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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Henrietta Stackpole

Henrietta Stackpole is an American journalist and friend of Isabel Archer, who comes to England to visit Isabel and to collect stories about foreigners.  In the preface to the 1908 New York edition of the work, James essentially apologizes for the character of Miss Stackpole:

As to Henrietta, my apology for whom I just left incomplete, she exemplifies, I fear, in her superabundance, not an element of my plan, but only an excess of my zeal. So early was to begin my tendency to OVERTREAT, rather than undertreat (when there was choice or danger) my subject. (Many members of my craft, I gather, are far from agreeing with me, but I have always held overtreating the minor disservice.) "Treating" that of "The Portrait" amounted to never forgetting, by any lapse, that the thing was under a special obligation to be amusing. There was the danger of the noted "thinness"—which was to be averted, tooth and nail, by cultivation of the lively. That is at least how I see it to-day. Henrietta must have been at that time a part of my wonderful notion of the lively.

James calls Miss Stackpole "an excess of my zeal," her role being to add humor, which she absolutely does.

Isabel calls her "decidedly pretty" while James tells us she has a clear but loud voice (the loud found offensive by Mrs. Touchett).  She is strongly American and judges everyhting by American standards, causing the English characters in the novel to think her rude.  Though "thoroughly good-natured" (Ch. 10), she looks people directly in the eyes, threreby making them uncomfortable;  she doesn't knock upon entry; she is told by Isabel that she has "no sense of privacy" (Ch. 10); and she is not timid in voicing her opinions, particularly when she disagrees with someone, such as when she tells Warburton, "I don't approve of a privileged class" (Ch. 14).  Due to her "aggressive frankness" (Ch. 11), no one but Isabel likes her so far in the novel.

One role Henrietta plays in the novel is a comical one.  Her exchanges with Ralph are hilaious, particularly because while she accuses Ralph of not being serious enough, she herself is too serious.  In one of the funniest scenes, in which Henrietta insultingly calls Ralph "European" (Ch. 10), despite his American birth, Henrietta tells Ralph he needs to marry because it is his duty, advice Ralph mistakens for a proposal which he foolishly accepts.  Henrietta, in turn, is offended and Ralph embarassed.

Another role Henrietta plays early in the novel is to inform the reader that Isabel has changed since her arrival in England (though Goodwood intimates that the change occurred when she found out she was to go to England). 

"Yes, you're changed; you've got new ideas over here," her friend continued.

"I hope so," said Isabel; "one should get as many new ideas as possible."
"Yes; but they shouldn't interfere with the old ones when the old ones have been the right ones."
Isabel turned about again. "If you mean that I had any idea with regard to Mr. Goodwood—!" But she faltered before her friend's implacable glitter.
"My dear child, you certainly encouraged him."
Isabel made for the moment as if to deny this charge; instead of which, however, she presently answered: "It's very true. I did encourage him." (Ch. 11)

Exactly what these "new ideas" are is not clear yet, though it seems to have something to do with Isabel's ideas about marriage.  Apparently, Isabel was willing to give herself to Caspar Goodwood, an American friend, but has since changed her mind about a possible marriage.  Isabel and Henrietta seem to differ on one's obligation to marriage.  While Henrietta sees marriage as a duty, Isabel does not see marriage as an obligation to everyone.

"I am not sure I wish to marry anyone" (Ch. 12).

Her reason for possibly not marrying may be her fear of relinquishing her independence.

"The idea of diminished liberty was particularly disagreeable to Isabel at present" (Ch. 13).

Isabel fears there is life to live which she would miss out on by marrying at this moment.  For Henrietta, Isabel is neglecting her duty.

The above painting is The Symphony in White (1862) by James Whistler.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Choosing one's own path

"Of course you're vexed at my interfering with you," said Mrs. Touchett.

Isabel considered. "I'm not vexed, but I'm surprised—and a good deal mystified. Wasn't it proper I should remain in the drawing-room?"

"Not in the least. Young girls here—in decent houses—don't sit alone with the gentlemen late at night."

"You were very right to tell me then," said Isabel. "I don't understand it, but I'm very glad to know it.

"I shall always tell you," her aunt answered, "whenever I see you taking what seems to me too much liberty."

"Pray do; but I don't say I shall always think your remonstrance just."

"Very likely not. You're too fond of your own ways."

"Yes, I think I'm very fond of them. But I always want to know the things one shouldn't do."

"So as to do them?" asked her aunt.

"So as to choose," said Isabel.  (Ch. 7)

After spending an evening with Ralph and Lord Warburton, who paid a second visit to Gardencourt, while under her aunt's supervision, Isabel, who enjoys both of their company, tells her aunt to go to bed without while she converses with the gentlemen.  Nevertheless, Mrs. Touchett refuses to leave Isabel alone with the gentlemen, as it is not proper in England.  Isabel, in her first disagreeable moment in England, cannot see the harm as long as she is with her cousin but she acquiesces to her aunt's request.  Instead of harboring offense, Isabel uses the incident as an education of English society.

Mrs. Touchett is from America and is not particularly fond of England, as illustrated by her having taken up residence in Florence. 

She was not fond of the English style of life, and had three or four reasons for it to which she currently alluded; they bore upon minor points of that ancient order, but for Mrs. Touchett they amply justified non-residence. She detested bread-sauce, which, as she said, looked like a poultice and tasted like soap; she objected to the consumption of beer by her maid-servants; and she affirmed that the British laundress (Mrs. Touchett was very particular about the appearance of her linen) was not a mistress of her art (Ch. 3).

Though minor complaints, they were enough to keep Mrs. Touchett out of England all but a few weeks of the year.  She did not hide from Isabel "the acrimony of her allusions to her husband's adopted country" (Ch. 7), having no desire to get to know his neighbors.  Nevertheless, she still adheres to the customs of the land, as her above conversation with Isabel illustrates.  It seems contradictory to Mrs. Touchett's character that would hamper Isabel's freedom, especially considering she lives separated from her husband and uses her freedom to travel uninhibited.  Nevertheless, Mrs. Touchett may be exhibiting her independence by choosing the customs she will observe.  Such seems to be the case with Isabel when she states she always wants to know what's proper "so as to choose" whether she will observe the societal law.  Possibly as interesting as Mrs. Touchett's upholding English customs is Lord Warburton's willingness to violate them.  As American as Isabel is, Warburton is English yet, he expresses his wish that Isabel be allowed to stay up with the guys.  Ralph and Mr. Touchett identify him as a "radical," and this incident may illustrate their point.

Friday, September 24, 2010

An American Perspective in England

The novel opens with an afternoon tea at an old English country house, where the older generation is counselling the younger generation on the subject of marriage.  Mr. Touchett, who himself is not in a happy marriage, advises his son Ralph and Ralph's friend Lord Warburton to be wise in choosing a wife, though he asks Warburton not to become interested in his niece who is soon to arrive from America with Mrs. Touchett.  Though such a request may cause one to suspect that Mr. Touchett does not trust Lord Warburton, the true reason way lie much deeper.  Mr. Touchett may like Lord Warburton as a person, but it is his "English-ness" that he objects to.

Though Mr Touchett currently lives in England, he is from America and made the trek to England thirty years before when Ralph was very young.  Despite his lengthy stay in England, Mr. Touchett has refused to condition himself to English tastes.

The old gentleman at the tea-table, who had come from America thirty years before, had brought with him, at the top of his baggage, his American physiognomy; and he had not only brought it with him, but he had kept it in the best order, so that, if necessary, he might have taken it back to his own country with perfect confidence. (Ch. 1)

He has maintained his Yankee accent, having "not intention of turning Englishman" (Ch. 5), tries to secure the same destiny for his son Ralph by having him educated in America, though brief stay at Oxford nearly reverses his efforts.  Lord Warburton, on the other hand, has "a face as English as that of the old gentleman I have just sketched was something else" and is wealthy as well as influential. 

Isabel Archer is the niece in question.  Though she has traveled to Europe in her youth, she has not been while of an age to allow her to fully grasp and appreciate the culture.  Now, she hopes to see the world and gain knowledge.  As an American, Isabel is described as a free spirit, full of confidence and "fond of my liberty" (Ch. 2).  She is well-read, demonstated by her indulging in a history of German thought when she is approached by her visiting aunt; yet, though quite intelligent, she is lacking in practical knowledge, showcased when she tells her aunt "I don't know anything about money" (Ch. 3).  Because she is naive, she thinks she knows more than what she, in truth, really does.  Consequently, "she doesn't take suggestions" (Ch. 5), as Ralph points out.  She calls herself "too theoretic" (Ch. 6) and displays her idealistic nature when, upon finding out Warburton is a lord, she responds "Oh, I hoped there would be a lord; it's just like a novel!" (Ch. 2).  She has a lot to learn about human nature, not having had many companions growing up and becoming dependent on novels to learn about mankind.  This phenomenon, James tells us, has allowed her to grow familiar with "the elation of liberty and the pain of exclusion" (Ch. 3), though this is the only pain she has had to endure other than the loss of both of her parents.  Nevertheless, Isabel greatly values her independence and objects to Ralph's suggestion that his mother has adopted her.  Her independence is something with which she is in no hurry to depart, a quality Mr. Touchett appreciates.

Mr. Touchett understands his niece's (actually his wife's niece) independent nature and fears that an Englishman, or an European in general, though he may be drawn to that independence, may eventually seek to strip her of that nature, a prospect Isabel ultimately faces.

The above painting is Miss Auras, The Red Book by Sir John Lavery (1856-1941).

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Preface

Though The Portrait of a Lady was published in 1881, James did not write a preface for the work until 1908 for the New York edition of his work.  In his preface, James describes how he came to write novel, which was begun in Florence  in the spring of 1879 and continued in Venice the following year.  He points out that the novel developed from not an idea for a plot but the idea of a single character:  Isabel Archer.  A technique he learned from Turgenev, James then had to find :the right relations" that would produce the character in Isabel he envisioned.  He describes his thus:  "Place the centre of the subject in the young woman's own consciousness," only then conceiving of the other characters who help to develop the plot.

He calls Isabel Archer a "single small cornerstone" in the "square and spacious house" that is the novel.  Everything that happens in the novel begins with and affects Isabel.  She is "an intelligent but presumptuous" "young woman" in "perfect isolation.  She stands aloof and rejects the offers of others in order to maintain her independence, which she highly values.  The one character with which James expresses disappointment is Henrietta Stackpole, whom he calls "incomplete."  Described as only a wheel to the coach, Henrietta was included by James in order to add levity and liveliness to the story.

The above painting is Portrait of a Lady (1455) by Rogier van der Weyden.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Henry James

Henry James Jr (1843-1916) was born in New York City to a wealthy clergyman of the same name who received a hefty inheritance from the latter's father.  The elder James believed in giving his family a cosmopolitan point of view and took them to Europe a year after Henry's birth, the first of many times Henry would cross the Atlantic during his youth.  In 1862, James attended Harvard to study law, but after a year he turned to writing and began publishing stories for serial publications, such as the Atlantic Monthly.  His first novel was Watch and Ward (1871), which tells of a bachelor who adopts a 12 year old girl and grooms her to marry him.  He moved to Paris in November 1875 to join the literary scene, but left for London a year later after being turned off by the lifestyle and philosophy of the French, particularly Emile Zola and Guy de Maupassant.

James' writings can be divided into three period:  the first, roughly 1870s-mid 1880s, is made of novels that describe Americans living abroad in Europe, such as Roderick Hudson.  The second period, roughly mid 1880s-mid 1890s, consisted of novels attacking social issues, such as The Bostonians.  The final period, starting in the mid 1890s, adopted a psychological approach, as in What Maisie Knew and The Wings of the DoveThe Portrait of a Lady (1881) belongs to the first period.

In addition to his 20 completed novels, James also wrote numerous short stories and novellas, a few plays, and literary criticism, such as The Art of Fiction, which emphasized the analytical value of fiction.  Among the writers that influenced him were Balzac and Turgenev, as James valued their realistic approach as a writer who himself disliked romanticism.  His older brother William James likely also contributed to his later psychological period.

In The Portrait of a Lady James describes the journey of a young American girl to Europe and her desire to maintain her independence.  Nevertheless, she is forced to accept a destiny she, unknowingly, did not choose.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

No Endurance of Love

"When they returned, Madame Arnoux took off her hat.  The lamp, standing on a console table, lit up her white hair.  It was like a blow full in the chest."  (Part III, Ch. VI)

Frederic never gets over his love for Madame Arnoux.  He decides to love and live with Rosanette, only to be drawn away when he hears the Arnouxes are in financial difficulties.  He feels obligated return to Rosanette upon learning of her pregnancy, though he no longer loves her and develops desire to have Madame Dambreuse, the wife of the wealthy Monsieur Dambreuse, as a mistress.  All of these affairs take place in addition to the attention that Frederic receives from Louise, a childhood friend and probably only woman who truly loves him.  Frederic is tempted by her father's wealth but ultimately pursues other interests.  The quote above describes Frederic's reaction to Madame Arnoux upon seeing her 16 years after her financial difficulties.  Repulsed by her white hair, Frederic no longer has feelings for her.

Frederic is sentimentality at its best.  He believes he must have love to be a success but is not willing to develop a sincere relationship.  Instead, he seeks a mistress, wanting marriage until it is actually attainable.  Maybe it is because she is attainable that he ignores Louise.  He no longer wants Rosanette but remains with her because of the child; nevertheless, once the child dies, Frederic no longer feels any obligation to her.  He loves the idea of marrying Madame Dambreuse after her husband's death until he realizes she is not an heir to his fortune, after which she is no longer enticing.  Madame Arnoux never leaves his thoughts throughout those 16 years and he is happy to see her until he sees her white hair.  Frederic always manages to find a reason no to pursue his affairs.  He vacillates from one relationship to another, having no stability and no desire for it.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Meaningless Living

"The luxury of the setting underlined the triviality of the conversation; although the subject-matter was not as stupid as the manner of its delivery, which was aimless, lifeless, and inconsequential."  (Part II, Ch. II)

Flaubert was a writer that spent years writing individual works because of his insistence on finding le mot juste.  It is interesting, therefore, that such a writer could write an entire novel about characters who engage in meaningless conversations.  At one point in Part II, Frederic and some friends throw a party for Senecal after his release from prison and the conversation turns to a discussion of Louis Phillippe's policies.  All attendees disagree with the restrictions the government has place on society, especially the press, causing Deslauriers to ask, "But what's left that isn't forbidden?"  Nevertheless, once the party ends, all the attendees go on with their lives as if the conversation never happened.  Despite the intensity of the discussion, no one is provoked to action.  The entire episode depicts a sentimental generation.

Earlier in chapter two, Deslauriers, appearing for his oral thesis, is given the subject of the Statute of Limitations but ends up going on a diatribe on how without such a statute, justification could be made for the enslavement of many peoples.  Unable to follow his logic, the examination committee dismisses him and he gives up law.  He no longer has a future in law and plans to write a dissertation on the Statute, though those plans come to nothing.  The meaningless conversation expand in the novel to reflect the meaningless lives of the characters.  Deslauriers abruptly gives up law to pursue politics; just like Frederic, Arnoux repeatedly switches professions; Rosanette vacillates between three lovers; and Regimbart, a friend of Frederic's, spends his days as a serial visitor of various bars.  No one has any direction in life, making spur of the moment decisions.


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