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Henry James' Heroine: 'Portrait' Of A Complex Lady

by Rhoda Janzen
Aug 6, 2010 (All Things Considered)

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Henry James wasn't nicknamed "The Master" for nothin'. James himself once described his complicated, nuanced characters as "supersubtle fry." He published The Portrait of a Lady fairly early on, in 1880, when his prose was still lucid and compact.

Portrait tells the story of Isabel Archer, a distinctive American beauty. Isabel is smart — book-smart, that is — about the world she knows tragically little. That's why I like her. She makes decisions the same way I did at her age. She leads with the head; she overthinks.

Isabel attracts mighty suitors. One of the finest, Lord Warburton, doesn't expect Isabel to turn him down. By jingo, he's a leader in Parliament! He has a castle! Is it the moat? he asks.

"No," says Isabel. "I adore a moat."

What is it then?

Mister, it's that Isabel wants more than marriage offers! Like so many of us, Isabel has to learn the hard way.

She inherits a fortune. You wouldn't think that a fortune would be the hard way — but it is. Naturally Isabel determines to do something great with her money, something noble, something enlightened. And so it should come as no surprise that she turns around and marries a man on whom readers would dearly love to spray spider repellent.

The guy whom she picks, Gilbert Osmond, isn't an over-the-top monster. He's not a villainous abuser or a deadbeat dad. The problem is his ego. It lies vast and submerged, like the iceberg that took down the Titanic. Yet Isabel insists on seeing Gilbert as a talented artist, a tasteful collector, and an adoring father to his daughter, fresh-faced little Pansy.

But it's all a setup. Isabel tardily realizes that she's been played by her best friend, Serena, and her own husband. Serena was the one who introduced her to Gilbert. What a stunning betrayal that Gilbert and Serena have been lovers all along. So Serena turns out to be a backstabbing snake in the grass, and Gilbert, a chicanerous huckster on the scam for Isabel's money.

But this book isn't about the disappointments that inhere in the traditional marriage plot. It's about what a woman does when she begins to acknowledge her own complicity in the life she has chosen. This is the story of a new consciousness rising phoenix-like from the ashes of limited self-awareness. True, this book dresses romance as serious fiction. True, it features the best kiss in American literary history. But the real reason I love it is that it shows us a way to move forward after tragedy.

When I was 20, I was crushed that Isabel didn't ditch Gilbert to run off with the strongest of her suitors. But now at 47, I applaud a heroine wise enough to understand that if you're not happy without a man, you certainly won't be happy with one.

We all suffer. We all make decisions that give us a terrifying glimpse into a world without faith. But Isabel shows us that our bad decisions do not end our story. They begin it.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

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