I’m inching further along with The Portrait of a Lady. I realise that in my last post, I never once mentioned why I love Henry James’s writing so much – with the proviso that I do not love it quite so much, though I admire it, in The Golden Bowl. With his long, supple sentences and his exquisitely tuned choice of words, James can track every subtle shift in a character’s train of thought or emotion. He describes their rich, inner lives precisely and with nuance. He examines his characters’ motivations scrupulously and sympathetically; he allows them to be many things at once and experience many, maybe conflicting, feelings at once.
No detail is too tiny because every detail reveals something about a person. So Ralph, when he learns from Henrietta that Casper Goodwood has paid a visit and perhaps proposed to Isabel after she had told Ralph that she was expecting no visitors, experiences a pang, ‘and it was a new pang to him to have to suspect her of duplicity. On the other hand, he quickly said to himself, what concern was it of his that she should have made an appointment with a lover?’ Henrietta enlightens him immediately: Isabel had not expected Goodwood because Henrietta had sent him.
‘Isabel was cruel?’ – and Ralph’s face lighted with the relief of his cousin’s not having shown duplicity.
‘I don’t exactly know what passed between them. But she gave him no satisfaction – she sent him back to America.’
‘Poor Mr Goodwood,’ Ralph sighed.
And we know exactly how heartfelt that sigh was without James having to write anything further.
Even Goodwood, about whom I was not very complimentary in the last post, is presented as a complex individual, powerful and certain and yet also uncertain and humble. Although yes, still a bit stalkerish.
(James Tissot, A Widow, 1868, private collection; from here)
And so on to Madame Merle, who has now fetched up at Gardencourt as Mr Touchett lies on his deathbed. (Unfortunately for me, my daughter watched the cartoon film of The Sword in the Stone a couple of days ago and Madame Mim keeps popping into my head whenever I see the words ‘Madame Merle’ which is adding a layer to my reading of the novel that I think I can safely assume Henry James did not foresee.) Like the Touchetts, Madame Merle is a sort of hybrid although she veils her origins and Isabel initially thinks she is French as she appears at least to have sloughed off those ‘American’ characteristics of directness and simplicity, and steeped herself in European culture. Mrs Touchett remarks that Madame Merle loves mystery and she seems exotic to Isabel and a rôle model for her. Madame Merle is accomplished at everything the leisured upper classes most value: she is beautiful, witty but not too witty, worldly and adept at conversation; she plays the piano, sketches and embroiders with skill; she is well connected and knows the best people in Europe. She strikes Isabel as superior to other people; Isabel also considers herself to be somewhat superior to others and here is Madame Merle as the embodiment of all she most admires. She has perfect ‘taste’. Isabel is not uncritical: she recognises that for all her charm Madame Merle is unemotional and lacks ‘wildness’. However, she feels that Madame Merle has much to teach her.
Madame Merle, like Mrs Touchett, has not been happily married; she hints at a stormy past before she was widowed. As an older woman, is Madame Merle an alternative figure to Mrs Touchett of what Isabel, still forming herself, might become in later life?
I have also now met Gilbert Osmond. Interestingly, Osmond’s appearance is described in detail twice – more, I think, than that of anyone else in the book, including Isabel’s. The word ‘fine’ is often used of him, both of how he looks and of his taste. Osmond appreciates Isabel as an aesthetic object, something to own and display like his ‘bibelots’, an expression of his fine taste. Isabel, on being shown his collection, worries not that she will ‘expose’ not ‘her ignorance’ but ‘her possible grossness of perception’, a lapse in taste. Meanwhile, Madame Merle’s taste has been offended by Osmond’s sister, the Countess. (The Countess is also unhappily married!) The Countess immediately realises what Madame Merle has planned and accosts her; for Madame Merle this is ‘one of her pretty perversities’; she finds her ‘manner was odious’ and her expressions ‘coarse’. Directness and honesty, here, are offensive; lying and manipulation, however, are not. Madame Merle and Osmond seem to have refined themselves out of much sense of morality.
As for Pansy, what a cipher she is proving. ‘A convent flower’, ‘innocent’, ‘uncanny’ and ‘insipid’, she is treated by everyone like a baby yet they discuss her marrying the next year.
(John Everett Millais, Hearts are Trumps, 1872; Tate collection)