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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).

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