This is the sexiest novel of all time. You’re screwing up your face right now, I can tell. It is though, it’s sexy as fuck. People often want to tell you that Henry James’ greatest flaw was his lack of passion. Nabokov, If I recall correctly, labelled his work blonde. I don’t think he meant that in the way that modern readers would understand it i.e. as a synonym for dumb, but rather as one for bland. Katherine Mansfield once said of E.M. Forster that he was like a lukewarm teapot [ha!], and that description also seems to nicely sum up the prevailing attitude towards James. It’s wrong though, that attitude; I’ve read numerous Henry James novels and I am of the opinion that he was a firecracker, a sexual viper.
Read the first 100 pages of Portrait of a Lady and then try and convince me that the male characters don’t all want to bash Isabel’s doors in; and that she, likewise, wants them to, or enjoys giving the impression that she wants them to. You won’t succeed. I’m serious. If you can’t see it then I conclude that you can’t recognise extreme sexual tension when it’s under your nose. The flirting is outrageous! You might think all this is cute, like oh [P]’s being theatrical. I say again, I’m serious. It’s not as though I consider all so-called button-down and stuffy lit to be, in reality, hot shit; I mean, I’ve never claimed that Pride & Prejudice is really all about rimjobs and teabagging. There’s something about Henry James’ work, and this novel in particular, that seethes, writhes with unspoken frustration and desire. James’ art, the one thing that makes him stand out for me, is in how he somehow suggests, hints, implies but never outright tells you the juiciest bits of his story. It’s pretty magical really; I don’t know how to explain it; there’s a whole world beneath the surface of his work. In Portrait of a Lady I believe that world to be a sexual one. Why do all the male characters fall for Isabel? Because she is charming and pretty? Is she really all that, looks-wise? No, it’s because she gives the impression of being up for it; she’s, to put it more politely, sensual. She has great sex appeal, which is why she was not right for Lord Warburton, who is a bit of a sop and would make a conventional woman of her; by conventional i do not mean that he will not allow her to be herself, that he wishes to clip her emotional and intellectual wings, but that the match he is offering is conventional i.e. he is rich and handsome and terribly nice, and only a fool would turn him down.
Some people say that Portrait of a Lady is about freedom, and I agree, it is. But I think that involves sexual freedom also, although, of course, as stated, that is not made explicit. There’s a lot written in the beginning of the novel about Isabel’s independent spirit, about how she does not want to be tied down. Before she takes up with Gilbert Osmond the novel is strongly feminist in tone. This is because Isabel regards marriage as an impediment to her freedom, she rejects marriage [literally, she receives two proposals early on] as a barrier to her gaining experience [what kind of experience, huh? Huh?] and knowledge of the world. However, I would argue [as I am sure many would argue to the contrary] that the second half of the book, and by extension the whole book obviously, is feminist, because Isabel makes her choice, the one to marry Osmond, freely. It does not matter that it may be a bad choice, the important thing is that she rejected more beneficial matches in favour of the one that most pleased her. In fact Isabel says at one stage ‘to judge wrong is more honourable than to not judge at all.’
Isabel is one of the most fascinating characters I have ever encountered, because she is so extraordinarily complex, complex in a way that fictional people seldom are. She is strong-willed, arrogant, and yet thoroughly nice; she is perceptive and yet makes poor choices; she is warm and charming and yet sometimes stunningly cold; indeed, her rejections of Lord Warburton are flawless examples of smiling iciness, of jovial dismissiveness. Isabel falls for Gilbert Osmond, to my mind, partly because he does not mindlessly adore her, does not fawn over her. He is mysterious, indolent; there is the hint of a darker side. He appears to be tired of everything, bored of everything, and so that he is interested in Isabel seems like a huge coup; it speaks to her ego. It’s pretty straightforward psychology to want most the thing that appears to be able to live without you with the least trouble. Isabel also credits herself with an original intelligence, therefore one could perhaps say that she likes Osmond, sees something great in him, precisely because others do not. However, the irony, the tragedy of their union is that Osmond is himself utterly conventional and tries to force Isabel to be so; Osmond, out of an anti-conventionality sentiment, demands that she be the most conventional wife.
Madame Merle, who first earmarks Isabel for Osmond, is often regarded as one of literature’s great villains, which is not really the case, because James’ novels don’t contain true villains. Having said that, however, there is something vile about her, despite her never really doing anything to deserve the charge. It’s James’ great art again; he makes Madame Merle a masterpiece of quiet menace. You are dangerous, the Countess Gemini declares, as they chat together about the prospect of Osmond and Isabel uniting, and you quite well believe it, even without the accompanying evidence. Her entrance into the novel, her unannounced [to Isabel] presence in the Touchett’s home is strangely chilling. She is first encountered, sat with her back to Isabel, playing the piano; she strikes you as almost girlish, initially, despite her age. It made me shudder, and I don’t think I can express why that is. Ralph describes his aversion to her as being due to her having no black specks, no faults, and one understands that what he means by this is that only bad people appear to be perfectly good.
If Portrait of a Lady does not have a true villain, in the Dickensian sense of that word, it does at least have someone who it is very easy to hate [which is, of course, not quite the same thing]. As Isabel herself admits, Gilbert Osmond does not do a hell of a lot wrong – he does not beat her, for example – but there is certainly something disquieting about him, something not right. One only has to look to how he treats his daughter Pansy; he sees her as a kind of doll, one that is absolutely submissive to his will. She is entirely artless, which is interesting because Osmond approaches her like a work of art, as something that he has created, has formed out of his imagination; it is not a coincidence that Osmond is both an artist and a collector [he creates Pansy; he collects Isabel]. Pansy is, for me anyway, a little creepy; she is so in the way that dolls themselves are, in that they give the impression of being human, of being alive, and yet are lifeless. It is fair to say that while he may not be a wife-beater, Osmond’s attitudes towards women are suspect; he is a kind of passive-aggressive bully, a subtle misogynist.
Amongst other things Portrait of a Lady is a classic bad marriage[s] novel. The earliest indication of this is the relationship between Isabel’s Aunt and Uncle; the Uncle lives in England, and the Aunt in Florence. What kind of a marriage is that? Then there is, of course, Isabel and Gilbert. Isabel, as stated, marries Osmond, I believe, because she thrills to think that such a man might pay court to her, might be interested in her, when he takes so little interest in the world at large; she finds his attitude heroic, and his interest in her, therefore, as a boon to her sense of self-worth. Osmond, on the other hand, sees in her something that will do him credit, both financially and socially. He appreciates her, for all that she will benefit him, rather than truly loves her. This appreciation does involve admiring certain qualities she possesses, but he wants those qualities to work on other people, not on himself; for himself he would like her to be another Pansy [i.e. entirely submissive] and appears to think he can train her to be so. He enters the marriage, in a way that a lot of people do even now, believing that he can smooth her rough edges, make her perfect for him, instead of accepting and cherishing what she is. Finally, there is the courting of Pansy by Rosier and Warburton; Warburton as a Lord is, obviously, favoured by the girl’s father, but Pansy does not love him, she loves Rosier. While I won’t give away the outcome of this little love triangle, what is most interesting about it is that it again raises the question of whether one should marry to make the best match, or for love; should one use one’s head or heart when making the decision? Isabel used her heart, and came a cropper, but perhaps that was still for the best; it is better to choose with your heart and fail, than to choose with your head and benefit from it.