Henry James and the Myth of the Independent Woman

portrait of a ladyThe Portrait of a Lady, Henry James, 1881

I half enjoyed this book. Which is to say, I enjoyed half of it. The first half.  Then it went off the rails. I suspected this might happen. When a writer describes a female character as intelligent and independent, I get a bit excited, but I’m also apprehensive. So many writers directly characterize a woman this way, then proceed to depict dimwitted and passive behavior from this supposedly brilliant and forceful woman. They want you to think “gee, these situations are so complex and demanding that even a smart, strong woman has lost her way.” Instead, I think: don’t make claims about characters that you have no intention of substantiating!

Even our beloved Jane Austen is guilty of this disappointing deception. She describes Lizzy Bennet as quick and decisive, but during the slightest crisis, Lizzy just cannot decide what to do. The turning point between her and Darcy is the moment when she’s befuddled, and Darcy charges off on a horse, knowing exactly what to do. Because what this sharp, intelligent woman needed all along was a man to swoop in to make decisions and act on her behalf.

Back to the book at hand. Henry James tells us that Isabel Archer is an independent, intellectual woman. Brimful of ideas. Capable of startling action. At the beginning she seems quite quirky. He introduces her brilliantly, as a young woman so unconventional she’s more interested in introducing herself to dogs than to her own relatives. This is the Victorian Era, when propriety required one to announce one’s presence as a guest in someone’s home before playing with their dogs.

Isabel’s strange, cold-blooded aunt snatched her from Albany to England, where she meets her ailing uncle and his invalid son, Ralph in their English country estate, Gardencourt. Isabel is such a success in England, that several suitable suitors propose to her and she turns them down. James doesn’t provide any real substantive reason for her refusals, which is fine. You don’t need a reason to not marry anyone, Isabel. You do you. When she refuses a wealthy aristocrat, her cousin and uncle think she’s so original, they’d love to see what surprising thing she’d do if she had enough money to make what she wanted out of her life. So, Ralph and the dying uncle conspire to leave the bulk of the uncle’s money to Isabel. At this point the novel goes sour.

Previous to her windfall, I bought into Isabel’s character. I too, was excited to see what she would make of her life. The characterization of the family at Gardencourt is subtle. There are worlds of detail to analyze. Just the first half of the novel contains enough material for several Ph.D. theses on self-perception versus reality. It’s great. I was riding high on the wave of expectation James builds around Isabel. I was enjoying the prose. Then it all came tumbling down.

As I passed the half-way point, it became increasingly difficult to ignore the discrepancy between Isabel’s characterization and her behavior. James says she’s intelligent, but I think she says “I don’t understand you” more than she says anything else. She’s supposed to be intellectual, but she doesn’t engage in any intellectual activities. She does refuse to marry an aristocrat when everyone expects her to take such a fabulous opportunity, but that is the one independent thing she does. She spends the rest of the book being extraordinarily passive. It is so disappointing to me that Henry James decided to write about an intelligent and independent woman, but couldn’t come up with anything intelligent for her to do or say. She’s supposed to be so fascinating and modern, but the one concern he has with her is “who will she marry and what will the consequences be?” Just like every other woman in the history of novels. I wanted her to start a political movement or build a hospital or at the very least become a painter or dancer or just do something interesting. One interesting thing. Well, I would have liked for her to do a lifetime of interesting things, but I didn’t get one out of Henry James. Not one.

Isabel does end up marrying someone and he’s terrible. This is in the second part of the novel when things fall apart. James doesn’t really explain why she marries this man. Far after the fact of their marriage he offers the small illumination that he appeared smart and poor, so he seemed like a worthy person to share her newfound wealth with. Poor Isabel was projecting. He’s not what he appeared. Their marriage makes her miserable. She finds out a terrible secret about him. That’s the whole story. A woman inherits wealth unexpectedly and makes an unfortunate marriage. Her husband has a scandalous secret, which I guessed immediately upon his introduction to the story. James’ hints are beyond heavy-handed.

Early on I liked James’ prose and I liked the richness of his depictions of Isabel’s thoughts. However, there are so many elements of this novel, reputedly his best, that seem objectively bad to me. Objective is not quite the right word. We cannot measure the quality of prose objectively. Yet, there is a consensus about “strong writing” and “weak writing” and so much of this is not strong. If a creative writing class were to workshop this novel here’s the criticism James would have to absorb:

  • the narrator’s description of characters does not match their behavior
  • Isabel’s husband’s characterization is weak. He completely demoralizes his wife, but I’m not sure how. How exactly the marriage falls apart is never described. This is a problem, because their relationship is the crux of the story.
  • So much showing, very little telling. It’s almost as if the writer is afraid that he cannot write human behavior effectively, so he describes it instead of demonstrating it.
  • Please, please break up your paragraphs. There are so many long, long paragraphs that include perfectly natural places to break into a second paragraph.
  • There are several passages that read like sitcom phone conversations, where you can only hear one speaker, so they repeat the other speaker’s dialogue in the form of a question. For example, “Her husband has a very bad manner. Did I enjoy my trip to America? Why should I have enjoyed it? I didn’t go for my pleasure.” This is unnatural and I don’t see any reason to do it, when it’s just as easy to break the paragraph.
  • I struggle with the pacing. The first 250 pages give Isabel’s thoughts in such detail, but then her most critical decisions are not explained and there are huge gaps in time that seem unjustified.
  • So much of what the narrator states needs to be unpacked. I’ll give one glaring example “he had neither innocence nor weakness, so he had no practical philosophy.” I’m not sure what that really means. But more importantly, if you want us to believe that he has no innocence, have him do something that betrays a worldliness and lack of innocence. If you want us to believe he has no weakness, give us a scene that demonstrates this. What does it even mean that he has no practical philosophy? Have some faith in your readers. Write human behavior and let them interpret it. These characters rarely do anything. They just sit around having their feelings described. I read 500 pages about these characters, but I couldn’t give you an example of a typical behavior for any one of them, because there is so little actual behavior in the novel.
  • It seems obvious that Isabel’s husband is very controlling of women, because of how controlling he is of his daughter. If you want us to believe that Isabel is intelligent, she should have picked up on that.
  • If you want us to believe that Isabel is independent, she needs to be less passive and devoted to her horrible husband. What exactly is so modern and interesting about this woman whose sense of propriety trumps her need for personal happiness? Why do we end with her going back to her husband?

I could keep going. It seems to me that the only reason Henry James is in the cannon is his detailed description of characters’ conflicting thoughts. I’ve read that this influenced modernists like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce and I believe that. However, I strongly believe that we should be honest when someone makes art that is bad, but contains a spark of an idea that other artists took and made into good art. That’s what Henry James is shaping up to be. I still have, sigh, three more books by him to read.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention that there is an interesting and independent-minded woman in the book. It isn’t Isabel, it’s her friend Henrietta Stackpole, a feminist journalist. This book should have been about her. But I guess she’s not a “lady” in his mind, because he uses her for . . . comic relief? Well, no, the book is mostly humorless, but Henrietta does seem to be the butt of a joke somehow. James doesn’t take her seriously. He should. She’s everything he claims his main character is.

Final thoughts:

There are so many good late Victorian novels on the theme of marriage as a prison for women. Better on every level. Nearly anything by Thomas Hardy, George Elliot’s Middlemarch. Anne Bronte wrote a novel about a woman who leaves her abusive husband 53 years earlier. The Portrait of a Lady is insufficient, as a work of art and as a social statement. Fail.

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