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2014/15 Group Reads - Archives > The Portrait of A Lady - Chapters 29-35

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message 1: by Jeremy (new)

Jeremy | 108 comments Welcome to week five! This week's section was shorter than previous weeks so hopefully everyone has a chance to catch up.

The first half of this section involved a good deal of traveling. If you read too fast you might miss how much time passes in the first few chapters.

Chapter 29 - Osmond reflects that his life has not been as successful as he had hoped, but he feels he has conquered Isabel, which provides him some comfort.
Isabel does not refuse him with the same force she did Warburton and Goodwood. She takes her leave to begin her travels.

Chapter 30 - Isabel visits Pansy as she had promised to do. We don't learn much about Pansy except she is passive and eager to please. In the last thread it was suggested she may have a mental handicap. I'm starting to think so too.

Chapter 31 - Isabel has returned from her travels and the narrative moves forward an entire year. Her sister and brother-in-law come for a visit. After they leave Isabel spends more time Madame Merle. We learn the older woman reveals her history to Isabel, but the reader is not privy to the disclosure. Isabel remains close to Madame Merle, but small cracks in their friendship are forming.

I'm going to break my posts up and discuss the rest of the section tomorrow, but feel free to discuss anything, especially chapter 32.

In these chapters we see how Osmond and Merle work together to ensnare Isabel. Osmond declares his love but is quick to say that he makes no demands on her. Whereas her other two suitors demonstrate a strong passion for her, strong enough to repel her, Osmond strikes the right balance - a strong enough declaration to touch her, but also with the assurance he does not want to restrict her freedom.

Having Isabel visit Pansy further enmeshes Isabel in Osmond's life. Pansy is pleasant enough that Isabel won't see her as an obstacle to happiness. She's weak/naive enough that Isabel feels she may be able to be of service to the girl.

Finally, Madame Merle continues her scheming. It would be easy to overlook since it's barely mentioned in the text, but when Isabel stays with Madame Merle in chapter 31 Osmond visits frequently. Anyone who has been in a relationship knows that frequent meetings during the courting phase significantly accelerate the relationship.

My question though is how complicit is Isabel in all of this? Is she a willing lamb being led to the slaughter, or will she wake up one day and wonder how she ended up with Osmond?


message 2: by Madge UK (last edited Oct 30, 2014 06:38AM) (new)

Madge UK (madgeuk) | 2933 comments Thankyou for all of that hard work Jeremy. I will reread chapter 32 and post a comment later.

Pansy is several times described as 'limited' in these chapters and I think that must mean of limited intelligence.There is a comment that she was a child who walked holding her father's hand until she was 16. She is also unusually small in stature.

Isabel grows closer to Pansy in this section and we later learn (view spoiler). I am beginning to think that the reason she stayed with Osmond, despite her unhappiness, was to look after Pansy, who became her raison d'etre. The other reason is fidelity. Despite mixing with radicals who believed in 'free love', James' father was a strong believer in monogamy and the indissolubility of marriage and Henry James was very close to his father in his formative years. I therefore think that in this early novel James was unwilling to subject his heroine to divorce, which was a shocking thing in those days and ruined a woman's life. But this begs the question of why James married Isabel to Osmond in the first place when her two earlier suitors were nicer chaps and she could have 'played the field' for longer, as Ralph expected her to do.


message 3: by Madge UK (new)

Madge UK (madgeuk) | 2933 comments Where is everyone? Drowning in a sea of words?:(


message 4: by Emma (new)

Emma (emmalaybourn) | 298 comments Madge wrote: "Where is everyone? Drowning in a sea of words?:("

I suspect so. I found the time jumps in this section quite disconcerting, especially as James chooses to leave out Osmond's proposal to Isabel. I wonder why he leaves this to our imagination. Maybe he feels that there is nothing new or different to say about Osmond's courtship, once Osmond has stated his feelings for Isabel: "I'm absolutely in love with you," he says, but in a tone of "almost impersonal discretion", ie without passion or demand.

Isabel responds with a feeling which she supposes to be "inspired and truthful passion... if she touched it it would all come out." It's as if she's ready to respond to love, but Goodwood has frightened her off with his rather dominating demands, so Osmond seems a less overwhelming option. I wonder how significant the age difference is: he must be twenty years her senior, after all, and though there's no overt hint that she's looking for a father figure, she's certainly attracted by his apparent depth of knowledge.

Once she sets off on her travels again, it's in a rush, "rapidly and recklessly... like a thirsty person draining cup after cup." This is a striking simile. If Isabel is so thirsty for experience, why rush it? Is it that having decided she wants love, she's now got her mind fixed on getting back to Osmond? Or it she storing up experiences for later as if she thinks somehow this is her last chance?

Then after she returns there's the strange hiatus where we only know that Osmond is a frequent visitor - and the most crucial event of her life goes unreported.


message 5: by Madge UK (new)

Madge UK (madgeuk) | 2933 comments He leaves out the proposal and the wedding, very strange!

For Osmond Isabel is just another possession he has acquired, part of his collection.

I find eerie similaries in Osmond to Casabon in Middlemarch. The same aestheticism and coldness. Dorothea too has the same misplaced admiration for her lacklustre husband which soon turns to despair.


message 6: by Jeremy (new)

Jeremy | 108 comments Finishing up this section's summaries:

Chapter 32 - We learn that Isabel is engaged. Caspar rushes from America when he hears about it. He spends weeks traveling to have a brief interview with Isabel. Angry words are exchanged. The meeting ends with Isabel in tears.

Chapter 33 - Mrs. Touchett is not happy about the engagement. Ralph isn't either but doesn't say anything.

Chapter 34 - Ralph breaks his silence. He tells Isabel what he thinks of the match. Isabel dismisses his and everyone else's criticism of Osmond.

Chapter 35 - Isabel is clearly infatuated with Osmond. Osmond thinks of Isabel as more of an ornament to his happiness. Countess Gemini also thinks Isabel is making a mistake.

As Emma points out @4 the proposal is not described, which results in an anti-climactic end to the courtship. Most of the second half of this section is devoted to various characters expressing their disapproval of the engagement and Isabel becoming angry or defiant with them. The flaws that people point out in Osmond are interpreted as virtues by Isabel. As we approach the final third of the book it seems inevitable that the Isabel will be unhappy by the end.


message 7: by Jeremy (new)

Jeremy | 108 comments Madge wrote: "Isabel grows closer to Pansy in this section and we learn that she lost a baby of her own at 6 months. I am beginning to think that the reason she stayed with Osmond, despite her unhappiness, was to look after Pansy, who became her raison d'etre. The other reason is fidelity."

At the risk of exposing myself as an extremely inattentive reader, can you tell us what chapter this occurs in? In chapter 31 Madame Merle tells Isabel her history, which Isabel had learned from other people already, but nothing is revealed to the reader. Again, unless I skipped a paragraph or a chapter I don't think this was revealed in this section. (I have been known to skip material on accident though. Recently I've been watching Downton Abbey and I complained to a friend that I couldn't follow what was happening in season four. It took me four episodes to realize I'd skipped all of season three!)


message 8: by Jeremy (new)

Jeremy | 108 comments Madge, your comment @2 has some definite spoilers in it. Can you put spoiler tags around it? (I don't know how to do it but I know Lily does). If not, can you edit it? At this point in the reading we haven't encountered most of what you discuss in the second paragraph.


message 9: by Jeremy (new)

Jeremy | 108 comments Madge wrote: "I find eerie similaries in Osmond to Casabon in Middlemarch."

I seem some similarities too, but also quite a few differences. Dorothea thought she was going to be helping a great man with a great work. She had no illusions of a passionate marriage, though she did expect to partner with Casaubon in his intellectual pursuits. Dorothea's great disappointment is that he doesn't respect her ability. The second disappointment is that "The Key to All Mythologies" is a chimera - Casaubon isn't up to the task. He is not the towering intellect Dorothea thought he was. (For another perspective, here's a thought provoking opinion: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/t...)

In contrast to Dorothea, Isabel is attracted to Osmond, it appears, because there's nothing special about him. Casaubon is a man of epic ambition; Osmond is a man of no ambition. Casaubon has a living independent from Dorothea; Osmond can only live the life he wants with Isabel's money. Finally, Casaubon is clearly not a good looking man. If Dorothea is seduced then it's by his intelligence. Osmond, on the other hand, is smooth and charming and Isabel falls for the act.

For me, the takeaway from comparing the two relationships is that I feel sympathy for Dorothea and Edward. (In my twenties my sympathy was all for Dorothea, but in my mid-thirties I find much more sympathy than I did before for Edward.) I don't feel much sympathy for Isabel and I have none at all for Osmond.


message 10: by Madge UK (last edited Oct 30, 2014 07:20AM) (new)

Madge UK (madgeuk) | 2933 comments Sorry Jeremy will do and have edited. Is it OK now? (You had better edit your post #8 too).

Thanks for spelling out the differences between Casaubon etc. It is awhile since I read Middlemarch. That is a great alternative p.o.v. in The Independent!


message 11: by Robin P, Moderator (last edited Oct 30, 2014 05:19PM) (new)

Robin P | 2201 comments Mod
James wanted to write plays and this is set up a lot like one :
Scene X- one year later, description of setting and characters, for example "as the curtain rises, we see Character A looking out the window. She is dressed in ....She has aged since the last scene ..." Etc


message 12: by Madge UK (new)

Madge UK (madgeuk) | 2933 comments Good point Robin, I hadn't noticed that. It does explain the 'intervals'.


message 13: by Madge UK (new)

Madge UK (madgeuk) | 2933 comments I liked Goodwood's passion and devotion and still think he would make the best husband and one who would gve her freedom but I still fo not see why she has to marry as her wealth would give her freedom too. Does James marry her off just to show us how restrictive marriage can be for a woman? (view spoiler)

Jeremy: You just put the word spoiler in parenthesis as you do italics and bold.)


message 14: by Jeremy (new)

Jeremy | 108 comments Madge wrote: "Sorry Jeremy will do and have edited. Is it OK now?."

Yes, thank you for changing that. It was a relief to know I hadn't overlooked such an important detail.


message 15: by Madge UK (last edited Oct 30, 2014 11:00AM) (new)

Madge UK (madgeuk) | 2933 comments (Aside) I wonder what Isabel and Dorothea would have thought of this:

http://gu.com/p/42qge


message 16: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2632 comments As most of you know, this is my second read of PoaL, so I have been almost less interested in reading it per se than in pursuing some understanding around it. I am so very grateful for finding Michael Gorra's Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece. There are about five pages of that book (pp. 110-115) that I'd love to put up and share with the readers here. I am still absorbing them, as well as the rest of the book, myself, so am not ready to summarize or paraphrase. But, as Maureen Corrigan's So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures helped me understand Fitzgerald's masterpiece, Gorra is helping me understand PoaL, both the novel itself and its artistic significance. Unfortunately, it is a book not necessarily likely to be found in one's local library. At this point in time, James seems rather out of favor among popular reads. PoaL is rather like reading Moby Dick, et al.


message 17: by Jeremy (new)

Jeremy | 108 comments Lily wrote: "PoaL is rather like reading Moby Dick, et al."

I definitely prefer Moby Dick.


message 18: by Lily (last edited Oct 30, 2014 10:32AM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2632 comments Poke me if I should move some or all of the following over to background, but let me try to share a few things that may be helpful here, some of which I am sure you already know, but have been starting to form a cluster of perspectives for me:

1) James was exploring the relationship of America to Europe, which heavily represented America's past. He was highly suspicious of whether either an individual or a nation possessed total freedom going forward from its past, a position he seemed to view Emerson as taking. PoaL is an allegory about freedom -- my words, not Gorra's that I recall.

2) He explored the relationship of character to incident -- the extent to which character determined incident versus incident influencing character. We see that blatantly in Ralph's allocation of funds to Isabel, but the theme appears in symphonic variations throughout the novel.

3) James deplored the "marriage novel" -- the novel that ended with marriage (and wealth) as "happy solution" and a chapter or two foretelling the tomorrows of the major characters.

4) James greatly admired the work of George Eliot. However, he eschewed the multi-plot novels of English fiction, including even Middlemarch, but also Thackeray, Trollope, and certainly Dickens.

5) He anticipated Freud, et al, exploring the interior journey of a character like Isabel as much as the exterior incidents of story and action. (After all, what action besides marriage and family was available to a woman, despite the efforts of a Dorothea or Henriette?)

6) James (1843-1916) was ~38 years old when he published PoaL in 1881. Trollope had died in 1863; Flaubert, in 1880; George Eliot, also in 1880; Trollope, in 1882, Turgenev, in 1883. (Emile Zola lived 1840-1902; Tolstoy, 1828-1910. Balzac lived earlier, 1799-1850). Turgenev was a major influence on James. Cultural perception of the novel was shifting from one of entertainment to one of artistic literary achievement as well. James’s own “The Art of Fiction” was published in 1884.

( http://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amli... )


message 19: by Madge UK (last edited Oct 30, 2014 10:30AM) (new)

Madge UK (madgeuk) | 2933 comments Me too Jeremy, And Melville.

Thanks a lot Lily, I thought that was where you were:)

James may have eschewed marriage novels but PaoL is one! Marrying Isabel off was a mistake IMO, she should have been left playing the field and become a good aunt to Pansy.

As you know, there are a couple of good, insightful reviews of Gorra's book (one by Hermione Lee) on the Background thread but beware of spoilers.


message 20: by Lily (last edited Oct 30, 2014 10:31AM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2632 comments Jeremy wrote: "Lily wrote: "PoaL is rather like reading Moby Dick, et al."

I definitely prefer Moby Dick."
(1851)

I have no intent of changing or even necessarily influencing your preferences. You belong among distinguished company. When you reach the appropriate point (no concern about spoilers), I suggest reading the Wiki articles for both PoaL and Henry James for comments from some of your compatriots, at least about James. I would suggest playing with the metaphors of each possibly relevant to America in today's world.


message 21: by Madge UK (last edited Oct 30, 2014 11:07AM) (new)

Madge UK (madgeuk) | 2933 comments Lily: You ask what action was left for a woman but the majority of women worked! Only the wealthy had the luxury of not working and they were too used to luxury to contemplate life on a worker's wage. Women were working in fields and factories in 1881 and better educated ones were working in shops or as teachers. Isabel's book learning, 'knowledge', would have equipped her to be a teacher but class snobbery would have made her look askance at such work and James was no Gaskell.

It isn't that we don't understand the points James is making about women (and sexuality) it is the convoluted language he uses to do it. It is too analytical, too philosophical to grab your attention, it is hard work for not enough reward IMO.


message 22: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2632 comments Madge wrote: "Lily: You ask what action was left for a woman but the majority of women worked! Only the wealthy had the luxury of not working and they were too used to luxury to contemplate life on a worker's wage."

Perhaps I should have used "lady" in this particular context?


message 23: by Emma (new)

Emma (emmalaybourn) | 298 comments Lily wrote: "Poke me if I should move some or all of the following over to background, but let me try to share a few things that may be helpful here, some of which I am sure you already know, but have been star..."

Thanks Lily, I didn't know all those details about PoaL (especially about James's intentions). Interesting that he deplored the "marriage novel." PoaL could almost be described as an anti-marriage novel so far.

And Robin's comment about James's ambitions as a playwright throws light on the stagey aspect of some of his scenes - not just here, but right from the start of the novel, when Isabel makes her entrance. I can't imagine some of his dialogue working on the stage though. He wouldn't get away with the two-page speeches :)


message 24: by Madge UK (last edited Oct 30, 2014 11:15AM) (new)

Madge UK (madgeuk) | 2933 comments This comment about James in Wikipedia speaks volumes:

'Critics have jokingly described three phases in the development of James's prose: "James I, James II, and The Old Pretender." He wrote short stories and plays. Finally, in his third and last period he returned to the long, serialised novel. Beginning in the second period, but most noticeably in the third, he increasingly abandoned direct statement in favour of frequent double negatives, and complex descriptive imagery. Single paragraphs began to run for page after page, in which an initial noun would be succeeded by pronouns surrounded by clouds of adjectives and prepositional clauses, far from their original referents, and verbs would be deferred and then preceded by a series of adverbs. The overall effect could be a vivid evocation of a scene as perceived by a sensitive observer. It has been debated whether this change of style was engendered by James' shifting from writing to dictating to a typist, a change made during the composition of What Maisie Knew.'


message 25: by Madge UK (last edited Oct 30, 2014 11:53AM) (new)

Madge UK (madgeuk) | 2933 comments Lily#22: So are we to take it that James' use of the word 'lady' applied only to the wealthy and/or aristocratic? Working gels like Henrietta couldn't be ladies? Neither could we:)

http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady


message 26: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2632 comments Madge wrote: "Lily#22: So are we to take it that James' use of the word 'lady' applied only to the wealthy and/or aristocratic? ..."

Don't know. What do you think? Does "Portrait of a Lady" refer to a "class" or "type" or "group" of women, or only to a particular woman?

I've tended in the past to think of Isabel as portrayed as an archetype of a particular type/class of woman, but since I don't think I could define the characteristics/boundaries of that type, maybe I should rethink? Not sure of the ways in which it matters to the reading of the novel.


message 27: by Robin P, Moderator (new)

Robin P | 2201 comments Mod
What I want to know is why everyone is so enamored of Isabel in spite of her doing little to encourage them? Maybe that is why, she is a challenge. Or is that she is original and confident compared to the average girl of the time? She herself is annoyed with the "list" of suitors she has.


message 28: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2632 comments Robin wrote: "What I want to know is why everyone is so enamored of Isabel in spite of her doing little to encourage them? ..."

Well, Goodwood knew her in the United States. Warburton and Ralph and Mr. Touchett did respond to her quickly, without James particularly outlining her charm. But Osmund seems to be motivated by her wealth.

Gorra writes: "Taken to Europe and furnished with an unexpected inheritance, Isabel finds what looks at first like an ever-expanding field in which to exercise her own sense of independence. At first. For she will soon make the mistake of her young life, and her mixture of 'curiosity and fastidiousness,' brittle intelligence and inflated confidence, would make her an easy mark for the reader’s criticism if she were not, as James wrote, meant to awaken our sense of tenderness instead."

Gorra, Michael (2012-08-27). Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece. Liveright. Kindle Edition. Prologue.

I can't find the James quotation itself at the moment, but it seems to me that James intended to present this ambivalent creature to our empathy. Whether he succeeded in creating such a character is rather open to us -- influenced by the responses of those around her?


message 29: by Madge UK (last edited Oct 31, 2014 02:50AM) (new)

Madge UK (madgeuk) | 2933 comments Thanks for that quote Lily. I don't warm to Isabel at all, she makes me cross. I much prefer Henrietta's get-up-and-go. We are told that Osmond 'does' nothing and are not expected to like him for his indolence but Isabel 'does' nothing and is is an indolent, stereotypical 'lady'. They are two of a kind. Ralph told Isabel to 'go everywhere, do everything, be triumphant' but she spectacularly fails to do that. He had a vision for her, an American vision, she has none.

I do not accept the inferred premise that because she is a woman she can do nothing to alter her 'entrapment'. She is supposed to be a 'new woman' but she behaves like an 'old' one. There were plenty of women of this period who broke away from convention and 'did' things, George Eliot and George Sands for instance and the women who travelled to Africa and the Far East alone, who did not just pootle around art galleries and ancient ruins.

http://www.deabirkett.com/pages/books...

It seems to me that it was James who was trapped by his own limited vision of what 'ladies' could and should do. Trapped by his own background perhaps. He was surrounded by get-up-and-go women like Edith Wharton and Mary Berenson and yet presents us with a limp wristed heroine whose raison d'etre is, seemingly, to marry (view spoiler). Her wealth could also have rescued her but she does not have the spirit or acumen to let it do so. James created a wimp!


message 30: by Lily (last edited Oct 31, 2014 05:27AM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2632 comments Madge wrote: "...It seems to me that it was James who was trapped by his own limited vision of what 'ladies' could and should do. Trapped by his own background perhaps. ..."

Certainly James had been exposed to enough spunky and ambitious women to have created such a character. But if he had, would he have given us such a devastating critique of society and its pressures on women?

I wanted a banker, following in the steps of her uncle. Or a Lady Warburton more like Glencora or Laura of Trollope's Palliser series. But that is not the commentary on society that James chose to give us. James never informs us as to the extent women continued to be barred from universities or any ongoing education beyond that self-acquired by travel, et al.

At the time, and throughout his career, he seemed to struggle with the contrast between a world that offered broad opportunities and a world that was constricted by the conventions of the past. He knew that Americans often felt they could escape limitations. He didn't seem to believe liberty/freedom was as limitless as Emerson claimed. So he gave us a protagonist who, in her naivete, was trapped by both her freedom and the very past she created as she lived, as well as by the forces around her.

I want Isabel to be different than she is. That she isn't is part of the power of the novel for me -- and part of my love/hate of the writings of James (besides the twisted sentences and long meanderings of the mind that foretell Woolf and Joyce). Gorra has helped me understand better how James is indeed an author that bridged the Victorian and the modern. I also find myself contrasting Isabel with Galsworthy's Irene in The Forsyte Saga (1906-21), a woman who quietly found her own way when suffocated by the demands of marriage, largely by acquiring piano students.

James must certainly have had Eliot's Dorothea in mind as he crafted Isabel. His had to be a very different woman. (Unfortunately, I have never been able to warm to Dorothea, from the opening pages of Middlemarch when she loftily disdains the family jewels, then manages to claim some of the loveliest for herself. But I suppose such character creation really is part of the genius of Eliot.) Glaskell had given the world sturdy, wealthy, savvy women capable of supporting the mill owners who entered their purview (e.g., North and South - 1854-'55). James presented a "lady", as he observed such a creature, an American woman in Europe with considerable resources, in ~1880. She was not of the stuff of the Mary Kingsley who traveled in Africa 1893-'95.


message 31: by Jeremy (new)

Jeremy | 108 comments Building on the discussion about Isabel, I was surprised she tired so quickly of seeing the world. I don't know what 70,000 pounds translates to in today's money, but I'm sure it's a significant amount. I've spent my fair share of time daydreaming about what I would do if I won the lottery and I never stop coming up with new ideas. How did Isabel decide after only a year that she'd seen all there was to see? I think this shows a lack of imagination on her part. She returns to Italy not stimulated by everything that she'd seen and done, but is instead as world-weary as woman three or four times her age. It's as though a life of ease and without purpose has made Isabel listless. She believes marriage will give her a purpose. What I find disappointing is that her field of vision is so narrow that she can't find a higher purpose than loving an unworthy man.


message 32: by Lily (last edited Oct 31, 2014 08:04AM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2632 comments Jeremy wrote: "...What I find disappointing is that her field of vision is so narrow that she can't find a higher purpose than loving an unworthy man...."

This is one place where I wonder if James doesn't parallel Eliot a bit -- a natively bright, lively woman with little education is attracted to a man's seemingly glittering surface rather than his reality, as Dorothea was to Casaubon. (Sidebar re Middlemarch: (view spoiler)


message 33: by Madge UK (last edited Oct 31, 2014 09:18AM) (new)

Madge UK (madgeuk) | 2933 comments Re spoiler:But look what Eliot herself achieved despite social conditions!
And Dorothea at least did some research work for her husband and she helped to get new labourers' cottages. Isabel does nothing but swan around and entertain other idle people. I agree with Jeremy that her field of vision is narrow and only encompasses getting a man. Then she commends herself for marrying a 'poor' man who lives in a large, very well appointed villa, pays for his daughter to go to a convent, buys antiquities and presumably keeps Madame Merle as a mistress! She is like a perverse teenager doing precisely what her parents don't want her to do and living to regret it. 'New woman' she is not, except in her convoluted Jamesian thinking but her romantic notions about life never translate into action, which Henrietta warned her about in a previous chapter.


message 34: by Madge UK (last edited Oct 31, 2014 10:00AM) (new)

Madge UK (madgeuk) | 2933 comments Lily #30: Emerson claimed that for Americans, without the trammelling of the past, the world was their oyster but James' travels in Europe and his encounters with Freudian psychology via his brother led him to believe that the past impinged just as much upon Americans as upon Europeans but perhaps Europeans understood it better because they were surrounded by it. Therefore Isabel was not a tabula rosa when she came to England and she had a lot to learn, so much so that it overwhelmed her. Henrietta met it head on but as you say Isabel was not made of such strong stuff, she was not an 'exceptional' Emersonian American. James may also be saying (based on his experience) that American exceptionalism was a myth, that there was no city on a hill, that New World and Old World are all part of a whole; that Emerson was wrong


message 35: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2632 comments Madge wrote: "...James may also be saying (based on his experience) that American exceptionalism was a myth, that there was no city on a hill, that New World and Old World are all part of a whole; that Emerson was wrong..."

I perceive that is what James is saying.


message 36: by Madge UK (new)

Madge UK (madgeuk) | 2933 comments OK. I wonder if others agree? It is dfficult to discern what James is actually saying and I often wonder if my Englishness gets in the way.


message 37: by Lily (last edited Oct 31, 2014 01:37PM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2632 comments Madge wrote: "OK. I wonder if others agree? It is difficult to discern what James is actually saying and I often wonder if my Englishness gets in the way."

A few comments from Gorra on James and Emerson. I'll try to pull some others on how Gorra sees James as portraying Isabel, but not until later, maybe several days.

It [the reader?] knows from the start some things that she will only gradually discover, and we must remember too that James thought Emerson’s own great weakness was his “ripe unconsciousness of evil.”

Gorra, Michael (2012-08-27). Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece (p. 115). Liveright. Kindle Edition.

...Also written there was his study of Emerson, one that found its occasion in an edition of the Transcendentalist’s correspondence with Thomas Carlyle. In writing, James suggested that their letters belonged not only to a vanished generation, but also to a vanished world. The people and things that concerned them had faded into “a past which is already remote,” and those two difficult minds were now for the ages. Which meant, in a way, that they weren’t for his, and James thought that Emerson’s optimism in particular was unsustainable, the voice of an earlier America, unmarked by civil war.

Ibid.p. 265.


message 38: by Madge UK (new)

Madge UK (madgeuk) | 2933 comments Thanks a lot Lily. Yes, James thought that Emerson had not experienced enough of real life and its evils at Concord (his home) so his optimism about the future for Americans was unrealistic. Isabel encounters evil in Europe in the machinations of Madame Merle and Osmond and as an innocent Emersonian American gel she is ill equipped to deal with it. I suppose I should feel sorry for her but because she also spends a couple of years travelling around Europe gaining 'experience' and has good advice from her friends, I feel cross about her foolishness rather as I would be cross with my own daughter if she ignored all the warnings about a bad relationship. And I feel cross with James for letting her be so foolish and giving her no 'out'. I do not think that her particular circumstances as a woman warranted it.


message 39: by Emma (new)

Emma (emmalaybourn) | 298 comments I feel the same way as some of you about Isabel's character and her general wishy-washiness. She doesn't show any great powers of decision or intellect: but on the other hand, how many of us would do great things in her situation? Maybe James is portraying her as a Everywoman, imperfect, open and malleable.

It does strike me that she is curiously friendless. Ralph and Henrietta dip in and out of her life, offering advice but no real support; they're quite detached from her, and Ralph has made a deliberate decision to stand back and watch her. She has no parents and while Mrs Touchett is well-meaning she's not terribly involved either. So if Mme Merle is the one who's most consistently around, it's not surprising if Isabel succumbs to her influence.


message 40: by Madge UK (new)

Madge UK (madgeuk) | 2933 comments She was supposed to be a 'New Woman' of the kind James admired Emma but IMO falls spectacularly short of those ideals. It isn't that she doesn't do great things, she doesn't do anything except swan around Europe with a companion.

http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Woman

Yes, she is certainly short of friends of her own age when Henrietta goes off to be a journalist. Ralph acts as a voyeur but does advise her against marriage, as does Henrietta. She is indeed left to the machinations of Madame Merle even though everyone seems to have a poor opinion of her and probably knew of her liaison with Osmond.


message 41: by Jeremy (new)

Jeremy | 108 comments Isabel doesn't do herself any favors though. She either holds the people who want to help her at arm's length or deliberately pushes them away.

To answer Emma's question of how many of us would do great things in Isabel's situation, it may be pride speaking, but I'd like to think I would. If someone drops a fortune in my lap I think I'd become a great philanthropist. It's possible the money would make me selfish though. In that case I'd at least enjoy spending it on myself. Of course I'm thinking like a 21st century man. What could a 19th century woman do? There were certainly many worthy causes women could participate in at the end of the 19th century. I'll repeat what I said earlier - she lacks imagination. She thinks she is independent and original, but her choice to marry Osmond looks blandly conventional.


message 42: by Madge UK (new)

Madge UK (madgeuk) | 2933 comments So true Jeremy. Presumably a 19thC woman could start a business or invest in one, found a charity, open a shop dealing in antiquities etc etc. The woman has no imagination! She THINKS of 'freedom' and 'independence' but does not ACT upon those thoughts. We are told she is 'spirited' but she shows none.


message 43: by Lily (last edited Nov 03, 2014 02:39PM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2632 comments And if one takes Isabel as who she is rather than what one wants her to be?


message 44: by Jeremy (new)

Jeremy | 108 comments If we take her as she is then up to this point she's not interesting considering she's the protagonist and I can only speak for myself, but I don't feel much sympathy for her. I'm frustrated she hasn't done more with her opportunities. I think Ralph would agree with the latter part of my statement. If he thinks Isabel is interesting then Becky Sharp would blow his mind.


message 45: by Madge UK (new)

Madge UK (madgeuk) | 2933 comments Yes, she is still a spiritless character with whom I have no empathy at this stage of the book. How do you take her Lily?

Robin mentioned that he thought PoaL read like a play. If it was a play I would by now be looking at the costumes and the set rather than concentrating on the plot.


message 46: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2632 comments Madge wrote: "Yes, she is still a spiritless character with whom I have no empathy at this stage of the book. How do you take her Lily?..."

I have no intention of attempting to dissuade either you or Jeremy or anyone else from whatever view they develop of Isabel. I may, however, attempt to encourage not giving up on that (view spoiler) writer Henry James. He seems so relentless in his view that evil is to mess with other people's lives.

I do wish Chris had the time/interest to join the discussion, since I understand he spent the better part of a year reading from James's oeuvre.


message 47: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2632 comments Jeremy wrote: "...If he thinks Isabel is interesting then Becky Sharp would blow his mind. ..."

Jeremy -- I am curious. What is your opinion of the Becky Sharp character? (For the record, on my most recent discussion online of Vanity Fair , I got myself into hot water for extending a certain amount of sympathy towards her for her pluck and in consideration of the circumstances from which she came.)


message 48: by Madge UK (new)

Madge UK (madgeuk) | 2933 comments You wouldn't dissuade me Lily but as another reader here it would be nice to know your view of Isabel as portrayed.

(I would have been with you on Becky Sharp.)


message 49: by Madge UK (last edited Nov 04, 2014 12:41AM) (new)

Madge UK (madgeuk) | 2933 comments Re James and evil, this statement by him is revealing:

'Life is, in fact, a battle. Evil is insolent and strong; beauty enchanting, but rare; goodness very apt to be weak; folly very apt to be defiant; wickedness to carry the day; imbeciles to be in great places, people of sense in small, and mankind generally unhappy. But the world as it stands is no narrow illusion, no phantasm, no evil dream of the night; we wake up to it, forever and ever; and we can neither forget it nor deny it nor dispense with it.”'

And this extract:

http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307...

So if Isabel has been caught up in a web of evil should we have more sympathy for her? Do we expect the 'new woman' to be able to fight it more successfully than the old? As a 'new woman' does she have more weapons in her feminist armoury to fight it?


message 50: by Jeremy (new)

Jeremy | 108 comments Lily wrote: "What is your opinion of the Becky Sharp character?"

My initial reaction after reading the book was that I did not like her. She was dishonest, selfish, and manipulative. She didn't do what was right for her husband, her child, or her servants. She was not the kind of person I would want to know.

Over the last few years my views have softened. Becky had a difficult childhood and to some extent was warped by it. Whereas before I railed against her lack of moral virtue, now my disdain for her is tempered by pity and sympathy.

I'd like to credit my change of heart to having developed more compassion and understanding over the years. That may not be the case though. It's just as likely that watching Reese Witherspoon play Becky is what changed my mind.


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