Read an ExcerptHenry James and the Imagination of Pleasure
Cambridge University Press
0521811694 - Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure - by Tessa Hadley
'Just you wait!': reflections on the last chapters of
The Portrait of a Lady
Critics (and presumably readers) have been tripping up on and debating the ending of The Portrait of a Lady since the novel first appeared in 1881: in those early days with unsophisticated perplexity and often impatience. Even the very sympathetic review by James's friend W. D. Howells in Century balks at James's leaving us 'to our own conjectures in regard to the fate of the people in whom he has interested us' before submitting to swallowing his treatment meekly: 'We must agree, then, to take what seems a fragment instead of a whole, and to find, when we can, a name for this new kind in fiction.'1
In The Portrait James has constructed his impasse: the spirited Isabel in an impossible marriage, having made what feels like a terminal rupture in disobeying her husband and coming to England to be with her dying cousin, tempted momentarily by the renewed importunity of Caspar Goodwood. But he does not seem to have left us all the instructions for how we get out of it. Does Isabel have to return to her hated husband and his punishments for her defection ('It will not be the scene of a moment; it will be a scene of the rest of my life', 565)?2 What other possible futures does the novel allow us to envisage for her? Is Caspar a solution? These speculations sound very like Isabel's own, in her railway carriage crossing Europe on her way to Ralph (although she has not calculated yet on Caspar's offer), and she too feels that the 'middle years', the years ahead, the immediate question of what she will do, are wrapped from her in a 'grey curtain', she only has a 'mutilated glimpse' of any future (M 4923).
These days we are more sophisticatedly perplexed. The problem is not simply one of James 'frustrating the reader's curiosity' about a handful of 'characters'.4 As readers or at least as critics we are irreversibly committed to the idea that a serious novel will have moved beyond '"objectively realistic representation" to a stage of reading the significations that lie behind or within reality'.5 What James means us to understand Isabel might do at the end of his novel matters, because James is elaborating a crucial moment in the development of that theme of marriage and adultery which, it has been argued, is one of the fundamentals to the whole novel 'project', from the beginnings of the theme in La Nouvelle Héloise, Elective Affinities, and so on.6
One of the energies driving the nineteenthcentury development of the novel is that head of steam built up by the contradiction between the form's tendency on the one hand towards a resolution in adaptation to social forms and norms (its inbuilt drive, for example, towards happy endings in marriages); and on the other hand, its narratives rooted in a subjective individualism that cannot always square with resolution, that cannot but register individual reluctance, resistance, differentness, and raise unanswerable protests against the 'contract'. In Tony Tanner's elegant formulation, it is the 'tension between law and sympathy which holds the great bourgeois novel together'.7 The impasse James has engineered at the end of The Portrait of a Lady, between submission to the form of marriage and commitment to the individual pursuit of happiness and freedom, is a place the Englishlanguage novel has visited numerous times already by 1881.
The 'solutions', or resolutions, for Dorothea Casaubon and Gwendolen Grandcourt (and for that matter for Jane Eyre) come from offstage, in the form of convenient demises; but we know already from something in the texture of The Portrait of a Lady partly to do with just how very selfconsciously it inscribes itself into that tradition of novels structured around strained marriage contracts that James is pressing the development of the tradition to a new point where that kind of formal manipulation will not answer. An authorial rescue (Osmond falling out of a small high window at the Palazzo Roccanera?) would intrude here like an outmoded piece of theatre.
James introduces the possibility of another way out of the impasse also traditional, even if traditionally (in the Englishlanguage novel) outlawed in the shape of Caspar Goodwood offering himself in defiance of all convention and all contract. The offer opens up under Isabel's feet abyss, escape but in her first panicking recognition of it she flies, away from the lover and back to the security of the lighted house. Has James proposed the third ingredient of the classic adulterous triangle the 'other man' only in order to eliminate him from the equation? It is difficult now to read the 1881 ending of the novel as if we did not know the New York Edition revisions, but originally it finished with Henrietta's injunction to Caspar:
"Look here, Mr Goodwood," she said; "just you wait!"
On which he looked up at her. (M 520)
Taking that by itself, it does not seem ridiculous to interpret it as a reviewer in the Spectator did in 1881, relishingly appalled at what he calls James's 'pure agnosticism':
never before has he closed a novel by setting up so cynical a signpost into the abyss, as he sets up at the close of this book. He ends his Portrait of a Lady, if we do not wholly misinterpret the rather covert, not to say almost cowardly, hints of his last page, by calmly indicating that this ideal lady of his, whose belief in purity has done so much to alienate her from her husband, in that it had made him smart under her contempt for his estimates of the world, saw a 'straight path' to a liaison with her rejected lover.8
Most contemporary reviewers, after some puzzled hesitation, saw that Isabel's 'straight path' was away from and not into the arms of Caspar Goodwood, but their hesitation was understandable. Without the New York Edition underscoring, Henrietta's injunction and Caspar's look are deeply equivocal: uninterpretable, surely? How could we read them and be sure Caspar has nothing to hope for? Although when James added his final sentence in 1905 (the year he worked on the revisions for the New York Edition) he may have imagined he was making obvious what insensitive readers had only too densely missed, he was in fact tipping into definiteness a 'close' which, intriguingly, had closed nothing, had hovered on the brink of a future which it did not offer to make out any better than Isabel could herself in her 'mutilated glimpse'. In the 1881 edition Isabel is sent back to Rome, but we only have an unclear idea as to what for, and what could happen next: we can only piece together into a guess all the fragments of Isabel's own and her friends' speculation. In the New York Edition at least we are made sure that what could happen next cannot be Caspar:
"Look here, Mr Goodwood," she said; "just you wait!"
On which he looked up at her but only to guess, from her face, with a revulsion, that she simply meant he was young. She stood shining at him with that cheap comfort, and it added, on the spot, thirty years to his life. She walked him away with her, however, as if she had given him now the key to patience.(592)
It makes for a neatly ironic measure of cultural shift that the language used in the Spectator to deplore James's 'agnosticism' 'the tendency of life, he holds, is to result in a general failure of the moral and spiritual hopes it raises' sounds remarkably like a strain of late twentiethcentury disapproval of James's conclusion to The Portrait. Only where the Spectator reviewer upbraided James for giving Isabel to her lover we are now outraged (with some better justification perhaps) that he seems to be giving her back to her husband. It is of course no mere accident of narrative that it is Rome Isabel returns to. The city cannot help standing for the weight of past empire and the constraints of tradition, for 'law' against 'sympathy'; although James is too complex a writer to labour this value onesidedly, and the novel is rich with the consolations as well as the constraints for Isabel of Rome's and Europe's pastness. (When she sits looking from St John Lateran across the Campagna, she registers the 'endurance' as well as the 'splendid sadness' of the old ruins: 'she leaned her weariness upon things that had crumbled for centuries and yet still were upright', 518.) The argument, though, that the ending of The Portrait of a Lady represents a willed conservatism on James's part, a sort of resistance in the spirit but submission to the letter of the law, needs to be met; and is seminal to an interpretation of James's attitude to pleasure and to the proprieties in his later novels.9
Before we can justly decide what order of gesture James's is at the end of The Portrait of a Lady, and whether he is cutting away at a stroke all the equivocation of the second half of the novel in a resort to a transcendent and absolute value 'the traditionary decencies and sanctities of marriage'(ML 404) we need to penetrate further back, to see how that equivocation that impasse is constructed in the first place. Significantly, most interpretations of the ending as a conservative return of Isabel to her husband (whether sympathetic or unsympathetic to James's gesture) depend upon a reading in which James has constructed Isabel as flawed; as committing, out of hubris or lack of selfknowledge, some fatal punishable error, or exhibiting the psychoanalytic sin some 'inner damage'. In other words, the logic of the conservative ending is perceived as being that if James feels justified in punishing her, he must have had her do something to be punished for (even if he / we perceive her punishment as tragic).
This is the retributive model of fictional structure. Interestingly, from the evidence of contemporary reviews of The Portrait, literary criticism of our 'agnostic' twentyfirst century is more prone to the retributive model than James's contemporary and relatively unsophisticated reader. The reader in 1881 might require Isabel to be punished, certainly, if she reneged on her marriage; but he (occasionally she) does not require it because Isabel has 'an inability to extend her imagination beyond the superficial, the conventional' or because she 'refuses to let the "light" of her own sexuality shine'.10 Here and there in 1881 (the American reviewers like her and believe in her more often than the English reviewers) she gets a most sympathetic reading:
The fine purpose of her freedom, the resolution with which she seeks to be the maker of her destiny, the subtle weakness into which all this betrays her, the apparent helplessness of her ultimate position, and the conjectured escape only through patient forbearance what are these, if not attributes of womanly life expended under current conditions?11
The openendedness of this reading its absence of fictional determinism surely approximates more closely to the experience of reading the character than any punitive closed system.12 'Under current conditions' with the sharpness of contemporaneity the woman struggling between her personal unhappiness and her ideal of loyalty in marriage evoked, not astonished psychopathology (there must be something the matter), but (at best) tact and respect.13
Rather than having worked from the idea of a closed, predetermined psychology, James has in fact taken the risk in Portrait of a Lady of inhabiting a psychology in flux, still in formation, full of the potential for surprises.14 Searching through the treatment of Isabel's advancing disenchantment to discover what she has it in her to do in her impasse, what we come away with is an Isabel whose consciousness and experience are not single and unified but made up of bewilderingly contradictory elements; intuitions and ideals, fragments learned and instinctual, obstinacies and vanities and selfdoubt.15 She convinces herself, and us, both that she cannot coexist with Osmond and that she cannot leave him. She literally voices both possibilities, gives in the words that visit her brooding reflections both values their weight and power: the 'traditionary decencies and sanctities of marriage' (M 404), 'the violence there would be in going when Osmond wished her to remain' (M 474), as well as 'the rapid approach of a day when she should have to take back something that she had solemnly given' (M 404) and her worry that she does not know 'what great unhappiness might bring me to'(M 428).
As well as what Isabel consciously reflects on, James gives us in tangible fact the deep instinctual resistance of her spirit to Osmond that goes on at a level below consciousness, in the comedy of how helplessly, provokingly defiant she is with him even as she believes herself most to be conforming to the letter of his law. When he tells her to sit on the sofa she chooses the chair (M 421). How fiercely, staunchly, she resists him in argument (compared, say, to Dorothea with Casaubon): 'There is a thing that would be worth my hearing to know in the plainest words of what it is you accuse me' (M 422). And how adequate to him, intellectually, verbally, her defiance is (compared, say, to Gwendolen's): 'I don't think that on the whole you are disappointed. You have had another opportunity to try and bewilder me' (M 423). She cannot help (James knows uncannily the operations of married conflict) the very punctiliousness of her obedience becoming a twisted critique of what he commandeers her obedience for.
Incidentally, there is some comedy, too, in Isabel's believing she keeps the secret of her unhappiness so effectively. She proclaims it in fact at every pore, surely, for anyone attuned to her (for example when she replies to Lord Warburton's remarking her husband must be very clever that he 'has a genius for upholstery' M 337): not because she wants to be pitied, or even because she wants them to know, but simply because she does not have the faculty of pretence.
Osmond's response to his wife's galling rectitudewithreservation is not to dissimulate the inequity of his conventional, obligating advantage over her ('he was her appointed and inscribed master', 462) but simply to invoke it. (Again, uncanny insight into that spiralling married refusal of one another's terms of reference: if she accuses him of being tyrannous, he'll answer with exaggerated tyranny.) Isabel in the subtlety of her psychological flux, in which conventional obligations have long been entangled with the filmy stuff of an intuitive and personal valuesystem, has come up against the brute archaic powerfact still, for all its different dressing up, inherent in nineteenthcentury marriage. It is no mere incidental joke that the Countess, after Isabel tells her Osmond has forbidden her to travel to England, says, 'when I want to make a journey my husband simply tells me I can have no money!' (M 474).16 What is someone made of subtler stuff to do with brute fact?
It is the nature of the irony that plays around the portrait of Isabel which is at issue in deciding how retributive or openended James's 'solution' is, and what his attitude is, finally, to her 'formlessness', her psychology in flux. In the later dialogically structured novels James dispenses with an omniscient narrator capable of commenting, for example, that Isabel 'was probably very liable to the sin of selfesteem' (M 41), or that she 'flattered herself that she had gathered a rich experience' (M 279). Here in The Portrait of a Lady he is still employing that conventional apparatus of discursive commentary which it is easy to interpret as some kind of directional inscription, or 'last word', on the primary illusionistic fabric of the novel. Yet when James informs us from his superior vantage that Isabel has 'an unquenchable desire to think well of herself' (M 42) that trajectory of comprehension could hardly produce the illusion of life by itself: the commentary has to be carried into conviction on the back of a wave of other 'experiences' of Isabel her talk, her situation, her appearance, her adventures, and, by the second half of the novel, her own insistent selfcommentating narrative and analysis which almost replaces the intrusive authorial one. The illusion, finally, overspills the circumscription; an explicit commentary can be contained within a novel which is by no means circumscribed by that commentary.
Alfred Habegger suggests that the 'pattern' for Isabel's story comes from James's ironic reading of contemporary American women novelists: in numerous early reviews for The Nation, The North American Review and others James expressed his exasperation with so many 'middleaged lovers' who spent their time 'breaking the hearts and wills of demure little schoolgirls', those same schoolgirls who had most passionately professed desires for freedom and selfsufficiency. It seems very plausible that James should have made this anomaly a muchreiterated high value on personal freedom going along with a profound unacknowledged desire to submit to a suspiciously paternalseeming master a hidden ingredient in the psychological baggage of an Isabel formed, after all, in the same America as Anne Moncure Crane and Elizabeth Stoddard (the novelists Habegger makes reference to). No doubt it is closely tied up with Isabel's 'unquenchable desire to please' (M 28) and her 'infinite hope that she should never do anything wrong' (M 42); and it is probably connected too with one very characteristic movement of Isabel's thought, out of complacency and into a painful and hurriedly repressed selfdoubt. It happens, for example, just after she has refused Lord Warburton:
Who was she, what was she, that she should hold herself superior? What view of life, what design upon fate, what conception of happiness, had she, that pretended to be larger than this large occasion?
she was wondering whether she was not a cold, hard girl; and when at last she got up and rather quickly went back to the house, it was because, as she had said to Lord Warburton, she was really frightened at herself.(M 95)
That fear at herself is reiterated throughout the novel, particularly in the last sections as she contemplates, having no idea what she will do next, the crisis in her marriage: 'I am afraid
Afraid of myself! If I were afraid of my husband, that would simply be my duty. That is what women are expected to be' (M 441); and, 'constantly present to her mind were all the traditionary decencies and sanctities of marriage. The idea of violating them filled her with shame as well as dread' (M 404). 'Marriage meant that in such a case as this, when one had to choose, one chose as a matter of course for one's husband. "I am afraid yes, I am afraid," she said to herself' (M 474).
These are all James's representations, no doubt, of the operations of what Habegger calls Isabel's 'hidden internal bondage': they are easy for us to recognise, now, as part of an especially feminine equipment, results of a cultural patterning at the deepest and most unconscious level.17 Habegger is plausible, too, when he suggests James might be ironising, even, qualities of Isabel's dignity in suffering at the Palazzo Roccanera: the 'noble nickelplated mask worn by so many women's heroines of the time' is also part of the cultural equipment, and part of Isabel's 'unquenchable desire to think well of herself'.18 James's irony, though, is simply a component in a whole movement that opens up a generous space for imagining Isabel, one that is much larger than her own ideas about herself, or, for that matter, James's 'ideas' about her. He recognises a treacherous double bind in contemporary imaging of the female, and describes how the individual fluid consciousness finds its stumbling and inevitably incomplete account in and through and around those images.
If James is at pains to register this 'pathology' of a feminine ideal, it would be misrepresenting the overall effect of The Portrait, however, not to stress how he also registers in Isabel a resilience, an energy, a selfconfidence, all independent of the outcome of her idealistic experiments. (It is in fact the irresistible surging of that selfconfidence that causes some of her moments of selfdoubt in the first part of the novel: how dare she be so sure she does not want to marry Lord Warburton?) We know this resilience of hers is independent of her early optimistic rhetoric because we have one of the strongest expressions of it at one of her worst moments, when she is travelling across Europe back to Ralph:19
This impression carried her into the future, of which from time to time she had a mutilated glimpse. She saw herself, in the distant years, still in the attitude of a woman who had her life to live, and these intimations contradicted the spirit of the present hour. It might be desirable to die; but this privilege was evidently to be denied her. Deep in her soul deeper than any appetite for renunciation was the sense that life would be her business for a long time to come. And at moments there was something inspiring, almost exhilarating, in the conviction. It was a proof of strength it was a proof that she should some day be happy again. It couldn't be that she was to live only to suffer only to feel the injury of life repeated and enlarged it seemed to her that she was too valuable, too capable, for that. Then she wondered whether it were vain and stupid to think so well of herself. When had it ever been a guarantee to be valuable?
Was it not much more probable that if one were delicate one would suffer? It involved then, perhaps, an admission that one had a certain grossness; but Isabel recognised, as it passed before her eyes, the quick, vague shadow of a long future.(M 492)
In Isabel's selfinterrogation here, she passes in review several major items in the Victorian female agenda. Are not delicate things supposed to suffer? Is not renunciation a key gesture in the feminine repertoire? Faced with the insoluble contradiction of her unhappy marriage, would not the delicate thing to do be to pale away and die? If so, then delicacy (that prime ingredient of Victorian femininity) is not for Isabel: cannot be, because life surges in her from somewhere deeper than the Victorian ideal, and if that convicts her of a certain 'grossness', by Victorian standards, then so be it. She is learning all the time, and knows now to let this ideal past her with a shrug. It is James's creation of this energetic field around her rather than her specific utterances that engages us with the youthfully presumptuous Isabel at the opening of the novel; the presumption of youth borrows at any given cultural moment whatever rhetoric is current to express reach and appetite and potential. And it is Isabel's energies that Osmond had not counted on when he planned his cultural manipulations, her mind 'attached to his own like a small gardenplot to a deerpark', where he would 'rake the soil gently and water the flowers; he would weed the beds and gather an occasional nosegay' (M 378). Instead among the carefully tended hybrid blooms he calls honour and decency thrust the rank weeds of Isabel's 'pure mind': 'We don't live decently together!' she cries (M 472).
If we do not believe that James is interested in punishing Isabel for her presumption or for the inadequacy of her ideas, by invoking at his ending a sacrifice to law in returning her to Rome and to her husband, then we are left with a novel in which the tension between law and sympathy is unresolved at its close. We understand from her return that she still feels herself answerable to law, to what 'seems right' (Ralph says, 'As seems right as seems right?
Yes, you think a great deal about that', M 507). We know, too, that Isabel's return is partly for Pansy, who figures as the sister / daughter left behind in the very mill of the conventional, helpless to resist it because she does not have Isabel's energy; so that the return certainly has its aspect as a gesture of female solidarity.20 'I don't think anything is over', Isabel says (M 507).
But the return to Rome also feels provisional.21 She has, after all, made her first crucial gesture of disobedience to Osmond, which alters everything; they have acknowledged to one another that any such disobedience will be irrevocable.
To break with Osmond once would be to break for ever; any open acknowledgement of irreconcilable needs would be an admission that their whole attempt would prove a failure. For them there could be no condonement, no compromise, no easy forgetfulness, no formal readjustment. (M 405)
We have a novel that ends poised on the brink of something, balanced over a choice it does not with any finality actually make. In so far as a choice is made albeit a provisional, opaque, equivocal one it is a choice against Caspar Goodwood, and it is Isabel's. She saves herself, by flying from England: the loss of control, the wave of sudden new passionate erotic sensation she experienced in Caspar's arms is not what she wants, now, as a solution to her marriage. She wants to stand on her feet. ('In the movement she seemed to beat with her feet, in order to catch herself, to feel something to rest on', M 519.) The flight from drowning sends her back for that confrontation with her marriage which lingering in England only postponed. The involuntary helplessness of passion is the alibi classically offered wives exiting their unsatisfactory marriages: and Isabel wants none of it. She wants a clear head.
The function of Caspar's intervention, though, draws our attention to just how Portrait of a Lady is not, in fact, composed around the classic adulterous triangle; James's interrogation of the law as represented by the traditionary sanctities and decencies of marriage is not to consist in this novel of testing it primarily against the pressures of passion, of abandonment, of ecstasy. The conflict is all within the civilised temple, around an internal moral contradiction and opposed conceptions of honour, one outward and conventional, one personal and instinctive: between versions, in fact, of what is right. When Caspar does offer himself, and for a moment in spite of the fact that the actual words of his appeal to Isabel are in the spirit of the most enlightened New World rationalism the novel opens to a glimpse of that other, Dionysiac thing, a 'comet in the sky' (M 517), 'the hot wind of the desert', 'something potent, acrid, strange' (589), it can only come in the context of the rest of the novel as a sidelight, a surprise, something Isabel has left out of count and cannot make space for suddenly. If she is 'natural', then her nature is something straight and sunlit; it is instructive to compare her English churchyard at Ralph's funeral ('the air had the brightness of the hawthorn and the blackbird', M 509) with the lusty paganism of Charlotte's and the Prince's Matcham in The Golden Bowl ('sunny, gusty, lusty English April, all panting and heaving with impatience, or kicking and crying
like some infant Hercules who wouldn't be dressed', 250).
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