Book Reviews: Portrait of a Novel, Michael Gorra (W. W. Norton, 2012)
Even if The Portrait of a Lady has not been read, viewers of the rather fine Jane Campion film with Nicole Kidman — a movie mercifully free of period-drama trumpery — will be familiar with the story. An inexperienced but likeable young American woman, earnestly in love with her own liberty, journeys toEurope; there she rejects two proposals of marriage, sensing that either of them would curtail the adventure of setting out on life’s exciting odyssey. Freedom, she feels, becomes her.
All very Emersonian, until in Italy she meets and pledges her soul to a man whom she thinks singularly complements her own exceptionalism; but from this high point, where she had fondly hoped they could together look down generously on the world, she falls to ground and comes to realise she has married not just a hollow and mercenary dilettante but a malevolent narcissist who demands the sacrifice of her life spirit.
She had thought she was free but the sordid truth that her husband married her for her money puts paid to her imaginative idealism and she confronts the truth of her marriage and the catastrophic collapse of her American Dream.
Michael Gorra’s enjoyable account of The Portrait of a Lady is very reader-friendly given his easy-going and often personal tone, and his gloss on the novel is interspersed with a mini-biography of the writer. Gorra calls the structure of his own book ‘dialectical’, using the term loosely to capture the way he focuses on key incidents in the novel before bouncing off these moments to acquaint us with episodes in the life of James as well as the history of the novel’s publication, from its initial serialization in magazines to its first book publication in 1881 and the author’s revisions in 1906. Addressing the style of The Portrait of a Lady, Gorra contrasts its series of dramatic scenes, pregnant with meaning, with the multi-plotted, knotted style of a novelist like Dickens and in the course of Portrait of a Novel there are neat commentaries on key moments from James’s text. He draws attention, for example, to the Godless universe that comes to the fore in the scene between the dying Daniel Touchett and his son Ralph:
There are many deathbeds in Victorian fiction, some full of prayers…. Many of them show us characters sunk in fear, and others hit a high note of hope. But I have read no such scene so entirely untroubled by the hereafter as this one; its originality lies in what James feels himself free to leave out. Neither Ralph nor his father speaks of God, and they do not call a clergyman at the last.
Not just in this instance, Gorra is to be congratulated for his success in bearing witness to much of what makes The Portrait of a Lady such a good novel. What is not so easily shown, because Gorra himself is inside the James camp, is that the qualities of the novel cannot by themselves account for the – acclaim is too weak a word – adoration that characterises the response by many readers and critics to Henry James and this novel in particular. Just as those embedded journalists in the Iraq war were, by default, circumscribed and prevented from seeing what was outside the frame that contained them, devotees of Henry James find it difficult to examine their own position. After all, there is something creepy about Henry James — his obeisance to convention that goes beyond the conventional, his maceration of sex, not attending the funeral of Constance Fenimore Woolson, from whom he withheld knowledge of his suppressed homosexuality (which helps explain why James couldn’t abide Oscar Wilde, labelling him ‘repulsive’), burning his letters that were left in her apartment, and the possibility that his behaviour towards her while alive might have been a factor in her suicide (their relationship a queer variation of Joyce’s ‘A Painful Case’) — and something cowardly about him not joining up in his country’s war civil war due to an alleged back problem. Rather along the lines of the legal distinction between avoiding and evading tax, one could respect him for avoiding fighting from an anti-war stance but not unreservedly for evading it through a false claim.
So what is it about Henry James that exerts such a fascination for the likes of authors like John Banville and Colm Tóibín as well as literary critics like James Wood and Michael Gorra? Part of any answer to this question relates to the ability of James to create a sense of the complexity of an intelligent human consciousness and thereby validate the precious notion of personal identity as constitutive of a rich personality. James’s use of language is felt to go far beyond the conjuring up of a sense of character and, given that the substance of what it means to be a Self is held to be inseparable from the language such a Self employs, his fiction is read as a verbal enactment of the movement of consciousness. The Portrait of a Lady may sometimes be too leisurely for its own good – provoking impatient readers to skip lines of quotidian dialogue that are less than riveting in the first half of the book – but this cannot detract from its canonical status as a literary masterpiece. Anyone in doubt need only read the renowned chapter forty two where Isabel meditates through the night on her marriage to Gilbert Osmond. Nothing compares with its deadly unpicking of the fascist psyche in all its chilling repulsiveness, not fascism in the empirically political sense but its domestic persona as a force eating away at the foundations for social existence. This chapter brings to mind Hegel’s account of the ‘beautiful soul’: the man so careful in self-nurturing his purity that he avoids doing anything himself but readily and self-righteously passes judgement on those who do. Gilbert Osmond is the ‘beautiful soul’ at its most diabolic. For many readers, though, chapter forty two is an opportunity to bathe appreciatively in the sensibilities of Isabel Archer and enjoy unrestricted access to her pained interiority. For such readers, literature at its best is a luxurious and therapeutic bath with exquisitely perfumed soap of a wordy type, guaranteeing that when you step out after the final chapter you will feel a morally refreshed person, reassured that other minds are just like the way it pleases you to think of our own.
But there is more going on in chapter forty two than this. The insight into Gilbert Osmond that Isabel experiences as she contemplates the nature of her marriage comes in the form of metaphors and similes —
In instead of leading to the high places of happiness…it led rather downward and earthward, into realms of restriction and depression
Then the shadows began to gather; it was as if Osmond deliberately, almost malignantly, had put the lights out one by one.
It was the house of darkness, the house of dumbness, the house of suffocation. Osmond’s beautiful mind, indeed, seemed to peep down from a small high window and mock at her.
Her mind was to be his – attached to his own like a small garden-plot to a deer-park
— that cannot simply be read as the thoughts of Isabel for if this is stream of consciousness at work then Isabel’s mind has a remarkably poetic dimension that is missing from her spoken thoughts. (As Will Self has observed, consciousness is non-Euclidean: the chattering of words, images, sensations, apparently random snippets of memory and cognition; but naturalistic fiction offers the wish fulfillment of a Newtonian consciousness.) The images pertain, at only one very obvious level, to the morbid psychology of Osmond’s warped personality, for they also depict a state of affairs, a governance of manners – in other words, a social condition. And though within the terms of naturalistic narrative the similes and metaphors are describing a society of just two people, such company is on principle capable of extending itself to constitute a far larger social organism, a possibility inherent in the landscaping nature of the images. What we have here could be called a social topography rather than just psychological verisimilitude, and what Osmond erases from it is the necessity of dependence on others and the consequent claims that can justifiably be made for how we should treat one another. Isabel wants to live in a social landscape of this kind and Osmond, hating her for it, strongly objects to her wish to visit her cousin Ralph who is dying back in England.
Gorra, like Jane Campion’s film, is good at reading the sexual undercurrents in James’s novel and he draws to a close his reading of The Portrait of a Lady by attending to the way James in 1906 revised the ending of his 1881 novel: Isabel has left Italy to visit Ralph before he dies, another man (Caspar Goodwood) who has never ceased loving her pleads militantly, coercively for Isabel, that she elope and live with him. She refuses and returns instead toItaly and her shipwrecked marriage. But why? This is Gorra’s answer:
She goes because she recognises that the most valuable thing she has is a free mind, and Goodwood challenges that freedom as Osmond no longer does, threatening the autonomous self she has fought so hard to regain. She chooses, knowing what she doesn’t want, and she goes because she can. She goes, finally, because to stay would require her to accept an illusion. She would have to believe, with her own earlier self, that an unfallen world does indeed lie all before her.
Isabel, contrary to some vexed interpretations of the endlessly debated ending, truly becomes the lady that the novel’s title refers to only after her broken marriage comes close to breaking her. By negating Caspar, affirming only her nothingness, she finally achieves freedom. She returns toItaly under no illusions for, as Roy Orbison sings it in ‘The Only One’, ‘you bite the bullet, then you chew it.’
Gorra’s view of the novel’s ending is essentially correct but what is an undoubted virtue of his book, the lack of any declared theoretical apparatus, may also be a limitation when his reading of Isabel’s decision to return to her vile husband is put alongside the account found in Sigi Jöttkandt’s Acting Beautifully. Jöttkandt situates Isabel’s return toItaly in terms of the Lacanian concept of the act, an ethical resolve that is a response to the Real and which thereby entails a realignment of one’s relationship to the Other, a traversing of the fantasy as Lacan puts it. The Real is unrepresentable within the symbolic order that gives meaning to our lives and the ethical act involves fidelity to this impossibility which, in its ethical dimension, translates into the paradox of choosing the way we desire. At the heart of things, there is a freedom available to us even though we cannot point to a time and a place when this freedom is effected. The only alternative to entering the symbolic order is psychosis but the act is a reliving of the possibility of a choice, an opening up of something ‘before’ or ‘outside’ the symbolic order. This all sounds a little too abstruse: how does it make sense of Isabel’s decision?
When Isabel, after declining two conventionally very sound proposals of marriage, accepts Osmond she believes she is making an ethical choice. Her mistake is to confuse the apparent aesthetic beauty of Osmond with a moral ideal, failing to discern behind his beautiful soul a will to power that reifies people into objects, reducing them to the level of items in his art collection. Isabel thought she had accepted him out of a free choice but she comes to realize that it was a marriage set up in advance by the morally bankrupt Madam Merle. Why, then, when she realizes the truth, that her fate was determined by others, does she not break free and leave her husband? Caspar Goodwood urges her to do so:
Why should you go back – why should you go through that ghastly form? … Why shouldn’t we be happy – when it’s here before us, when it’s so easy? … What is it that holds us, what is it that has the smallest right to interfere in such a question as this? Such a question is between ourselves – and to say that is to settle it! Were we born to rot in our misery – were we born to be afraid?
Isabel declines and, instead, takes her ‘very straight path’ back toRome, repeating the choice she made the first time but with a vital difference. No longer is she deceived, a puppet of others’ wills, and the time spent with dying Ralph has brought home the negativity that previously evaded her perception. At his bedside, she stares into the ‘immeasurable space’ of his dying eyes and squarely confronts ‘the truth’: ‘he married me for the money’ she says, casting aside the false aesthetic that had clouded her vision. Critics have come up with various explanations for her decision to return to Rome (fear of Goodwood’s sexuality, an embrace of renunciation, responsibility for Osmond’s daughter) but they miss the mark: she returns because she must repeat that first choice of marrying Osmond, this time as a really free agent, thus retrospectively conferring upon it the noumenal freedom that, phenomenally, it had lacked. In a superb analysis of the novel’s conclusion, Jöttkandt invokes Kant’s notion of the moral law to explain Isabel’s heroic act. For Kant, ethics is not countable because there is no calculus capable of representing it; we act morally because we must, not despite but because we cannot ever see the whole picture, making the absence of any guarantee for our ethical choices the very ground for making them. The responsibility for vouchsafing the moral law is ours alone, individually and socially, not some universal good. We invent it. Isabel invented it; and by returning to Rome she will finally abide by it.