Reading Matters: The Portrait of a Lady

One of the most engrossing books I’ve read lately – one of the most interesting books about writers and writing I think I’ve ever read – is Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel, which traces the processes by which Henry James wrote The Portrait of a Lady. Part-biography, part-criticism, part analysis of the ways in which James’ novel was published and the extent to which he revised the book at a later date. All fascinating.

Many of you will know the basic story: young American woman visiting Europe is hoist in the petard of her own much-proclaimed independence and trapped into a stifling marriage.

One of the few misreadings Gorra makes is when he suggests that, as readers, we go along, hoping against hope that our heroine has not misread her future husband, until the extent of her miscalculation is made clear.

I don’t think so. When my fifteen year old daughter asked me what I was reading and I mentioned the fact that the man Isabel has just met was a collector of fine objects, she said immediately that he was going to add her to his collection. Sharp girls, these Parli girls.

In the novel, James skips from before Isabel’s marriage to Osmond to a time some three years later, and when he does so, he leaves us in no doubt as to the depths to which her misreading of the man, and the situation, has led her.

Instead of leading to the high places of happiness, from which the world would seem to lie below one, so that one could look down with a sense of exaltation and advantage, and judge and choose and pity, it led rather downward and earthward, into realms of restriction and depression, where the sound of other lives, easier and freer, was heard as from above, and served to deepen the feeling of failure.

It had come gradually – it was not till the first year of her marriage had closed that she took the alarm. Then the shadows began to gather; it was as if Osmone deliberately, almost malignantly, had put the lights out one by one.

He said to her one day that she had too many ideas, and that she must get rid of them. He had told her that already, before their marriage, but then she had not noticed it; it came back to her only afterwards.

… he would have liked her to have nothing of her own but her pretty appearance.

… when, as the months elapsed, she followed him further and he led her into the mansion of his own habitation, then, then she had seen where she really was. She could live it over again, the incredulous terror with which she had taken the measure of her dwelling. Between those four walls she had lived ever since; they were to surround her for the rest of her life. It was the house of darkness, the house of dumbness, the house of suffocation. Osmond’s beautiful mind gave it neither light nor air.