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.

Snow Day, a day to catch up

How lovely it is to sit by my window, leisurely, with my tea and time. There is a Snow Day today in Illinois, the first my third graders have ever had in their young school days. We have prepared our Valentine bags for next week, and folded origami hearts, so I am not worried about being behind. (Wink, wink.)

Nor am I worried about being behind in my reading. I am listening to The Dry by Jane Harper on the days that I do drive to work. It is a wonderful mystery recommended by Lesley, set in a farming community in Australia, read in by a native Australian, and I am caught up in the shootings of Luke, his wife and son, while the baby Charlotte lives. More interesting is the story of Luke’s friend, Aaron Falk, a policeman with a past. The narrator keeps saying, “Luke lied. You lied,” throughout the chapters…

And The Portrait of a Lady read-along is faring well. Arti of Ripple Effects has ready finished both The Portrait of a Lady and Mrs Osmond, a goal I’m trying to reach this month myself. JoAnn and Audrey are listening to the audio of Portrait, which I believe is also synced to their kindles, and Helen and I are steadfastly plugging along. Right now, I am aware that no one in Isabel’s family wants her to marry Osmand, but I don’t yet know why. Please feel free to read with us this month.

Finally, the shadow jury for the Man Booker International Prize is forming, and we are eagerly anticipating the release of the long list on March 12. The short list comes out April 12, and the winner will be announced May 22. Updates on our progress, and my reviews of the books, will soon appear here.

I hope your days are filled with snow, or at least the beauty and freshness it brings, and that you have plenty of time to enjoy whatever it is you are reading.

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James; some favorite quotes so far, which pertain to Isabel. But also, in some respects, to me.

“It is not absolutely necessary to suffer; we were not made for that.”

“Like the majority of American girls, Isabel had been encouraged to express herself; her remarks had been attended to; she had been expected to have emotions and opinions. Many of her opinions had doubtless but a slender value…”

“But for me there are only two classes: the people I trust, and the people I don’t.”

“Her desire to think well of herself always needed to be supported by proof; though it is possible that this fact is not the sign of a milder egotism.”

“I don’t want to begin life by marrying. There are other things a woman can do.”

“She had moreover a great fondness for intervals of solitude, and since her arrival in England it had been but scantily gratified. It was a luxury she could always comand at home, and she had missed it.”

“I don’t need the aid of a clever man to teach me how to live,” said Isabel. “I can find it out for myself.”

“…she had tasted of the delight, if not of battle, at least of victory; she had done what she preferred.”

“The love of knowledge coexisted in her mind with a still tenderer love of ignorance.”

I am only on page 205 of 584, but these little gleanings are giving me a picture of Isabel, and a foretaste of what might come with her naive and youthful perspective. Remember you are welcome to join several of us as we read The Portrait of A Lady this February.

Suggestion for a read along this February, please join in!

When I posted this picture on Instagram, one or two friends said they wanted to read it. But, as it is a sequel to The Portrait of A Lady by Henry James, there was discussion of reading that first.

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And so I propose a read-along of  The Portrait of A Lady in February. We could take as long as necessary, just read it sometime during the month and discuss it at the end. Of course, feel free to post about it as you go, or offer any other suggestions to the read-along in the comments below, but I am excited about it. Because Mrs Osmand is so good, and I want to remind myself of what came before.

Are you in?