Friday, July 13, 2007

More than Meets the Eye: Review of The Portrait of a Lady, and Rethinking Henry James

I've finally managed to finish reading the mammoth of a work that is Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady, after having first attempted the task about ten years ago. I never could dive into it then, or the few other times over the years when I took it up again, and I almost gave up on it this time as well. I would have resigned it to mold in the the dusty shelves of unreadable literature in the repertoire of my mind, had I not been encouraged, a while ago, to give up my former prejudice of James.

A few months ago I endured the ordeal of reading What Maisie Knew, which turned me off from James' other works altogether. If I had earlier wanted proof about how odious his works seemed to me, I thought I had it this time. But alas! I was mistaken. An English professor heard of my experiences with Maisie and my distaste for James, and being an Americanist and an ardent James fan herself, she handed me her own copy of The Portrait of a Lady, peered into my eyes, and almost made me promise to give it a good try. Inwardly, I refused to yield, and the book lay where she had left it for a month, by which time she happend to see it, and asked me how I found it. I fumbled for words, making excuses for a busy schedule and the heat of the summer and such nonsense, until her smile fell, she looked at me askance, and said she was sorry and won't ask me again.

A few weeks ago, however, lacking a good book to read, I found James' book and flicked it open to reaffirm my triumph in being right about what a bore it would be. However, I was drawn, somehow, from the first page. It wasn't convoluted like Maisie. And I was genuinely interested in the main characters, though I agree some were "odious" and usettling. I've discovered that James' characters, to me at least, aren't very likeable. They are mostly lofty and distant. However, it's his acute perception of the events in their lives that illuminates the human consciousness that we all share, which makes one reach out to such cold, suave, and often manipulative, characters.

Although I'd agree that James could have made The Portrait half its length, I still think that, if it had to be that long, one ought to read it simply because of the last few chapters. That is where the secrets are revealed and events spiral to a climax. It is the two secrets at the core of the novel that I want to focus on in this post.

The first is Pansy's parentage, and how it links to Isabel, and the second is Isabel's learning that her cousin was the agent of her (mis)fortune.

Like Isabel, even the readers aren't fully aware of the the manipulations of Osmond and Madame Merle, until the very end. James has the satisfaction of manipulating his readers, so that we feel like Isabel in the end. While reading the book, I wondered why hardly any mention was made of Pansy's mother. We never see Pansy talking about her (her father wouldn't have allowed it, no doubt), and even Isabel doesn't push it. Even before the secret is spelled out, we know that three women will be connected: Isabel, Serena Merle, and Pansy. And they are connected not merely by their relationship with Osmond, but also by what he represents. For he is patriarchy at its worst. He controls all three women, and robs them of their freedom. He lusts after Madame Merle (and she for him), but their union is doomed because of her lack of money. While he can afford to act the dillettante, he hasn't the courage or the integrity to take responsibility for his actions. He is too concerned with appearances that would be bought through money alone. Though Madame Merle would have clung to him, he would not let her. The least she could do is look out for her child, and so entrusts Pansy to the care of Osmond. She also believes that money might purchase the happiness she seeks. For all that, Madame Merle is a free spirit. She lives independently and is unobstructed by any man. However, her freedom is circumscribed by her motherhood: She will always be tied to Osmond though Pansy. As a mother she does not want to see Pansy suffer, and has high hopes for her. In the interest of Pansy, Merle manipulates Isabel, evidence as to how the oppressed are driven to become the oppressors.

Both Merle and Osmond conceal the "shame" of Pansy's birth, so that Pansy is elevated to the status of a saint. However, this is an illusion, as Isabel learns later. We do not know if Pansy will ever know the truth about herself, or how she will act. James shows us that neither the shame of illegitimacy nor the devotions belonging to a saint, will bring a woman freedom. Both are just as oppressive. Pansy grows up in ignorance, afraid to even lift a hair to question her father. As Pansy becomes a woman and exhibits a feeble will of her own in her attachment to Mr. Rosier, her father banishes her immediately to a convent. Thus, because of Osmond, we see that sexual awakening is vanquished by the seclusion in a convent. Osmond's actions show men's treatment of women: she is seen as "angel or madwoman"--never a mix of the two, if she was to be accepted. Hence Osmond, though drawn to Serena, rejects her. He tries to "angel-fy" Isabel but when she resists, he abuses her. Only Pansy, ever dependent on him, succumbs fully to his wishes. Pansy is manipulated, just as Isabel is manipulated, but Isabel shows that she is different from Pansy by taking action against her husband. Though we do not know what has become of her in the end, it does her credit, since she can "manipulate" our imaginations into thinking has a chance for a better life.

Isabel's "fate" is set in motion by the actions of her cousin Ralph. Ralph is like God, or the equivalent, providing Isabel with a fortune to dispense with however she chose. One step could lift or ruin her, and poor Isabel makes the wrong choice. Ralph does it out of kindness to Isabel, but he is also interested in spectacle. He wants to see how she fares. As his life is limited, he wants to experience life, in a way, though Isabel. Though he does not confine Isabel in the way Osmond does Pansy, Ralph also gives her something that ruins her. We can only wonder what would have become of Isabel if she never had a fortune. Osmond would never have married her, and she would have sought a less wealthier destiny. Is Ralph to be blamed for giving a fortune to Isabel? Yes, because he wished to view her as an object, and No, because it was also an act of kindness, a chance for freedom for Isabel. However, through Ralph's action, Isabel learns an important lesson in seeing "more than what meets the eye", in questioning her faith in people. She falls from grace, but learns that "if she was hated, she was also loved."

It was over ten years ago since I first saw the film, but I was able to appreciate it more on my second viewing, just recently. The 1996 adaptations did credit to James' work, especially with Jane Campion's mastery of imagery, symbolism, and art direction. There were several notable performances, John Malkovich's Osmond, amongst others.

Though I haven't converted to a James fan, I think he is worth a second look.