Daniela Barberis has been a professor of history of science and social sciences at Shimer College since 2011. For some insight into what Daniela teaches and her published work, click here. Below, Daniela reflects on Henry James' Portrait of a Lady -- as well as Jane Campion's film of that same book.
Henry James. Portrait of a Lady. Penguin Popular Classics. Penguin Group, 1997 .
In this subtle portrayal of a principled heroine, Henry James shows us how constrained the lives and the mental universe of even upper-class moneyed young women were in the late 19th century. Isabel Archer has had an unconventional education and is unusually unsupervised and free to make her own choices. In a further plot twist, she goes from moderately well off to substantially wealthy thanks to a kind relative impressed with her independence of mind—an independence demonstrated by her refusal of a bon parti in the form of an English Lord. She seems to have every advantage. And yet… modern readers may be struck by what appears to be an astounding lack of imagination. Faced with an apparently free choice of occupation, she can think of only two things to do: travel the world, or marry. She receives several proposals even before she has the advantage of a fortune. One could argue that one of the reasons she is preoccupied with marriage is that men keep proposing to her (some of them very insistently), but it remains that she does not have an alternate plan of her own.
My reading of the book was colored by having seen Jane Campion’s movie version of this classic. A very beautiful film, with wonderful photography by Stuart Dryburgh, it does not accurately represent James’s book. The man Isabel does marry, Gilbert Osmond, is so intensely dislikable in the movie that one is hard pressed to understand her actions. He is simply an evil manipulator out for her money. In James’s book, Osmond is almost worse than evil. He is a fastidiously pretentious, intensely self-centered and entitled man, a “sterile aesthete” as one of the characters puts it. Yes, he marries Isabel for her money, but he is smitten by her, because in her he sees the perfect material from which he can mold an appropriate wife, re-creating her to his liking—much as he does with his beautiful house and with his daughter, Pansy. Isabel’s wealth is simply part (though a necessary part) of this material. What is more, he believes he has the right to do so. He believes his superior aesthetic sensibility gives him the right to exercise his control as a husband (or father) to make women into his creations. In Campion’s movie, Osmond is coldly calculating and Isabel seems to be swayed by his overt sexual advances, something her other, more proper suitors, had refrained from. In James’s book, the infatuation is due to her perception of him as a uniquely artistic, sensitive and proud man—a superior man—who had not been able to bring his superiority to fruition because of his lack of funds. She believes she will give him means to achieve his artistic wishes. She lacks a vision of something worthy that she herself might do with her suddenly acquired wealth, and so looks to Osmond to achieve for her this sense of worth. But Osmond has no capacity to do anything for the world; all he aspires to is to configure and control of his world, his wife included. James delivers a wonderful vivisection of his characters’ motivations and feelings and, in a muted way, a plea for the emancipation of women—or at least a heartbreaking description of the destruction brought about by the lack of female autonomy. Isabel had the makings of greatness; but due to events partially put into motion by her fortune, it all ends in tragedy and waste. Of course, as with all Americans in James’s books, she is very naïve in contrast to the wily Europeans that bring about her downfall. From our vantage point, simply observing how Osmond had brought up his child should have been enough to scare any woman of sense from marrying him. But what is most revealing about the mores of the period is that Isabel considers the way Osmond brings up his daughter to be quite proper, in the same way that she shares his notion of what a wife should be—even as she is incapable of fulfilling that role because he does not stand up to her vision of him. Isabel tries to achieve greatness through Osmond; he is not up to the task, but one has to wonder if she would have been happy, even if he had been.