger of her feeling the cold because she was in a fever”, Isabel Archer catalogues her unhappiness, thinking and rethinking her marriage and everything that led to it. During that thought and revelation process, she sees clearly for the first time, she reaches conclusions, reading all this “as she would have read the hour on the clock-face.”
Chapter 42 would serve as a template for the narrative technique known as stream of consciousness, a term coined by the philosopher and Henry James’s brother William James and would be pushed to its limits by Marcel Proust, Virgina Wolf, James Joyce and other essentially modern writers. Of course here we don’t have the sometimes incoherent line of thought, both in content and in form, of those writers but an intelligible mental process of bringing consciousness alive to take over all other forces in its presence and not stop until it has reached a sense of complacency. Or just because “the clock struck four; she got up she was going to bed at last for the lamp had long since gone out and the candles burned down to their sockets.”
11. Its engaging outdatedness, an implicitness that speaks louder than modern blunt descriptions. The creation of a universe where two persons can be “unconsciously and familiarly associated” just because they are seated in a way no one would even bother to take notice of today. “What struck Isabel first was that he was sitting while Madame Merle stood; there was an anomaly in this that arrested her.” And, indeed, her instinct was not to blame.
12. Poor Ralph Touchett, the hands constantly fixed in his pockets. Isabels’ cousin whose “state of health had seemed not a limitation but a kind of intellectual advantage; it absolved him from all professional and official emotions and left him the luxury of being exclusively personal” is a key character of the novel the reader both admires and feels sorry for.
13. The old English country mansions and castles and Italian palazzos highlighting the characters’ inner lives. Gardencourt’s, Lockleigh’s, Palazzo Roccanera’s and Palazzo Crescentini’s facades and interiors are not only the settings where the action takes place but they are also values in themselves, standing for the characters choices and motives.
14. Ralph’s death-bed scene and his wise words to his cousin Isabel: “There’s nothing makes us feel so much alive as to see other die. That’s the sensation of life- the sense that we remain.” Ralph and Isabel are never closer, never more sincere and open to each other than during his last hours. The words and passions they exchange have the rare and violent quality of confession, the riot of expression, that took too long to materialize. Hence, their last-resort tone.
15. Gilbert Osmond, both a palpable character and a concept. Isabel Archer admits during her stream-of-consciousness revelation that “she had mistaken a part for the whole”, a part being Osmond’s charming elements and the whole being its egotistical nature. One of literature’s most captivating villains, no wonder why Isabel Archer succumbed to that “nonentity” deliberately and against all advice only to find out that deep inside that person was full of hatred and contempt for her and her “too many ideas”.
16. The comic relief characters of Henrietta Stackpole, of whom Henry James himself in the preface of the novel admits we have indubitably so much of- and Countess Gemini. Both are given key roles in the book apart from their unique presence per se. Comic, absurd, even hysterical (more in the case of the Countess), they are nonetheless full characters and not caricatures-that’s why we really indulge in their company.
17. Isabel’s assertion “I don’t wish to marry till I’ve seen Europe”. Innocent, child-like, american, modern, spirited at the same time.
18. Isabel Archer’s modernism. A lot has been written about Nora’s being the first modern woman in literary history when she slams the door in her family’s face to start all over again or Madame Bovary’s trying to break free from domestic entrapment but isn’t Isabel essentially modern in the face of her choices? It’s not only her decision to marry the man she wants against the opinion of the others but her choice to… live up to the original choice she had made although she can have it otherwise. Isabel Archer’s standing up to the choices she once committed to is at once modern, mature, tragic and liberating.
19. The culture of suitors, answering to missives, dressing up for dinners, having over guests, welcoming guests, showing guests out, the “awkward” waiting for the carriage and all that 1880 period drama stuff of the high-class which can only but make our imagination run wild.
20. For the sake of lines as “An Englishman is never so natural as when he’s holding his tongue” and “There’s no more usual basis of union than a mutual misunderstanding”.