The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

Henry James
The Portrait of a Lady

I was keen to read another Henry James’ novel after reading the unusual and clever The Turn of the Screw, as I was interested to see if his writing style, which I found extremely detailed and quite convoluted in The Turn of the Screw, would be similar in other books. This was an interesting book and I liked some of the sarcastic dry humour in it and his phrasing was really memorable and the locations were beautifully described, particularly Rome and Florence and Gardencourt, but I found it a bit unsatisfactory and a bit slow and was puzzled at the ending. I also thought at times that the book felt slightly 'off' as it's an American person writing about the English upper class life and it didn't seem as genuine as a Jane Austen, for example, who had experienced what she was writing about, but I then wondered if Henry James, rather than writing inaccurately of the English upper class life which was my first impression, was actually gently mocking the English and their class system with this book and perhaps he was fully knowledgeable of it and able to be accurate about it and saw its faults and foibles and was making a point of highlighting them in his novel.

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I was keen to read another Henry James’ novel after reading the unusual and clever The Turn of the Screw, as I was interested to see if his writing style, which I found extremely detailed and quite convoluted in The Turn of the Screw, would be similar in other books. This was an interesting book and I liked some of the sarcastic dry humour in it and his phrasing was really memorable and the locations were beautifully described, particularly Rome and Florence and Gardencourt, but I found it a bit unsatisfactory and a bit slow and was puzzled at the ending. I also thought at times that the book felt slightly ‘off’ as it’s an American person writing about the English upper class life and it didn’t seem as genuine as a Jane Austen, for example, who had experienced what she was writing about, but I then wondered if Henry James, rather than writing inaccurately of the English upper class life which was my first impression, was actually gently mocking the English and their class system with this book and perhaps he was fully knowledgeable of it and able to be accurate about it and saw its faults and foibles and was making a point of highlighting them in his novel. 

The story begins with three gentlemen taking afternoon tea at Gardencourt, a large stately home 40 miles from London. The house is owned by an elderly American, Daniel Touchett, a rich man and a retired banker, who moved to England 30 years ago and is extremely proud of and knowledgeable about the history of Gardencourt. He and his wife, Lydia, are effectively leading separate lives, as she travels and spends time in her properties in America and Florence, often only spending one month a year with her husband in England. She is described as eccentric, and seems to enjoy making an impression on people. Daniel’s son, Ralph, and Ralph’s friend, Lord Warburton, are the other two gentlemen taking afternoon tea with Daniel at Gardencourt. Ralph is described by his father as being sickly, and he has consumption. Warburton is a neighbour, his house is called Lockleigh. I loved the line, ‘under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea’.

Daniel urges Warburton to find something to do, to work and be less idle or find an interesting woman to take as his wife, but states this isn’t to be his niece, Isabel Archer, who will shortly arrive from America with Lydia who has brought her with her. Isabel is unknown to both Lydia and Daniel due to an estrangement between Lydia and her brother-in-law, as after the death of her sister Lydia disapproved of the way her brother-in-law was bringing up their daughters. Her brother-in-law dying a year ago has caused Lydia to now seek out Isabel and her sisters. 

Isabel is from New York and Albany, she is often found alone hidden in the corner of an unused room in their family home sitting on her favourite piece of neglected furniture with a book or her daydreams. Her elder sisters are Lilian and Edith, both married. Lilian and her husband, Edmund Ludlow, a lawyer, and their two boys now live with Isabel. Lilian is viewed as the practical one, Edith as the beauty, and Isabel as the intellectual one. The sisters have been left with little money after their father’s death, and the Albany house is up for sale. Lydia promises to take Isabel to Florence and England if she does all she is told to, but Isabel says she can’t promise to do all she is told to. Tee hee, I like Isabel with her independent attitude and her love of reading and being alone with her thoughts..

Isabel is restless and excited at the forthcoming change in her life. She remembers her father fondly and proudly and recognises he had sheltered them from the unpleasantness of life, that they had had the best of everything though she acknowledges that her father was viewed by others as having squandered his fortune in gambling and having made poor use of his life and of not giving his daughters any education or permanent home but wishing them to see as much of the world as possible and often taking them travelling with him in Europe. Isabel doesn’t have many suitors as she is seen as too superiorly intellectual with her curiosity and desire of knowledge and reading. Casper Goodwood wishes to marry her however, though it appears she has turned him down. 

When Isabel arrives in England, she is keen to learn all about the country and its ways and customs, and Daniel attempts to guide her with his American view of the English people. Warburton also talks to her about England, saying that she needs a trustworthy guide on English ways, like he needed a guide when he travelled in America. He states that Americans are superstitious and have mediaeval views compared to the English, yet believe they know more about the needs and dangers of England than the English do. I did chuckle at the contrasting views of Americans on English people and an Englishman on Americans.

Casper Goodwood writes to Isabel saying that even though she turned him down he feels that she likes him and that she could see he was right in his proposal, and he has come to England to see her and try to convince her to change her mind. Hmmm, he must be keen to travel all that way.

Isabel suspects that Warburton may be going to propose to her, though she is unsure if she wants the ‘system’ that would go with life as wife of an English lord, as she is concerned that this system would be ‘stiff and stupid which would make it a burden’. Warburton does propose to her, and he acknowledges, “Of course, it’s a great question: I must tell you that I’d rather ask it than have it to answer myself”. I do like Warburton, and I like him even more for the manner of his proposal, as he speaks touchingly but with self-deprecating humour. 

Isabel tells Warburton that she is likely to decline his proposal because she isn’t sure she would suit him and isn’t sure if she wants to marry at all and tries to explain to him that she feels that marriage isn’t her fate or path. She also feels she doesn’t want to marry Casper either, as she finds him too demanding and determined. I’m intrigued by Isabel and why she is determined not to marry and what examples of marriage she has in mind to have developed this view, was it her parents’ marriage or her sister’s marriage that she felt the wife was trapped in. I can appreciate her wish of independence, but this is an unusual wish at that time and difficult for a woman to be independent when they can’t earn money and have very little rights. I am more and more interested in Isabel.

Isabel’s American friend, Henrietta Stackpole, asks Ralph to invite Casper to Gardencourt as she feels Isabel should marry him. Casper refuses the invitation. Henrietta meets Ralph’s friend, Mr Bantling, and they seem to like each other. 

Isabel and Henrietta go to see the sights of London, accompanied by Ralph. Ralph apologises saying there is no-one in town, Henrietta teases him saying there are 3-4 million local lower-class people who live there but that Ralph only counts the aristocracy. Isabel explains her refusal of Warburton to Ralph by saying, “I don’t want to begin life by marrying. There are other things a woman can do… I too (like Henrietta) don’t wish to marry till I’ve seen Europe… I’m poor and of a serious disposition, I’m not pretty. I therefore am not bound to be timid and conventional, indeed I can’t afford such luxuries… I don’t wish to be a mere sheep in the flock, I wish to choose my fate and know something of human affairs beyond what other people think it compatible with propriety to tell me”. I wonder if one of the reasons I’m struggling slightly with this book is because it isn’t following the usual pattern of English books of this type with the heroine desiring to marry a lord. And I wonder also if I’m struggling to grasp Isabel’s character because she is written by a man, perhaps her judgments and decisions are jarring slightly with me because they don’t feel as naturally expressed, as it’s a man guessing how a woman may feel. I do admire Isabel’s wish to travel and experience things though and to decide her own thoughts on things.

Casper Goodwood comes to Isabel while she is in London, at Henrietta’s invitation and unknown to Isabel. Isabel convinces him to agree not to contact her for two years while she travels, although he still hopes she will agree to marry him after that time. 

Daniel is ill and dying, so Ralph and Isabel return to Gardencourt. They find Madame Merle there who is a friend of Lydia’s. Isabel is impressed by Madame Merle as she seems confident and independent, plays the piano beautifully, and appears to be French though she is actually American. Isabel and Mrs Merle become intimate friends. I am liking Isabel more now, her character and enthusiasms and also her self-doubt seem to have come out more now with the friendship with Mrs Merle. 

Daniel tells Ralph, on his deathbed, that he wishes him to marry Isabel. Ralph doesn’t deny that he is in love with her but says he is too ill to marry and doesn’t think cousins should marry, and he also very much wants Isabel to be free and to see the world as she desires to do. He asks his father to alter his will in order to leave Isabel half of Ralph’s inheritance so she can follow her dreams and not feel obliged to marry for support. Daniel doesn’t really understand Ralph’s thinking, but agrees. Awww, bless him, I like Ralph for this.

Daniel dies and Isabel inherits a fortune, which she is shocked and overwhelmed and quite subdued by. Isabel asks Ralph if he knew of his father’s plans to leave her his money and says she wonders if it is good for her to be rich and that Henrietta doesn’t think it is good for her. Ralph tells her it would be good for her not to torment herself so much, to take things more easily, not to question her conscience as much, to not try and form her character as much, and to think less. I think that all sounds good advice that could be applied to many people and many situations. Could it be that some of Isabel’s future problems, as I presume there will be problems, are caused by her thinking too much and making judgements on how she should be acting in certain situations. I can imagine men of that time thinking that too much introspection is a dangerous thing for a woman, is that perhaps what Henry James thought.

Isabel and Lydia go to Lydia’s home in Florence with Ralph, and Madame Merle is to stay with them there for a month. 

In Florence, Gilbert Osmond, an American, is talking to two nuns about his daughter, Pansy, who is about to leave her convent school there and is one of the nuns’ favourite pupils. Madame Merle meets with Gilbert and Pansy, they both appear to know her well and she has visited Pansy at the convent. Madame Merle tells Gilbert she wants to introduce Isabel to him and that she wants him to marry Isabel. 

Madame Merle and Isabel visit Gilbert at his beautiful villa, his sister Countess Gemini is there who is married to an Italian count. Isabel admires Gilbert, she finds him knowledgeable and shy and confiding and interesting, particularly his desire to be retired in Italy and to want a life free from worry and stress. Gemini tells Madame Merle that she doesn’t think Isabel should marry Gilbert and that she will tell Isabel this. Lydia also doesn’t think Isabel should marry Gilbert as she doesn’t rate him highly. Ralph doesn’t believe Isabel will marry Gilbert, he thinks this is all part of Isabel’s wish to experience life and he imagines she will have many more admirers in the future to choose from. Gilbert tells Madame Merle he thinks Isabel admires him and he is confident he can make her want to marry him. Hmmm, why do I feel apprehension about Isabel and Gilbert, and feel suspicious of him. I’m also not sure why Madame Merle wants Gilbert and Isabel to marry, is it so Gilbert gets Isabel’s money. I’m also not sure of Gilbert and Madame Merle’s relationship, it doesn’t seem to be gossip that they are together or have been together and they appear to others as just friends, but there seems more in their manner to each other when they are alone.

Ralph tells Isabel that he doesn’t actually dislike Madame Merle but that she’s ‘too’ much of everything, too perfect, too learned, too kind, too complete. I’m feeling now that I don’t trust Madame Merle, I agree with Ralph that she is too much of everything, she seems almost too accomplished and polite, like it is all an act.

Henrietta and Bantling also arrive in Florence, they intend to visit Rome and Isabel and Ralph plan to go with them, Gilbert suggests to Isabel that he goes to Rome too and she seems pleased with this. Warburton bumps into Isabel in Rome, he’s been travelling in an effort to get over her. He tries to plead his case again but she is having none of it, he declares, “I’ve thought of you perpetually, ever since I last saw you. I’m exactly the same. I love you just as much, and everything I said to you is just as true”. Warburton spends time with the party for a few days and observes Isabel and Gilbert together, and he then leaves Rome. I really like Warburton, he’s such the perfect polite gentleman and obviously sincerely cares for Isabel, saying such beautiful things and showing his feelings so honestly and frankly, I don’t understand why she won’t accept him, grrr, I feel frustrated with her. I also feel apprehensive she is going to throw herself away on Gilbert. 

Gilbert has observed Warburton around Isabel and deduces that she has rejected him, and the fact that she had the chance to marry someone powerful and rich and influential who he enviously wishes to be like but that she declined this man, convinces him to determine to marry her. Gilbert tells her he loves her, on the eve of her leaving Rome to spend a year travelling, he just says simply, “I find I’m in love with you… I’m absolutely in love with you”. ‘The tears came into her eyes, this time they obeyed the sharpness of the pang that suggested to her the slipping of a fine bolt – backward, forward, she couldn’t have said which’. She thanks him, and says goodbye. He asks her to visit Pansy who he has left with the housekeeper in Florence, and she promises him to do so. Hmmm, I have so many thoughts about this important section of the book. Firstly the declaration, it is such a different declaration to Warburton’s, more simple and matter-of-fact, and although I prefer Warburton’s more ardent declaration myself, I wonder if Gilbert’s simple matter-of-fact wording appeals more to Isabel’s American nature compared to the elaborate deeply felt wording of Warburton. And the ‘slipping of a fine bolt’ bit is interesting, I am thinking she felt this bolt when Casper and Warburton proposed to her but decided not to let it influence her then, and I’m also wondering if this bolt implies that by accepting a marriage proposal she could either be trapped with the bolt moving backwards to imprison her in a marriage, or given freedom with the bolt moving forward to offer her opportunities in a marriage. And the request that she visit Pansy, is this a ploy on Gilbert’s part to further charm her to him by reminding her of his charming daughter. I just plain don’t like Gilbert and am suspicious of him, and I feel he is nothing compared to lovely Warburton and Isabel is a foolish girl if she chooses Gilbert when she could have had Warburton.

A year has now gone by in which Isabel spent travelling the world, some of the time with Madame Merle and some of the time with her sister, Lily, and her children. Before returning to Lydia’s house in Florence, she stays three weeks in Rome with Madame Merle, and Gilbert joins them there and has obviously proposed to Isabel and she has accepted him. Omg, I feel a bit cheated that we see nothing of this proposal and acceptance, considering it is so momentous to Isabel’s life, I wonder why we don’t get the details of the proposal, as we did with Warburton’s and Casper’s proposals. I am glad she travelled the world for a year first though, even if she did then agree to marry Gilbert.

Isabel writes to Casper to tell him she is engaged, he immediately comes to Florence from America and is hurt and angry at her, he asks for Gilbert’s history and details of his life, which she is vague about to him. She reminds him that she had never promised him and that she has done nothing wrong in accepting another man but he reminds her that she stated she would likely never marry, and says that he would have preferred her to stay unmarried if she didn’t marry him, which she says is selfish of him, but she is very upset when he leaves in anger. I have to say I kind of agree with Casper, her accepting Gilbert will cause hurt to both Casper and Warburton after she rejected them saying the reason was that she would likely never marry.

Isabel then tells Lydia that she is marrying Gilbert, and asks her to tell Ralph. Lydia is not pleased at the news and tells Isabel that she won’t be happy, and that Gilbert has no money or name or importance. Lydia also states that this is all Madame Merle’s planning, and that Madame Merle has played both Isabel and Lydia, which annoys Isabel greatly. I am thinking Isabel is annoyed at the thought she may have been manipulated, perhaps this is one of the first inklings she has that Madame Merle possibly has her own agenda. 

Ralph doesn’t talk about Isabel’s forthcoming marriage until she seeks him out after several days. He tells her she has been caught and put into a cage and that she is giving up her previously prized liberty and that she’s running a risk in marrying Gilbert, he says that he doesn’t trust Gilbert and feels he is a narrow and selfish and small man, he adds that he thought she’d marry a man of more importance and that she was meant for someone better and that she has come down in choosing Gilbert and that it hurts him to know she has come down like this. Isabel says Gilbert has the finest nature she knows and he is good enough for her, that she is more taken with what he has rather than what he is lacking, that she likes him because he isn’t rich and that she’s glad she has money enough to put it in her power to marry a poor man, that he has borne his poverty with dignity, and that he has the kindest and gentlest and highest spirit and is a very lonely and very cultivated and very honest man, that she likes him and there is nothing higher for a girl than to marry someone she likes, and that her ambition is to be free to follow out a good feeling. Ralph finally admits that he loves her but loves without hope. He says he thinks Isabel is in trouble because she is in error. She tells him she will never complain of any troubles to him. Isabel thinks afterwards that Ralph was looking ill and tired, and she is reminded that death hangs over him. Omg, that was all quite powerful and emotional to read. Poor Ralph, even though he loves her I think he says all those things about Gilbert quite unselfishly and because he is concerned about Isabel’s happiness rather than because he is jealous. And interesting that Isabel only uses the word ‘like’ to describe her feelings for Gilbert, not ‘love’, is this because she doesn’t love him or because she doesn’t want to hurt Ralph further by using the word ‘love’, but to marry on only a ‘like’ seems a little dangerous.

Ralph attends Isabel and Gilbert’s wedding in Florence, along with Lydia and Pansy and Gemini.  Madame Merle was invited, but said she could not leave Rome. Henrietta was invited but said she could not leave due to work pressures, she has visited them since and criticised Gilbert saying similar things about him as Ralph said, and Gilbert has requested that Isabel not see Henrietta again. 

Madame Merle and Lydia are no longer close after Lydia accused Madame Merle of playing a part in the marriage. Madame Merle denied this saying she had believed that Isabel didn’t want to marry, that Isabel had kept her feelings to herself, and that Gilbert also didn’t seem eager to please Isabel, so she had had no idea of how they really felt about each other. 

Edward Rosier, an American, has fallen in love with Pansy. He goes to Madame Merle asking her to recommend him to Gilbert before he proposes to Pansy. I find this approach to Madame Merle very interesting, does society not rate Isabel, as Gilbert’s wife, as having influence with Gilbert or a voice regarding Pansy, does society identify Madame Merle as still having the ultimate influence over Gilbert. 

When speaking with Madame Merle, Edward asks if he should  speak to Isabel, but Madame Merle urges him not to, saying he’d make things difficult for Isabel if she supports his suit but Gilbert doesn’t. She says that Isabel and Gilbert have opposite views on everything, and begs Edward not to multiply the points of difference between them. She also mentions they had a child a couple of years ago who died aged 6 months. Oh dear, this really doesn’t sound like Isabel and Gilbert get along or are happily married, obviously the grief of losing a child would have been a lot to deal with but it sounds like it has possibly driven them further apart rather than them grieving together and supporting each other.

Edward tells Pansy how he cares for her, and Pansy tells Edward that she likes him. Madame Merle tells Edward that she has spoken to Gilbert and he isn’t favourable to Edward, thinking he isn’t good enough, and that Gilbert is annoyed that Edward had already spoken to Pansy about his feelings. She advises Edward to visit the house less but to have hope. Edward speaks to Isabel, who says she can’t help him as he’s not rich enough, she also explains that it isn’t that she won’t help him but that she can’t help him. Pansy tells Edward that her father has forbidden her to talk to him, but she asks Edward to be patient and says she won’t give him up and will ask Isabel for help. 

Warburton visits Isabel and Gilbert at their home in Rome. He says he has travelled to Rome with Ralph, who is seriously unwell but who wanted to head for Sicily so is now resting for a time first in Rome. Warburton and Isabel chat fairly easily together. He says he has never married, and she says she is happy in her marriage. Both agree the other has changed over time. She has the impression that he has forgiven her, and she is a little envious of how lucky men are to be able to distract themselves by throwing themselves into action and being busy, such as Warburton has done with politics. Warburton admires Pansy. I am pleased to see Warburton back, though I suspect he’s not really over Isabel and that seeing her again will cause him pain.

Ralph meets with Isabel and Gilbert. He is sad not to have seen Isabel much since her marriage, though he realises that him criticising Gilbert has driven a wedge between them and spoilt their friendship and that she has not forgiven him. He regrets now how he handled the situation, thinking he should have instead praised Gilbert and then Isabel could have come to him later if she was not happy. He thinks she has changed and is now a fine lady who represents Gilbert’s interests and wishes. Gilbert is polite to Ralph but treats him as a person of no importance and just Isabel’s cousin and someone who is unpleasantly ill. 

Ralph tells Warburton he will not continue onto Sicily but will stay in Rome. Warburton tells Ralph he is interested in Pansy. Both acknowledge they are not being fully truthful with each other and themselves as to how they feel about Isabel. Ralph is aware he is being kept alive by his desire to see more of Isabel and to see what she makes of her marriage. Oh, poor Ralph.

Madame Merle speaks to Gilbert about her hopes that Warburton will marry Pansy, Gilbert is keen for this to happen too as he likes the thought of his daughter being married to someone of status. Madame Merle then speaks to Isabel about this, who already suspects Warburton’s partiality to Pansy and tells Madame Merle she supports this as she is keen to be a good wife and knows it would please Gilbert for Pansy to marry Warburton, but she says Gilbert won’t speak to her about Pansy’s marriage with either Edward or Warburton. Madame Merle says Lydia had told her that Warburton had proposed to Isabel, and says she is surprised that Isabel had never told her this herself, she also then reminds her that this means Isabel has great influence with Warburton. I see Madame Merle trying to control things again.

Isabel tells herself that she believes it would be a good thing for Pansy to marry Warburton, though she acknowledges to herself that she didn’t think this at first, and she is a little surprised at him liking Pansy as Pansy is so different to herself, but thinks that perhaps as his proposal failed with her then he has perhaps decided to go for someone different to her. Isabel likes Pansy but sees her as a light doll-like person, more keen to assent than to protest. I wonder now if Isabel has some regrets not accepting Warburton’s marriage proposal, now she is unhappy with Gilbert and able to compare both men to each other.

Isabel is sometimes uncomfortable at the thought of Gilbert and Madame Merle together, though has nothing to base this on, it is just a feeling. She is aware that she and Gilbert rarely spend time together or talk. When Gilbert comes in that evening, she looks at him in a covert and almost self-defensive way, wishing she could read him better and guess what he is likely to say so she can then respond better and more cautiously, she reflects that she has done this often throughout her married life as he regularly tries to make her angry, and she has responded angrily in the past and he has frequently then humiliated her. She now tells him she wishes not to be angry again and wishes to act as he would like. He mentions Warburton proposing to Isabel in the past and says she has a great deal of influence with Warburton, which she is offended by but doesn’t show this. He tells her he is counting on her. 

Isabel begins to wonder if Warburton’s interest in Pansy is actually more him still having feelings for her and wishing to be nearer to her by marrying her stepdaughter, she has begun to be aware there is still a hint of feeling in his manner towards her, though she thinks if this is the case then it is unwittingly done on his side and he’s not deliberately misleading Pansy, but she is also confused too by his seemingly genuine affection for Pansy. 

Isabel thinks about her husband and their marriage. She acknowledges to herself that her husband hates her and that several days can go by without him speaking to her, she thinks this hatred developed because he feels deceived by her showing him she had ideas and opinions that differed from his, and this isn’t his view of how a wife should be. She knows he doesn’t want his wife to be stupid, that he wants her to be intelligent, but just to adopt his views rather than have her own views or to challenge his views, and that he doesn’t want her to have freedom of mind. She acknowledges he has never physically hurt her or been cruel to her, but knows that he hates her and so her life with him is miserable. She doesn’t feel that this is her fault or that she has deceived him, just that when they were courting she was charmed with him and impressed by his intelligence and his views, so listened to these rather than offering her own. She realises that Ralph’s perception of Gilbert was correct. I have to admit that this was quite confusing to read as Henry James seems very ambiguous here (even for him, who can be often ambiguous!) and I had to read it a few times to grasp exactly what Isabel’s complaints were about Gilbert, I think I have understood it correctly but it did seem quite convoluted and vague. And it makes me sad how very unhappy and stifled she feels, I wish she had never married Gilbert and given up her freedom to him out of all the men who wished to marry her.

When Isabel visits Ralph, she believes it is better to conceal her unhappiness as it would distress him otherwise, but Ralph is aware of her unhappiness and her attempt to conceal it for his benefit. She knows Gilbert wishes to stop her from visiting Ralph as he tells her it is improper, and she is worried he will forbid her to see Ralph which will then cause a rupture in their marriage, and although she isn’t happy in her marriage she feels it is the one big act of her life and doesn’t want it to fail. I guess this helps explain why she continues in the marriage with Gilbert, but it makes me sad that she sees this marriage as her one achievement and is willing to continue being unhappy rather than have it fail and then feel like she has achieved nothing. Does she not rate her year of travel as an achievement, although I guess at that time marriage was deemed the aim and ultimate achievement for a woman, although her friend Henrietta has demonstrated that things are changing and women can have a career and travel and be independent, but it seems like Isabel has thoroughly lost her independent spirit now as it has been crushed over time by Gilbert. I am glad she is focused on her feelings of achievement with the marriage though, rather than saying she doesn’t want to have failed in the eyes of society.

Isabel becomes convinced that Edward genuinely loves Pansy and feels for him that he is doomed to disappointment with Gilbert against him and Warburton seeming to be so much more superior. She promises Edward that she will do what she can for him, though she has also encouraged Warburton to write to Gilbert asking for Pansy’s hand. Oh dear, I think she is making things complicated by trying to please both Gilbert and Edward, and I fear that this will end badly. 

Gemini is pleased to receive an invitation to Gilbert and Isabel’s home, she lives in Florence with her husband but wishes all the time to be in Rome but her husband never wishes to go and Gilbert rarely invites her as he doesn’t really like her. She hasn’t seen Isabel much since her marriage and is hoping to see that she dominates Gilbert. Oh dear, she will be disappointed in that wish. 

Before Gemini leaves for Rome, to her surprise Henrietta visits her, as Henrietta is in Florence for work and likes to visit people she knows when in a foreign city and she only knows Gemini there. Henrietta is also going to Rome to see Isabel, as she says Gilbert is trying to break up their friendship and she wants to prevent this. Henrietta says she knows that Gilbert doesn’t like her and she is worried that Isabel has changed towards her due to Gilbert’s dislike of her. She says that there is a difference in Isabel’s letters to her, and when Henrietta told Isabel she was coming to Rome, Isabel didn’t invite Henrietta to stay with them and instead said she would arrange accommodation for her, although Henrietta tells Gemini that she wouldn’t be comfortable under Gilbert’s roof anyway. Gemini and Henrietta decide to travel together to Rome next week, but Gemini then mentions that Warburton is in Rome and is paying attention to Isabel and this then determines Henrietta to go to Rome sooner as she is worried this indicates that Isabel must be unhappy in her marriage if she is receptive to attentions from other men. Gemini says she hopes Gilbert is unhappy and is made so by Isabel, and that if Isabel herself is unhappy then she will have no pity for her as she warned her not to marry him. Henrietta speaks to Casper who is also in Florence, he is going to Rome to see Isabel and they decide to travel together. Hmmm, there seems to be a lot of people heading to Rome to see Isabel, I see tensions and difficulties ahead.

Isabel asks Ralph if Warburton is in love, meaning with Pansy. He says yes, meaning with Isabel. She tells him that Pansy loves someone else and it seems cruel to make her marry Warburton, but she says that Gilbert wants this marriage with Warburton and has instructed Isabel to use her influence with him to make this happen. Ralph warns Isabel that if this plan isn’t successful, then he suspects Gilbert will say that she prevented the marriage through jealousy by still having feelings for Warburton. Oh dear, I fear Ralph is right and Isabel can’t win here. And significant that Ralph feels Warburton still loves Isabel.

Isabel speaks to Pansy, who states that she loves Edward but that she is aware her father is against her marrying him and she knows she can’t disobey her father so she is resigned to staying unmarried but always thinking of Edward. Isabel then speaks to her about Warburton, and Pansy says that she believes he won’t propose to her as he knows she doesn’t want to marry him and she also believes that he doesn’t actually love her, and she adds that while her father still has hopes that she will marry Warburton then he won’t then be finding someone else for her to marry so this suits her. Oh, bless poor Warburton, such a gentleman not proposing to Pansy as he knows she doesn’t love him, and I wonder if Pansy has identified that he still loves Isabel. And I quite like Pansy’s cleverness in thinking she will be free from her father trying to force her to marry someone else if she keeps alive the idea she is considering Warburton. 

There has been no contact from Warburton for several days. Gilbert asks Isabel to write to him but she tells him he must be the one to do that, he counters by saying that she hasn’t been trustworthy and accuses her of keeping Warburton away and buying time for herself by falsely promising to aid him in encouraging Warburton. Oh dear, Ralph was right in that Gilbert automatically suspects Isabel’s motives and blames her when things don’t seem to be going as he wishes.

Warburton then comes to the house but says he has suddenly been called to England, he says he is sorry to leave Ralph there in Rome but he knows that he is not well enough to travel until it is warmer. Warburton invites them to stay with him if they ever decide to visit England. After Warburton leaves, Gilbert accuses Isabel of playing a deep game, he says that he doesn’t fully understand her aim but that he knows she has contrived to send Warburton away and to prevent his marriage to Pansy, and asks her if she is pleased that she has caused him disappointment and displayed him to society as a man who has tried to marry his daughter to a lord and failed. She denies she has done this.

Henrietta arrives in Rome, and Isabel is very glad to see her and is reminded of what a true friend she is, knowing that she came solely because she guessed that Isabel was sad. Isabel admits to Henrietta that she is wretchedly unhappy, and that Gilbert doesn’t like her and she doesn’t like him. Henrietta urges her to leave Gilbert, but Isabel says she can’t as that would be admitting her mistake in marrying and she would be ashamed for people to know this. Oh dear, I feel frustrated at Isabel again in letting this pride stop her from escaping and her putting this pride as higher importance than her happiness, and I guess she may feel that the marriage was a statement of her independent spirit as others advised her against it, so she doesn’t want to feel that it was in vain and that others knew better than she did.

Henrietta tells Isabel that Casper is also in Rome, as he has somehow guessed she is unhappy. Isabel meets with Casper and she is determined to appear happy, but he doesn’t ask her about her marriage or refer to his wish to marry her. She is left puzzled about why he has come, apart from just wanting to see her, and she feels uncomfortable around him as she feels he is always looking at her trying to see if she’s unhappy. 

Gilbert tells Isabel that he dislikes every one of her friends and she has no good one amongst them. Grrr, he is a nasty controlling man.

Isabel asks Casper to visit Ralph and to accompany him back to England if he decides to go. She is keen for Ralph to go back to England as she doesn’t want him to die alone in an inn in Rome. Casper tells Ralph that Isabel pretends to be happy and it’s hard for him to see this pretence, that he is hurt that Isabel doesn’t trust him enough to share her feelings with him, and hurt that of all the services he could do for her she has selected the one that makes him to leave, ie by suggesting he accompanies Ralph to England, and he feels he has gained nothing by coming apart from the confirmation that he is as little wanted as ever. Ralph also agrees that it is better for Casper’s peace of mind for him to leave and not see Isabel. Henrietta also regularly visits Ralph and they get on very well. Ralph does decide to return to England as he senses he will shortly die, and Henrietta and Casper are to travel with him. Oh dear, I know Isabel hasn’t meant this but she just leaves a trail of unhappy and hurt men in her wake, Casper can be quite intense and I’m not sure Isabel would have been happy with him but he has been faithful in his love for her, and also there’s my favourite, Warburton, and also Ralph is lovely too.

When Casper says goodbye to Isabel, he tells her she clearly has something to hide and that he thinks this is her unhappiness, and he tells her he still loves her and asks if she can at least confirm that he can pity her as this would give him something to do. She confirms he can. Oh dear, this doesn’t bode well for Casper I feel, this isn’t a good thing for him to do with his life, just pitying Isabel. I am feeling this book is just filled with unhappiness.

Henrietta accuses Isabel of wanting to get rid of them all, and Isabel says it makes her uncomfortable with them all watching her. Henrietta says it makes her feel helpless to leave Isabel without feeling she’s helped her at all, and she urges Isabel to leave Gilbert before things get worse. Isabel says it’s not as easy as Henrietta thinks it is to leave a husband. 

Isabel says goodbye to Ralph, both of them suspecting they won’t see each other again as he will die shortly. She tells him he has been her best friend. He tells her it was for her that he wanted to live, but he sees he is of no use to her. She says that if he sends for her she will go to him. He says her husband wouldn’t allow it, but she says she would arrange it. 

Madame Merle arrives and asks Isabel what happened with Warburton, saying she is disappointed he didn’t propose to Pansy. Isabel declines to talk about it, saying it’s all that has been talked about lately. Madame Merle then surprises Isabel by saying she will ask Pansy what Isabel had said to her, and this makes Isabel view Madame Merle in a different light and she begins to think again how aligned Madame Merle and Gilbert are in both wanting the same thing. Madame Merle then says that Gilbert spoke to her about the Warburton situation the evening before and that he judges Isabel severely. Isabel is shocked that Gilbert has dishonoured her in his words as well as in his thoughts. Madame Merle then asks Isabel for the truth and whether she recommended to Warburton that he change his mind about Pansy, and asks that Isabel just resign herself to being unhappy by letting Warburton marry Pansy. In shock, Isabel just asks her, “Who are you? What are you? What have you to do with my husband? What have you to do with me?”, to which Madame Merle answers “Everything”, thereby confirming to Isabel that she did engineer their marriage. Isabel puzzles why she did this, and then remembers how friendlyMadame Merle was after Isabel inherited the money and guesses that she wanted to give her intimate friend Gilbert the money. Isabel begins to wonder if she could perhaps leave Gilbert if she left him her money, and she also wonders if Gilbert is now angry at Madame Merle deeming her responsible for his disappointment in his marriage. I am relieved that Isabel now sees Madame Merle for what she is, and has begun thinking about leaving Gilbert.

Gilbert sends Pansy back to the convent, Isabel is shocked and upset at this and thinks Gilbert has done this to hurt her. 

Lydia writes to Isabel saying Ralph is dying and that he is asking to see her. Isabel tells Gilbert that she wants to go to England to be with Ralph, but he says he doesn’t want her to go and that it is dishonourable and indelicate and indecent, and that she likes Ralph because Ralph hates him, and he says that if she goes it will be a deliberate and calculated opposition on her part and she will be defying him. She is aware they have arrived at a crisis. She is tearfully thinking alone about what to do, when Gemini comes to her offering sympathy. Gemini urges Isabel to defy Gilbert, and in order to convince Isabel she shares with her that Pansy is actually Madame Merle’s child with Gilbert, that they had an affair for 6-7 years while they were both married to other people, that Gilbert’s wife died abroad so he was able to say she died whilst giving birth to Pansy and to pretend she was Pansy’s mother, and that Madame Merle and her husband had been living separately for too long for her to pretend it was his. Gemini says this is why Gilbert doesn’t want her around, as he is fearful of her saying something to Isabel, although he presumes Isabel will think she is lying if she does tell her. Omg, I didn’t see that coming! This is huge! 

Isabel is more stunned than angry, and she feels sorry for Gilbert’s first wife that they were only together for three years before she died and that he was cheating on her so soon into the marriage. Gemini says that Gilbert was no longer Madame Merle’s lover when he married Isabel but that they have a whole history between them, and that Madame Merle wanted him to marry Isabel because Isabel had money and because she thought Isabel would be good to Pansy and hoped she would do something for Pansy, and so she arranged their marriage. She also says that the reason Gilbert didn’t marry Madame Merle was because she has no money, and that no-one has ever known what she lives on, and that Madame Merle didn’t push to marry Gilbert because she had grown more ambitious and hoped to marry a great man, though she hasn’t succeeded in this, and she also wanted to keep her reputation and feared that if she married Gilbert and was seen with Pansy then people would see the resemblance and guess she was Pansy’s mother. Gemini also says that Pansy doesn’t like Madame Merle and that Madame Merle knows this. Gemini says too that she believes Gilbert is tired of Madame Merle now. Isabel can see the mother in Madame Merle now, with how eager she was for Pansy to marry Warburton. Phew, I’m still reeling from this revelation, this suddenly feels like such a drama.

Isabel decides to go to England, and goes to the convent first to say goodbye to Pansy. Madame Merle is also at the convent visiting Pansy, she is just about to leave but talks to Isabel while she waits to be taken to Pansy. Madame Merle is talking normally to Isabel but then suddenly falters and seems to realise that Isabel knows her history. Madame Merle doesn’t say anything about it and tries to continue on as normal, but Isabel is sure that she realises that Isabel now knows. Ooooh, I can imagine the friction in the room as the perfectly poised Madame Merle falters and loses her poise.

Isabel sees Pansy and tells her she is going to England, Pansy is sad at her going and says she is keen to leave the convent. Isabel suggests that Pansy go to England with her. Pansy asks if her father has agreed to this, and when Isabel says no Pansy then says she can’t go as she must please her father. Isabel has the impression that Pansy knows she has been punished by her father by being put in the convent and that she will do anything and agree to anything now in order to keep his favour. Pansy asks Isabel to promise to come back to her, and she promises this. I am sad she’s not taking Pansy with her, Isabel would be such a good influence on Pansy and I hate to think of Pansy still under the control of Gilbert with his bitterness, but I guess Isabel has no parental rights over Pansy, though I can’t help wishing Pansy would follow Isabel’s example and just break away and rebel.

Madame Merle is waiting for Isabel in order to speak to her further. She tells Isabel that it was Ralph’s idea that his father left her his money, so really it is Ralph she needs to blame for her marriage. Isabel retorts that she believes it is her she should blame for her marriage. Madame Merle says she knows Isabel is very unhappy, but that she is more unhappy and Isabel says she can believe that. Isabel adds that she never wants to see her again. Madame Merle says she will go to America. Wow, well done Isabel for standing up to Madame Merle. It feels now like Isabel recognises she has nothing to lose and is cutting loose from all those she previously felt were important to her and whose views she valued. 

Isabel is met by Henrietta and Bantling on her arrival at Charing Cross by the Paris Mail train. Henrietta is to marry Bantling. Henrietta asks Isabel if Gilbert made a scene about her coming to England, and Isabel said he objected but there was no scene and that it was more of a quiet conversation. She also tells Henrietta that she promised Pansy she would go back. I note that Isabel doesn’t seem to be saying she has left Gilbert, which concerns me, I had hoped she had decided to break free. 

Isabel goes to Gardencourt. She begins wondering how different her life might have been if her aunt hadn’t turned up in Albany offering to take her to England, and wonders if she’d have married Casper. Lydia tells Isabel that Warburton is to marry a lady of the aristocracy after a courtship of three weeks. Isabel sits for long hours with Ralph. He isn’t able to talk much but she thanks him for giving her his father’s inheritance, though he asks her not to speak of it as he knows it has not made her happy and he believes it has ruined her. She tells him that Gilbert married her for the money and that she had tried to conceal this from Ralph as she didn’t want to hurt him, but that she will hide her unhappiness from him no longer. He tells her he always understood, and that she has been punished for her wish to look at life for herself. He asks if it is all over between her and Gilbert, and she says she doesn’t think anything is over. He asks if she will go back to Gilbert, and she says she doesn’t know and can’t tell. She says she doesn’t want to think at the moment, that she cares for nothing but Ralph now, and is happier than she has been for a long time and wants him to be happy. He tells her to remember she’s been loved and adored. Awww, how lovely of Ralph to spend his last few days trying to help her be less unhappy and to bolster her spirits.

She feels in the early hours of the morning that she sees Ralph’s spirit standing by her bed, so she goes to his room and finds Lydia also there, and Ralph has died. Oh, this is so sad, with Ralph dying but also at their relationship ending and what could have been if they’d have married each other, I think he would have encouraged her to express her views and opinions and encouraged her to embrace her independent spirit, and shared his views and opinions with her. And it makes me wonder too at the significance of endings with the seeming end of Isabel’s marriage and also the end of Ralph’s life, and I also wonder if Isabel seeing Ralph’s life end will then re-evaluate things and aim for a better life for herself in his memory, I do hope so. 

Warburton and Henrietta and Bantling and Casper are at Ralph’s funeral. Isabel stays at Gardencourt trying to reach a decision about her future, she has had no letter from either Gilbert or Pansy, although she presumes Gilbert has told Pansy not to write to her. Warburton comes to say goodbye to Lydia and Isabel before he goes back to London, he urges Isabel to visit his sisters and to stay with them at Lockleigh as she promised to do in Rome. Ralph has left his library to Henrietta, which includes many rare and valuable books, he says this is ‘in recognition of her services to literature’. Oooh, I am envious of Henrietta having all those books.

Casper also visits Isabel, he says he wants to help her and asks her to trust him. He says Ralph was a fine man and one of the best, and that Ralph had told Casper how Isabel’s situation was with Gilbert, and that Ralph had guessed how Casper felt about her. He says Ralph had told him to do everything he could for her, to do everything that Isabel would let him do for her, and that Ralph feared how Gilbert would make her pay for coming to England. Casper says he knows she is alone and doesn’t know where to turn, so he says to turn to him and trust him and not go back to that ‘ghastly form’ of a marriage. He says he is hers forever and he is as firm as a rock, and she must save what she can of her life, that the world is all before them. She is tempted by what he says but asks him to go away. He says that will kill him. She says, “as you love me, as you pity me, leave me alone”. He kisses her and she initially seems to respond, but then runs away from him back to the house. Omg, that was intense, I found myself kind of wishing she would accept him even though I don’t really think they would be right together, but he is so loyal and faithful and loves her so much, although he seems just a little bit to border on the obsessed with Isabel and I wonder where that would take him, and I also wonder how much his hurt pride at her rejections is driving him to push her to accept him. But her saying no yet again must hurt him very much.

Isabel tells herself she now knows where to turn and there is a very straight path. I’m puzzled what path this is, what does she have in mind?

Two days later, Casper knocks at Henrietta’s door in London asking to see Isabel, as the servant at Gardencourt had told him she had gone there. Henrietta says that Isabel came there yesterday but that morning had started for Rome. Henrietta tells him, “just you wait”. He guesses she simply means that he is young. 

Omg, what does this ending mean, how annoyingly ambiguous is this! So Isabel sets off back to Rome, but to do what? To go back to her life with Gilbert for the sake of appearances, to go back to Gilbert feeling she can now be more assertive and live with him in more of a balanced partnership, to go back to Gilbert with the expectation that he will be angry at her going to England and his angry actions will give her an accepted reason in society’s view for her to leave him properly, to go back to rescue Pansy and bring her to England and safety. Omg, what?! And I wonder if there is anything to be read into Henrietta’s reaction when she tells Casper that Isabel has gone back to Rome, as I’d have thought she would sound sad and exasperated if the reason of Isabel’s return was to go back to her life with Gilbert, so maybe as Henrietta seems ok with it (or that’s the way I read it) this could be implied that she is happy with Isabel’s aim and this is to leave Gilbert but to rescue Pansy and return to England. 

And it also makes me wonder how I would like the book to finish and what I’d like for Isabel to have decided to do, as at times I’ve wanted Isabel to end up with Warburton (who increasingly reminds me of Lord Peter Wimsey!) and at times to end up with Casper or Ralph as I feel she could have been cherished by all of them, but on the other hand I think I’d mostly like her to be independent and on her own as she intended to be at the start of the book, perhaps with Pansy too so the two women live life together, Isabel having rescued Pansy from the likely fate of an unhappy marriage engineered by her father. 

This also seems a strange ending with the final scene being Casper and Henrietta, and just having Isabel talked about rather than us following Isabel’s actions and being privy to her thoughts as we have at other times in the book and the final scene being her on her return journey to Rome, even if we still don’t learn exactly what she plans to do. It seems a strange choice not to finish the book with the main character of the book, I almost wondered if I was missing a couple of pages! 

And I’m puzzled by that last scene between Casper and Isabel and what this was for, he was obviously very passionate and determined and it was almost uncomfortable to read with the intensity of it, and it was quite unlike the style of the rest of the book. I thought initially it was for Isabel to see that she could have a happy and safe life with Casper and be cherished by him and she can effectively reward him for his patience and loyalty, but obviously not as she rejects him again. However the scene seems to lead her to decide what path she will take, even though it’s not with Casper, but she doesn’t make this path obvious to us. 

This was a good book to read, although I struggled at times with how Henry James expresses things. I think I also struggled to care for Isabel really. Warburton stood out for me as my favourite character and I felt for him the most, with his modest and polite and self-deprecating nature, and his vulnerability and surprise at his own feelings and his honesty in showing these feelings and his vulnerability to Isabel. I think too I perhaps partly struggled to like Isabel because she didn’t recognise Warburton’s value. 

There were so many beautifully expressed, and often humorous and thought-provoking, lines in this book, I couldn’t help jotting them down to savour:

‘She held that a woman ought to be able to live to herself…and that it was perfectly possible to be happy without the society of a more or less coarse-minded person of another sex. The girl’s prayer was very sufficiently answered’.
‘There’s no more usual basis of union than a mutual misunderstanding’.
“I try to judge things for myself, to judge wrong, I think, is more honourable than not to judge at all”.
“I call people rich when they’re able to meet the requirements of their imagination”.
‘The breezy freedom of the stars and stripes might have shed an influence upon the attitude she there took towards life’.
‘She had an ideal of friendship as well as of several other sentiments…but she often reminded herself that there were essential reasons why one’s ideal could never become concrete. It was a thing to believe in, not to see – a matter of faith, not of experience’.
‘She had never met a person having less of that fault which is the principal obstacle to friendship – the air of reproducing the more tiresome, the stale, the too-familiar parts of one’s own character’.
‘She always remembered that one should never regret a generous error’.
“One can’t judge till one’s forty, before that we’re too eager, too hard, too cruel, and in addition much too ignorant…I often think that after forty one can’t really feel. The freshness, the quickness have certainly gone”.
‘She declared that in England the pleasures of smell were great – that in this inimitable island there was a certain mixture of fog and beer and soot which, however odd it may sound, was the national aroma, and was most agreeable to the nostril’.
“The only thing is to see our steps as we take them – to understand them as we go”.
“That’s the supreme good fortune – to be in a better position for appreciating people than they are for appreciating you”.
‘To be so cultivated and civilised, so wise and easy, and still make so light of it – that was really to be a great lady’.
‘To live in such a place was…to hold to her ear all day a shell of the sea of the past’.“I prefer women like books – very good and not too long”.
‘She envied the security of valuable pieces which change by no hair’s breadth, only grow in value, while their owners lose inch by inch youth, happiness, beauty’.

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James available on Amazon
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