(James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White No. 3, 1866, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham; found here)
Amazing news! I have finally finished rereading The Portrait of a Lady. And it is clear to me that if I am not to be reduced to reading nothing more demanding than the oeuvre of Enid Blyton, I had better start spending less time on the internet. My attention span appears to be the size of a gnat’s these days.
Despite my mental feebleness I have thoroughly enjoyed the novel and am keener than before to read The Wings of a Dove which, Graham Greene assures me in the introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition, is a variation on the same basic plot. I have been thinking more about what I wrote last time, James’s wonderful ability to use metaphor to turn an emotional or cognitive state into a concrete image; an example being about Henrietta’s nosiness into Goodwood’s private business: ‘this enquiring authoress was constantly flashing her lantern into the quiet darkness of his soul’. Do other writers do this and I just haven’t noticed, or is it a peculiarity of Henry James’s? There seems something very particular about it.
Even though I have read the novel before I had completely forgotten the most significant revelation near the end of it and was completely gobsmacked. The actual ending was open yet bleak as James’s endings always seem to be (well, of those of his works I’ve read), and yet perhaps not completely bleak. Isabel returns to Rome because she has promised Pansy she will, repaying a betrayal (not Pansy’s!) with loyalty. And Ralph has left her the use of Gardencourt for a year; the novel has proved Ralph to be prescient and so perhaps Isabel will not stay long with horrible Osmond after all.
Which brings me to something I haven’t yet been able to resolve: what are Isabel’s rights? She married a American in Italy but in an American church. Which nation’s jurisdiction applies to her? Were she British and married in Britain, her property and money would have become her husband’s, but perhaps the US or Italy had more liberal laws? (This is assuming that Isabel might overcome her reverence for the institution of marriage and its duties.)
Another possible bright light at the end of the novel is Henrietta’s future. True, there is not one single precedent of a happy marriage in this book and true, Ralph’s previous experiment in bequests ended disastrously. Like Isabel, I’m a tiny bit sorry that she is going to marry, but at least they know each other well. And this time Ralph seems to have directed his legacy more wisely, in giving his money to Henrietta to start a newspaper and work. I was quite annoyed on Henrietta’s behalf to discover that in this edition of The Portrait of a Lady, revised by James in 1907, the author altered passages about her to make her more of a caricature. She deserves better than that!
Having spent so much time with the characters and known them so deeply, I cannot stop wondering about what will happen to them... Thanks again to Dolce Bellezza, for precipitating this, even though I’ve finished so much later than everyone else in the readalong!
(Antonio da Correggio, Adoration of the Child, 1518–20, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence; from here; surprisingly – to me, anyway – ‘Henrietta had a special devotion to this intimate scene – she thought it the most beautiful picture in the world’; perhaps from this we are meant to realise that Henrietta too would like a family?)