Saturday, June 2, 2012
Portrait of a Lady for me will always remind me of the very specific time frame in which I read it. The book featuring Isabel Archer, an independent American, who is brought by her aunt to Europe to see the world, mirrrored a little too closely my life at the time that I was reading it. Why, do you ask? Whilst reading it I made several choices of independence that mirrored Isabel's and her story was not a happy one. I am hopeful I will have a different fate.
I guess the first thing I want to say is that even though Isabel's fate is not a happy one I really like her life philsophy. She wants to see life and know it for herself, which is something that I too aspire to. Here are some quotes along that tangent.
"her imagination was by habit ridiculously active; when the door was not open it jumped out the window. She was not accustomed indeed to keep it behind bolts."
"You want to see life"
"You want to drain the cup of experience"
"Her old habit had been to live by enthusiasm, to fall in love with suddenly perceived possibilities with the idea of some new adventure."
Isabel loved life and wanted to go out and see the world. For her, at the start of the novel, the world was a wide open space with plenty of opportunities for a young girl with an enquiring mind. We first find Isabel in America as her aunt discovers her curled up in her family library reading a book. I think that very scene alone endeared her to my heart.
Isabel ends up rejecting two marriage proposals. One from an English Lord and another from her American Sweetheart. It is a penniless collector who wins her heart but only wishes to keep her as one of the beautiful glittering objects in his museum-like home. Isabel realizes her fate two late and suffers in silence trying her best to live up to her husbands expectations that she hold only the views he wishes her to hold.
The book has some interesting things to say about marriage, most of them bitter.
"if one marries at all one touches the earth. One has human feelings and needs, one has a heart in one's bosom, and one must marry a particular individual"
"Who could say what men were looking for? They were looking for what they found"
"She had too many ideas for herself, but that was just what one married for, to share them with someone else"
I like the last sentiment and think that is true. In Isabel's case, however, her husband wanted to have everyone in his life subject to his wishes. Isabel is asked to sacrifice everything that she is in order to remain in a outwardly civil relationship with her husband. Mr. Osmond, her husband, also forces his daughter Pansy to do the same. After years in a convent, Pansy is brought out to see the world, but must not marry unless the prospective husband meets the high standards of beauty that her father sets out for his daughter.
The final moments of the book leave the reader feeling dissatisfied. Almost no one in the book is happy and it ends leaving the reader hanging wondering what the point of it all was. The only redeeming feature of the book is Ralph Touchett who is Isabel's cousin. A physically ill man, Ralph falls in love with his cousin and gives her the means she needs to explore the world to see what she will do with herself. By releasing her to her fate, he comes closest of anyone in the whole novel to actually representing a picture of true love. I was rooting for him the whole book and was happy there was a very least a token of recognition from Isabel of his love.
Here are some cute things the book has to say about love.
"Dear Isabel, life is better; for in life there's love"
"In such hours as this, what have we to do with pain? That's not the deepest thing; there something deeper"
"But love remains"
"Ah but, Isabel--ADORED"
Sigh. I wanted to so badly to love this book about free will and what we make with our lives, but I just couldn't do it. Both of Henry James' books have left me feeling nothing but the vanity of high flying morals and that real life, lived in the trenches is far better than holding rigidly to some philosophical ideal. I suppose since that is probably the point of the novel it succeeded in meeting it's purpose, but I can't say that I enjoyed the process!
Next up? Women in Love.