Friday, April 11, 2014


My daughter Rozzie in Rye (where Henry James lived)

I've been thinking about Isabel Archer a lot recently.  She's the heroine of Henry James' masterpiece THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY and I had elements of her character in mind when I wrote the character of Ruby Lambert, narrator of my forthcoming novel - I KNOW WHERE I AM WHEN I'M FALLING.   I tried to explore some of her character traits in different more contemporary ways in my book, although when I was actually writing it, THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY was not as fresh in my mind as it is today.

That's because this month I've had occasion to reread THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY for a book club I've been facilitating at a local library. Reading this portrait of Isabel Archer for perhaps the third time, I found even more to James' complex psychological study, more I understood, more that exasperated me, and more that makes this 'lady' such a memorable and tragic figure.

I've always understood Isabel's desire for a deeper form of happiness.  She wants to be seen as independent - doesn't want the easy predictable life that marriage to Lord Warburton would afford her.  She finds Lord Warburton's perfection irritating and she isn't conventional enough to be satisfied by him.

The same goes for another suitor, Casper Goodwood. She finds Goodwood attractive, and likes the energy burning in his eyes.  It even appears that she becomes sexually aroused after she declines his proposal.  But Isabel's imagination isn't taken up by Goodwood.  He leaves her mentally cold.  When they are alone together, he talks too much about the same boring subjects. 

Then, when she meets Gilbert Osmond, she has the sense that he is withholding interesting elements of his character, which she wants to unveil, over time.  There seems to be more to Osmond than he reveals up front.

It's a marvelous trick - and I have to say that I've noticed this tactic used to great advantage by some recent acquaintances.  It serves some people well to withhold themselves as a way of piquing the interest of those around them. I've never been good at withholding myself, personally - I'm more of a straight shooter.  And I think that Isabel Archer is a straight shooter too.  That's why it never occurs to her that she is being duped.  She is struck instead, as her cousin Ralph Touchett so powerfully observes, "by what [Gilbert Osmond] represents, more than by what he lacks."

And so Isabel falls in love with a cad, without initially recognizing him as one. At first she clearly wants a life of experience. But tellingly, tragically, she has already disclosed that she can't avoid what she thinks of as her fate:  unhappiness. In marrying Osmond, she courts that unhappiness and brings it into being.

My character Ruby Lambert, like Isabel Archer, doesn't want to look too deeply into upsetting things.  I love how James describes one of Isabel's encounters with Mme Merle,  "with her love of knowledge [Isabel]had a natural shrinking from raising curtains and looking into unlighted corners.  The love of knowledge coexisted in her mind with the finest capacity for ignorance."

It all comes down to Isabel's imagination.  The tragedy is that her innocent imagination doesn't extend into those dark corners she fears to look at.  She never dreams that Osmond is affected.  That everything is pose. That he has studied his part and that what she sees is mostly veneer.   If Jane Austen had written this novel she might have called it AFFECTION AND AFFECTATION.

Lamb House, in Rye Sussex - where Henry James lived.

In the early 1990's, I plowed through all James's novels - even the dreadful ones like THE PRINCESS CASAMASSIMA.  I was compiling a little book for Kensington - The Henry James Sampler -and I wanted my sampler to be complete.  Reading James's novels back to back, I was struck by the recurring theme of a woman who is duped by a pair of lovers. That's the central story of THE WINGS OF A DOVE but it's taken up there from a different angle.  In THE AMBASSADORS,  the protagonist travels to Europe, hoping to persuade his friend's son to return to America and live a more conventional life.   And in THE GOLDEN BOWL a pair of covert lovers offer a wedding gift to one of their fiancees, a golden bowl with a crack in it. The crack symbolizes the folly of offering something you know to be flawed (yourself) to another. The flaw being that your heart belongs to somebody else.  And yet, as James says - aren't we all flawed? Can we then offer each other anything? 

Two years ago  I visited Henry James' house in Rye, Sussex with my daughter Rozzie and my dear friend Walter - and we wandered round the house and garden.  I wish we could have come across Henry James himself, in the parlor or sitting on one of his garden benches. We might have had such a marvelous conversation!