The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, a brief summary and two questions

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…she (Isabel’s aunt) is horrified at my contenting myself with a person who has none of Lord Warburton’s great advantages – no property, no title, no honours, no houses, nor lands, nor position, nor reputation, nor brilliant belongings of any sort. It is the total absense of all these things that pleases me. Mr. Osmond is simply a man – he is not a proprietor!”

I have finally finished The Portrait of A Lady, and I have two questions: why did Isabel Archer marry Gilbert Osmond? And, why did she plan to return to him on the very last page? I am all the more eager to discuss this with you, and to continue with John Banville’s interpretation of Isabel’s story in Mrs. Osmond, as Henry James leaves us with Isabel’s life quite unresolved.

In the very briefest of summaries, Isabel Archer has been brought from her home in America to England by her aunt. She immediately forms strong attachments to her cousin, Ralph, and her uncle. She is also courted by Lord Warburton, a wealthy man who has been smitten by Isabel’s charms. Back home she has left Caspar Goodwood, another suitor who lives in New England. There is no shortage of people who admire Isabel. In fact, her cousin is so taken by her that he begs his father to leave her an enormous part of the family fortune upon his death. When Madame Merle, a friend of Isabel’s aunt, learns of Isabel’s inherited fortune, she leads her into a marriage with Gilbert Osmond, an odious man with a most lovely daughter who seems in such stark contrast to her wretched father. When Ralph lies dying of consumption, Isabel tells her husband she must go to his bedside, and she is firmly forbidden to do so. Yet in a brave act of independence, she leaves Rome for Gardencourt, in England, and learns that it has been Ralph who bestowed his fortune upon her, not his father as Isabel thought. The Portrait of A Lady ends with Isabel returning to Rome, to her dreaded life with an appalling man.

So, why did she marry Gilbert Osmond in the first place? Because she was young and naive? Because she was led to it by the manipulations of an older woman with dark intent? Isabel would not listen to those around her whom she loved and trusted, such as her cousin Ralph. Instead she listened to Serena Merle, who manipulated Isabel into this marriage for her own purposes. Henry James never once says that Isabel loved Osmond, and what I come away with is that she felt coerced into this marriage by those whom she trusted, but scarcely knew.

Gilbert Osmond was the one who caught her, put her in a cage so to speak, as her cousin Ralph feared he would. Osmand had a contempt for everyone but a very few, and “for everything in the world but half a dozen ideas of his own.” It would be a wretched prison to find oneself in, married to a man with such superior views in direct contrast with one’s own. Poor Isabel, her imagination, her vivacity, is squelched under our very eyes. It is as if Osmand is trying to put her to death.

I admire her greatly for going to her cousin’s bedside despite her husband forbidding her to do so. It was something she needed to do as a decent human being, something she needed to do for herself and her beloved cousin as he lay dying. But, to turn the final page and discover that she is on her way back to Rome, back to Osmond, is quite alarming. Does she feel she has no other choice? Is she imprisoned not only by her husband, but by the social mores of her time? If there was any help to be had by being independently wealthy, now would be the time to claim those favors. For inheriting a fortune has been of no help whatsoever to her life thus far.

Tell us what you think, JoAnn, Audrey, Helen and Jillian. Arti has put up a wonderful post on Ripple Effects, and Lisbeth has put up a lovely post on The Content Reader.  I would love to continue a discussion with any thoughts I may have missed.

24 thoughts on “The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, a brief summary and two questions

  1. 1. Osmond is interesting. Possibly that also means sexually interesting, unlike the rest of the men she knows (Jane Campion pushes that idea). It is also possible to take her own explanation, about what she wants to do with her money, seriously.
    2. Isabel is a stubborn cuss. She is going back to defeat her husband. If she is imprisoned, it is by her vow to save young what’s-her-name.

    Henry James’s father inherited a staggering fortune, and it was a character-destroying curse. Henry and William did better with the (much, much smaller) fortune they inherited. Ralph’s semi-selfless action had evil effects.

    Anyway, some possible answer to your questions. The novel is purposefully ambiguous, especially on these points.

    Which edition did you read, by the way, the original or the 1910 revision? I could not believe how different they are.

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  2. It is always so good to hear from you, Tom; I value your input tremendously.

    The fact that Isabel is a stubborn cuss resonates most strongly with me. I found myself admiring her greatly, as she grew up and operated both in strength and courage.

    It was especially interesting to pick up Mrs. Osmand by John Banville immediately after finishing Portrait. I wanted to see what he did with Isabel’s story, and I wasn’t disappointed. Here are the SPOILERS of his work:

    1. Isabel pays for Serena Merle to return to Italy so that she can live right under Osmand’s nose, that the scent of each other might become odious indeed.
    2. Pansy, the lovely, sweet daughter of the above-mentioned pair becomes as rancid as her mother.
    3. Isabel withdraws a huge portion of her fortune to “buy” separation from Osmond and live an independentt life.

    It was wonderful, because it further develops Isabel as a “stubborn cuss” in Banville’s eloquent style which followed James’ nicely.

    p.s. I have returned my copy of both to the library, and I did not think to check when Portrait was published. How can the editions of a classic book, written originally in English, differ so greatly? It’s not like a great perfume… 😉

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    1. Oops, 1908 edition, not 1910. James did a significant rewrite of the novel when he was preparing his book for the big “collected works” New York Edition. He added a lot, especially metaphorical language. I have only read the original, plainer version. Next time I will read the re-write.

      I have read quite a lot of Banville, 13 books, but none for a while. Glad to here you enjoyed the new one. The style and sensibility, James to Banville, are good fits.

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  3. Jillian

    But, to turn the final page and discover that she is on her way back to Rome, back to Osmond, is quite alarming.

    She might not be. I think Mr. James leaves this open to interpretation. She might be going back for his daughter.

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    1. I like how James leaves it open! It was a perfect novel for John Banville to pick up with his own interpretation, and it is good for us to discuss as readers. You have an interesting idea, that Isabel might might not be heading back for Gilbert at all, but for Pansy instead. John Banville’s “sequel” has Pansy becoming a bitter, disappointed girl, feeling that Isabel abandoned her, and your idea would certainly assuage those feelings within her. I prefer that choice to returning, dociley, to her awful husband.

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  4. I’m glad you enjoyed Portrait of a Lady; it’s one of my favorites, and I’ve been a little doubtful about reading Banville’s continuation so it’s encouraging to see you like it. It’s fair to say, I think, that Isabel would never have married Osmond with open eyes. She doesn’t know him very long before their marriage, and, of course, she has no idea of the connections between Madame Merle, Osmond, and Pansy because she’s a stranger to their social milieu. Osmond played a part, maybe a little unwillingly, because of the money. So much of his cruelty is psychological so not necessarily easy to spot any way. I always thought she returned at the end partly because she promised Pansy she would and partly because she wouldn’t run away from the problem of her marriage. I’ve been thinking of rereading The Ambassadors, but maybe it’s time to reread Portrait of a Lady.

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    1. This is the first time I’ve read anything by Henry James, although I’ve been meaning to read The Turn of The Screw and I tried The Wings of The Dove which I abandoned. Maybe I’ll try that one again, now that I’ve read Portrait.

      Osmond is so cruel psychologically; James does a masterful job in portraying his sarcasm and critical, selfish nature which is so very piercing. I agree that Isabel married him with her eyes not fully opened, along with what others have called her stubbornness or desire to be independent. How ironic that in marrying him she became anything but independent!

      Also, I think going back for Pansy’s sake was another huge reason for her return. I highly recommend Banville’s work as a follow up; I think you would really enjoy it.

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    1. I have not been aware that James leaves more questions than answers (I am not really very familiar with his work at all!). I enjoyed reading your post quite a bit, and thank you for participating in the read along. The comments that you and other have made enrich my experience, my understanding, immeasurably.

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  5. Thanks for asking these two questions, Bellezza. Allow me to join in the discussion. I reread certain sections. I think Chapter 24 drops a lot of hints, and explicitly so, explaining why Isabel is totally at awe with Gilbert Osmond when she visits his hill-top villa (which he rents, BTW) in Florence. First off, coming from a parochial background, Isabel had always wanted to see Europe. So even when she was in England, accepting an invite from Mm Merle to visit Florence, the centre of art and culture, was a no-brainer. Further, meeting Osmond where he was most comfortable, right in his artist home, showing her his treasures, it’s easy to be hooked. Here are some descriptions from that chapter.
    About Florence, Osmond says: “Thus there were advantages in living in the country which contained the greatest sum of beauty. Certain impressions you could get only there.”
    She’s mesmerized by Osmond’s treasures, “…and her eyes wandered over the things scatter about her… his pictures and cabinets all looked like treasures.”
    “His pictures, his medallions and tapestries were interesting; but after a while Isabel felt the owner much more so…”
    So, from the treasures now to the owner: “She had never met a person of so fine a grain…” then James goes on to describe what beauty she sees in Osmond physically. “these personal points struck our sensitive young woman as signs of quality; of intensity, somehow as promises of interest… his taste… that was what made him so different from every one else.
    Alas, she’s hooked. From the physical, the outward manifestation of taste, she’d even deducted that “… Mr. Osmond continued to be the kindest… he led her from one fine piece to another and still held his little girl by the hand.”
    Sure, Isabel is naive, and a little delusional, and a little rebellious to get away from the conventional, Osmond seems a very good choice indeed.
    The second question, ironically, she goes back due to her sense of duty and propriety, as she has promised Pansy she will. I’m sure she’d like to go back and protect her if not to rescue her. As for her marriage, it could be her own pride: if she stays away, she’s just admitting failure and her own misjudgement. But I think she’s more bound by duty and convention. A complex creature Isabel Archer is.
    I’m sorry this is so long. Thanks so much for initiating the read-along and posing these Q’s. 🙂

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    1. Don’t ever be sorry for a “long” reply; you point out such interesting things! I love how you quoted so many passages which point to Isabel’s appreciation of art and culture and the expansion of her growth intellectually, artistically. Those passages certainly point to one of the key reasons she was initially besotted with Gilbert. His cruelty was not readily apparent in the beginning…

      And it makes so much sense to me that she would return for Pansy’s sake. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think that Isabel and Pansy resemble each other. They are sweet and kind and thoughtful and eager to learn. Banville shows us another side of Pansy which can only be expected to emerge when one considers her parentage. I highly recommend reading Mrs. Osmond if you have the chance.

      Thank you, as always, for your insightful response(s).

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        1. I didn’t realize you disliked it quite so much. He does repeat himself, to be sure, and perhaps that annoys us as it is right on the heels of reading Portrait. While I was reading Mrs. Osmond, I loved it, got bored, and then loved it again. So weird, but I ended up admiring where he took Isabel’s story.

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  6. Unsurprisingly, I have been completely rubbish about this and am not even halfway through despite enjoying it very much indeed. I’ve marshalled my initial thoughts for a first post and have written it and am letting it settle a bit. The trouble is there is SO MUCH to write about – I think you could write an essay on practically every paragraph James writes it is so rich.

    So I haven’t even met Osmond yet and I can’t comment on that. The Isabel I’ve encountered so far is concerned with her freedom, convinced that she is special (but then, who isn’t? :)) and unafraid to air her own opinions. I’m having difficulty imagining that she could be coerced; but then, who knows, she is ‘untried’ – or hasn’t suffered yet, as Ralph and James so charmingly point out. Do you think she believes that she can ‘rescue’ Osmond?

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    1. It was not a fast, nor entirely enjoyable, read for me. I found it quite tedious, and pushed myself to finish as I had initiated the read-along, so I am not terribly surprised you call your reading “rubbish”. (Don’t be hard on yourself! You have come this far!)

      There is much to write about, much to consider in all the pieces that James lays out before us. I could read it again with a keener eye for Isabel and Osmond, to tie together my questions more thoroughly.

      I don’t think she is as concerned about “rescuing” Osmond has holding up her own head, Or, maybe rescuing Pansy. But, I think she is interested in retribution, as Banville cleverly writes in his novel Mrs. Osmond. That might be well worth your picking up, and it is not nearly as long seeming as The Portrait of a Lady was for me. Which doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth the effort, it was just tedious in places for me.

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      1. I find myself oddly unwilling to pick it up (this is complicated by the fact that, unusually for me, I have other books on the go which must be returned to the library soon) but once I do I am always completely absorbed.

        I’m now wondering if there’s a thread there about bright young women being failed by marriage: Mrs Touchett, Isabel, perhaps Pansy?

        if you’re thinking of reading more Henry J, I think you might enjoy Washington Square more, or perhaps What Maisie Knew. But I haven’t read an awful lot of his work myself…

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        1. Ah, an interesting thread! I never thought to compare the women until we started talking. Even Serena is abysmal at relationships, unable even to make it work with her lover…

          Thanks for the suggestion of where to follow Henry James next.

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          1. Well thank YOU for this opportunity to discuss the book! It is so much more fun than just reading something and posting about it.

            I haven’t reached Serena yet, but I have just met Madame Merle (also, it seems, unhappily married in the past).

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              1. Ha ha – I was sitting on the bus when I read ‘Serena’ and realised that she was Madame Merle! But I was far from my computer so have only just been able to come back here. Oops. You haven’t spoiled anything at all; indeed, she has already been quite spiky with Mrs Touchett and Ralph. 🙂

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