On Topics in Henry James

By Way of Comment on My Present Read

 on April 25, 2008 1:30 PM

I have, of late, had the sometime pleasure of the company of a young American woman of my acquaintance at luncheon. While the venues, cuisines, and surroundings of our après-midi repast were variable and dependent upon the circumstances and opportunities available to us, they have always been of the greatest pleasure and entertainment to me.

Miss Archer is at once a very determined young lady, but one also tinged with the streak of independence set firmly in the ground of a graceful and enhancing naiveté, which conduces to my enjoyment of our conversational aperitifs.
I've grown somewhat concerned because whereas her talk was mostly of the many men who saw her and implored her favors while she remained on the Touchett family estate, more and more I am hearing of a person of interest who seems to have netted our pretty little bird without her own knowledge. And the more I hear of Osmond, the more concerned I become, because it occurs to me that there is some information circulating about him that does not redound to his credit. While one can never take seriously what circulates on the street or even in the salon, it has been my distinct displeasure to make the acquaintance of another member of the pretty scene that Miss Archer has laid before me.

Miss Archer never fails of speak of Madame Merle in anything but the most glowing terms, expressing only admiration for this widow, who, as Mr. Touchett has observed on occasion lacks any blot whatsoever on her record. One must wonder about such a record--how recent it must be and what must have been, with some great aplomb, expunged from that on-going document. My own sense of Madame Merle is not nearly so flattering to that personage. There is something about her that is, perhaps subtle is the word, but I think wily is closer to the sense. She seems to fashion les tableaux to fit the needs of the moment, and one cannot help but wonder what those needs might be. Mr. Touchett himself has confided to me that she is a woman of great and unrealized ambitions—and perhaps that view has colored my own of her character. For all I know she may be as spotless as she appears to the casual observer.

I Have a Theory
 on April 17, 2008 8:11 AM

Like Miss Archer herself, I am filled with useless theories and baseless speculations. But it occurred to me, while reading The Portrait of a Lady that Henry James himself resides within the novel in the skin of Henrietta Stackpole.

Ms. Stackpole tells Isabel that she has no affinity for inanimate objects and she doesn't care to write home about places and mere scenery. Her interest is in people and how they interact and what they are. She sees, of course, with her own blinders in place. However, she does see.

Henry James, for all of his skill with character, lacks any sense of place or time. You read through the book not knowing what people are dressed in, where they are standing, what the scenery is like. Isabel Archer's entire trip trough London is summed up in a short paragraph of about three sentences. We have no opportunity to visit with her the British Museum, much less to sit a moment under those grand trees of Kensington Gardens.

Yes indeed, James makes short shrift of scenery and, indeed, almost any form of set decoration. And we have characters who wander about in a largely and mysteriously featureless world. It amazes me how bereft of this sort of detail the book is.

On the other hand, it simply isn't required for what Mr. James wishes to divulge to us. And so, in that sense, it is handled perfectly.

However, I have theory. . .

The Wacky World of Henry James
 on April 15, 2008 7:41 AM

As typified by two passages from the current read:
from The Portrait of a Lady
Henry James

Isabel was sure moreover that her mild forehead and silver cross referred to some weird Anglican mystery, some delightful reinstitution perhaps of the quaint office of the canoness.
[Harriet Stackpole speaking with Lord Warburton]
". . . . I don't approve of you, you know; I feel as if I ought to tell you that."

"Don't approve of me?"

"Yes; I don't suppose any one ever said such a thing to you before, did they? I don't approve of lords as an institution. I think the world has got beyond them--far beyond."

"Oh, so do I. I don't approve of myself in the least. Sometimes it comes over me--how I should object to myself if I were not myself, don't you know? But that's rather good, by the wayl--not to be vainglorious."

"Why don't you give it up then?" Miss Stackpole enquired.

"Give up--a--?" asked Lord Warburton, meeting her harsh inflexion with a very mellow one.

"Give up being a lord."

"Oh, I'm so little of one! One would really forget all about it if you wretched Americans were not constantly remind one. However, I do think of giving it up, the litter there is left of it, one of these days."

"I should like to see you do it!" Henrietta exclaimed rather grimly.

"I'll invite you to the ceremony; we'll have supper and a dance."
Critics note that much of James's work is about this conflict between the Old World and the New World, with the New representing innocence and rugged individualism and self-determination (as noted in the character of Miss Archer herself.) Having not read sufficiently in his oeuvre to make such sweeping judgments, I'll accept the advise of the critics. If so, in these interchanges we see some of the downside of innocence and self-determination--a kind of naive arrogance that can pronounce with impunity on things it does not understand and look down upon all things foreign as "quaint" and "charming" or unlikeable institutions.

There is a price to pay for this sort of arrogance and previous reading has led me to believe that Miss Archer, much to her woe is to be brought up sharp against it.

Whatever the case, I'll keep you informed. And hopefully you can be as amused as I am.

Henry James, Redux
 on June 10, 2008 11:29 AM

More properly titled

Some Notes toward Coming to Terms with The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady is a difficult book to characterize; there is little in the way of plot or setting, and much about the interior lives of the characters, even if much of that is viewed from the exterior. Isabel Archer clearly occupies center stage and she presents her own difficulties to the reader. Frankly, it is difficult to like her and even more difficult to sympathize with her plight. The whole arc of the book can be described by the adage, "She has made her bed, now she must lie upon."

Why is Isabel Archer so difficult to like? The answer to this question probably boils down to the definition for a "tragic hero(ine)." A noble, otherwise likeable person, with one major fault. If fault there be in Ms. Archer it is an overweening pride. The bible instructs that "Pride goeth before a fall," (and after, as well, as anyone who has taken a tumble in public can testify). And fall she does, from a great and dizzying height.

And yet one is left with the impression than much of the angst and anguish of that fall is unnecessary--dictated only by the odd and hard pride that drives Ms. Archer. In fact, contemplating what has happened to her in the course of her marriage, she considers for a moment ending the pain by walking away, only to conclude that she cannot do so because then her error will be brought to public notice.

So where are we left with Ms. Archer? It's odd, her pride leads in two directions. In the beginning of the book, she is unwilling to be "tied down," to consider marriage because it would be a compromise of all the possibilities that seem to open up before her. She flouts conventionality and the "normal" way through life. Once she has abandoned her better judgment and entered into marriage, her pride leads her to cling to the conventional way of things so that her error and her shame will not be broadcast into the world. It is interesting the way in which this most primal of sins pulls Ms. Archer in two ways, never offering a moment of piece or tranquility. In her ascendant phase, she rejects the approaches of two men who really love her, breaking down in tears after she sends one of them away--tears of anger and even rage that she should have to tell him to go away. In her decline, she once again breaks down into tears when she realizes that her pride leaves her no way out of her dilemma.

Pride is the central issue of the book. It is the cross on which our heroine is hoisted, and it is such an ugly sin that many will look upon it and say that perhaps she deserves what she has made for herself. As in many of James's works, the heroine is not particularly attractive. We're told that she's beautiful and has a way about her that seems to fascinate men. But the reality is that to the reader she presents a rather formidable, stern, and completely self-interested facade that does nothing to provoke any sympathy. Hence, the book cannot really be viewed as a tragedy. No more can one view it as "realism" or "life as it is," because this life is so warped out of any possibility of viewing it as normal. All around her, she has examples of women who have stepped out of conventionality to live a life that is more compatible with their spirits, but she disdains these role models in favor to the model she has built in her head. And so, she condemns herself to a life of misery or at least a long pause on a possible life of happiness. More wicked and horrible than that, she has it within her power to free another trapped in the same web as she is, and yet she refuses to do it--possibly creating another life in the image of her own. Oh, how our sins come home to roost and how that roosting increases them and their effects.

I'll end this jumble of part I for now, because if I do not do so, nothing will ever see the light of day. But there is much to think about in the case of Ms. Archer, and perhaps these notes have provoked some of you all to look into for the first time or refresh your acquaintance with Ms. Archer if you had perhaps the pleasure of make such a friend earlier on.

More About James
 on June 11, 2008 7:52 AM

Yesterday's post was unsatisfyingly vague because I didn't want to disrupt the enjoyment of anyone who had not yet encountered this truly wondeful book. Let that serve as a warning to all who have not yet read it as they proceed into this post.

The Portrait of a Lady:Genesis of the Anti-Hero?

It seems reasonable that if Hamlet can be listed in the rosters of the anti-hero, so too can Isabel Archer. Like Hamlet, Isabel might otherwise be considered a tragic hero, but here "heroic flaw" pierces so deep and so profoundly divides her character that it is really impossible to sympathize with her dilemma. She has so thoroughly compromised herself with her uncompromisability that she is no longer emotionally accessible to the reader.

This last point is interesting. In a discussion with a friend the other day, he suggested that James never intended Isabel Archer to be emotionally approachable or even likeable. If indeed, this is an accurate reflection of James's intention, he succeeds admirably. If, on the other hand, the reader is supposed to be engaged by Miss Archer, James has failed miserably to make her engaging.

Looking through the Jamesian Canon, one finds a plethora of female characters in similar situation. Neither of the leads of The Golden Bowl is particularly attractive. Catherine of Washington Square is anything but likeable, approachable, or even in any real sense knowable. The principles of The Spoils of Poynton are so thoroughly offputting one is put in mind of Anne River Siddons Fox's Earth. The nursemaid of The Turn of the Screw is even more a ghost that the ghost she may not see. And Daisy Miller is made to be unlikeable start to finish--once she meets her end from one or another disease, the reader breathes a sigh of relief and moves on. The catalog is not exhaustive, nor is my acquaintance with James's work, but call this a working hypothesis. What is fascinating about James's work is how he manages to engage the reader without giving the reader a central figure who is particularly sympathetic or engaging.

In The Portrait of a Lady, the engagement comes largely from the characters that fill Isabel's world--Mr. Touchett, Mrs. Touchett, Ralph Touchett, Lord Warburton, Caspar Goodwood, Harriet Stackpole, Mr. Bantling (on the good side), the Countess Gemini (in the ambiguous mode), and Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle (on the bad side.) Pansy, Isabel's stepdaughter, seems to take after her stepmother in the realm of unsympathetic heroines. In a way akin to Catherine of Washington Square, the demur submissiveness of Pansy is an appalling spectacle to behold, and Isabel's inadvertent assist of this least attractive of Pansy's qualities is another point that deflects the reader's sympathies from Isabel.

In this swirl of interesting and mostly likable characters, Isabel stands out as something of a vacuum, a black hole of sympathy. Watch her interactions with others and read her interior monologue and the reader becomes become progressively chilled, as the realization dawns that one is in the presence of a committed egomaniac--a person without any outside anchor in reality to ground her theories and notions, and thus a ship untethered in fair weather or foul and likely to run aground at the first shoal.

And the reader sees this again and again as first she rejects the advances of Lord Warburton, and then of Caspar Goodwood, and even the gentle non-advance of Ralph Touchett, who is wise enough to understand that he is not even in the running. And it is through the kindness and thoughtfulness of Ralph that Isabel achieves the wealth to allow for her destruction. Ralph entreats his dying father to alter his will to leave a living to him and to his mother, but to settle the bulk of the estate on his cousin Isabel Archer. It is this wealth that precipitates the decline that occupies the second half of the novel.

Because she is now a woman of means, she becomes attractive to a pair of schemers (somewhat similar in mode to The Wings of the Dove, who proceed to plan her "demise." Madame Merle, whose name indicates "blackbird" in French, and whose name, the book notes informed me, is supposed to remind me of Madame Mertuil of Les Laiasons Dangereuses, is the primary instigator. It is her chance meeting with Isabel and her acquaintance with Gilbert Osmond that defines the action of the remainder of the book.

I must leave off at this point, and if I can, I will return to the declining action of the book. But, I have a quick trip to NYC and Boston in the interim, so I don't know where I'll be by the time my head settles.

Washington Square and The Heiress
 on June 23, 2008 7:12 AM

We leave, for a moment, our discussion of Miss Archer, although, God willing and time enough, I do hope to return to it, and consider the case of Catherine Sloper, cellulose and celluloid. Washington Square is considered the first novel of the so-called "middle period" of Henry James's writing.

I was attracted to Washington Square by a recent trip to New York in which I was able to take in some of the historic sites. While I did not see the Washington Square arch by daylight, I had seen it on a previous trip. I was also attracted by the fact that it was the novel that immediately preceded The Portrait of a Lady and seemed to have some of the same concerns.

Catherine Sloper is the plain, dull, somewhat dimwitted unwed daughter of Dr. Austin Sloper, a complex, demanding, tyrannical figure of a father who dominates Catherine's life in the same way that Gilbert Osmond dominates the life of his daughter Pansy--possibly to similar effect. And that is part of what makes Washington Square such an interesting study.

At the beginning of Washington Square, poor, plain Catherine is approached at a party by dashing and handsome Morris Townsend. Out of the blue he comes to her and starts to be entranced by her charms. She is alarmed, never having recognized any charms within herself to charm anyone, and pleased. The courtship soon begins.

Within days, Austin Sloper is disapproving of the whole thing. The disapproval grows until he decides that he will disinherit Catherine if she continues the relationship. While this does not deter her, it does throw a monkey wrench into her relationship with Morris.

The subtle psychological complexity of the novel is thrown into high relief when one views The Heiress, a William Wyler film adapted from a play, in turn adapted from Washington Square. As the movie sets out, much is similar to the progress of the novel, but it is in the complicated windings of the ending that the rock-solid superiority of the book is brought forward. From this point on, let only those who have no intention of enjoying either continue, for here be spoilers.

In the novel, Catherine Sloper is ultimately jilted by Morris for whom her mere 10,000 a year is insufficient when he could have 30,000. As they plan their elopement, he leaves for a "California business trip" from which he does not return. Catherine stays on in her father's house, becoming a spinster. After a number of years, her father becomes ill. On his deathbed, he asks her to renounce her intention to marry Morris Townsend and she refuses. He alters his will and substantially removes her from it. Morris does return after the death of Dr. Sloper and he takes up where he left off, somewhat older, but not all that much the worse for wear. Catherine receives him once and then tells him to stay away.

In the movie, much of this dynamic is gone. Catherine comes to an awareness that her Father "doesn't love her" (doesn't value her and is constantly deriding her is more to the point). In the book, the realization is more like the latter. Catherine plans an elopement with Morris and embraces the idea that she will be disinherited by the disagreeable old man. In the book, the idea of being disinherited is a horror for Catherine, not so much for the sake of the money, but for the sake of the injury it will do her father and the family. While she celebrates the disinheritance with Morris, she plans their elopement that evening. Of course, he never shows up. In the course of a short time, Dr. Sloper dies, with Catherine refusing even to come to his bedside. He does not disinherit her (the cinematic Dr. Sloper being a good deal more compassionate and kinder than the literary Dr. Sloper). In fact, in the book, one gets the sense that Dr. Sloper is being almost entirely arbitrary in his "testing" of Catherine, relishing the challenge of wills more that being particularly concerned about how Catherine will turn out.

In due time (in the film) Morris returns and offers an excuse for not running away with her. Catherine appears to accept it and arranges to leave with him. When he returns to elope, she refuses to answer the door to him.

The two works have their own strengths and attractions. I doubt any but the most skilled and subtle director could have brought Washington Sqaure as it stands to the screen in the 1940s. Indeed, we needed to make it into the postmodern era before the logic of the ending could appeal and resonate with us. We have an nearly instinctive understanding of Dr. Sloper and Catherine and the dynamics of their relationship now. That James was able to see, understand, and chronicle all of this in the 1880s stands as a remarkable testament to his acuity as author. Catherine Sloper is "a type" who, as I implied, shows up again with Pansy in The Portrait of a Lady. We do not know that Pansy will come to the same end as Catherine; however, when she tries to exert her own will even a little, her father sends her away to a convent for additional "finishing."

But back to Catherine Sloper. The Catherine of the movie becomes hard, brittle, hateful, and harsh. She internalizes what she thinks of her father, not what her father actually was and did. She turns herself into the image she has made of him. In the book Catherine falls into a kind of dazed submissiveness. After Morris turns her down when she has come to terms with her disinheritance and offer to go away with him, she returns to her father and, essentially, shuts down. She becomes his companion in physical person, but her spirit is largely absent. She never deliberately hurts anyone, Morris included, but one gets the impression that she never engages anyone in anything more than casual conversation.

Washington Square is an amazing portrait in minature of profound psychological complexity, and, it seems to me, accuracy. Catherine Sloper is taken from hopeful debutant to reclusive spinster on a vector of her Father's making but only with her nearly complete cooperation and acquiescence. In some sense, Washington Square is even more "feminist" than The Portrait of a Lady, showing at once how subject a woman's life was to the life of the men around her and how that subjection profoundly colors her life, her interactions, and her person.

While I find the book a better exercise and a better piece of fiction, both the book and the movie have their own individual rewards--the rewards of the movie being Olivia de Haviland and Sir Ralph Richardson in some very fine performances.


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