The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James

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They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over gullible women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, 7 always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth. (2 Timothy 3:6-7)

This came up in my Bible reading when I was half way through The Portrait of a Lady. In some ways it’s a great description of Gilbert Osmond, and offers a summary of some of the moral aspects of the novel.  Isabel is certainly gullible, and Madame Merle and Osmond do worm their way into her life; Osmond is knowledgeable and cultured, his outward personality a shell that hides his true nature.

But there is no need to develop the analogy further.  This is a fantastic book, the first HJ I’ve ever read, actually!  Obviously it’s a long slow read, but it justifies the time spent and towards the end the plot gallops along!!

Madame Merle and Osmond are evil sharks circling the innocent Isabel, and James imbues the novel with tension that is as exciting as any thriller.  Her beautiful innocence is destroyed by their greed and selfishness.  As the story progresses we see this even more clearly: we are shown Osmond’s desire for control, his dead hand on their relationship, his hypocrisy and cruelty.  No wonder FR Leavis thought so much of Henry James – for a critic seeking moral truth in fiction James is ideal – radical, probing the moral values of society, but essentially conventional and bourgeois.

Isabel is freedom, innocence, America, the modern woman (though less the latter than Henrietta Stackpole -what a name!). Osmond and Madame Merle are imprisonment, decadence, decay, corruption, Europe.

Many American novels end in motion: Huck Finn takes off down the river; in Catch 22 Yossarian is running away.  These characters seek to escape responsibility, to break the rules, to escape from the moral constraints of society.  The Portrait of a Lady ends this way too – with a journey.  Will Isabel escape from Europe to find freedom and happiness away from Osmond, or return as her moral compass might dictate to an empty and cruel marriage?  Well I’m not going to say, but if you can’t be bothered to read the whole book, a skim of the last chapter will tell you.

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