Isabel Archer’s biggest problem is that every man she meets wants to marry her. She is so charming, so overwhelmingly endearing, that her aunt can’t resist taking her on an all-expenses-paid Eurotrip; her uncle is compelled to leave her half his fortune (70,000 pounds in the 1860s); and her cousin views her as his sole reason to live. (And yes, he wants to marry her. More on that later.)
Isabel spends the first half of Henry James’s most popular novel breaking hearts right and left. Her suitors, hundreds of pages later, have yet to move on. Feeling crestfallen after you’ve been rejected by a woman you knew for a week? Weird, but fine. Hoping she’ll change her mind? Sad, but fine. Following her across countries and continents to tell her how devastated you are—for years—and laying on guilt trips as if she owes you anything but her middle finger? Not OK, gents. Not OK.
Needless to say, when she does decide to get married, and her husband grows to hate her with a passion, Isabel is utterly perplexed. To the reader, however, the reason for his antipathy is clear. For one, his name is Gilbert Osmond—obviously a villain’s name. Second, and more importantly, no human can live up to the kind of expectations attached to Ms. Archer. When Madame Merle (a friend suspiciously interested third party) encourages Osmond to meet Isabel, he asks:
“Is she beautiful, clever, rich, splendid, universally intelligent and unprecedentedly virtuous? It is only on those conditions that I care to make her acquaintance.”
Madame Merle assures him that this description neatly “corresponds” to Isabel. A few sad years into their marriage, however, Isabel is already failing on every count—except, perhaps, “rich”—at least from Osmond’s point of view.
To everyone else, though, Isabel has lost none of her appeal. There are still several mopey losers stalking her—notably her cousin Ralph, a full-time invalid for whom stalking is a challenging hobby. Manly professions of love have, by this point, become comedic for the reader, and tedious for Isabel. Her reaction to Ralph’s romantic declaration:
Was he too on that tiresome list?
Contrary to Osmond’s line of thinking, perfection may actually be Isabel’s greatest flaw. You know that old platitude moms hand out like lunchboxes to their fourteen-year-old daughters, looking with the eyes of unconditional love past braces and puppy fat: “Honey, flaws are what make you interesting”? Well, it turns out that’s absolutely true. I’m not saying those fourteen-year-old girls will get invited to Homecoming by the Jonas Brothers, or anything. But my biggest point of dispute with The Portrait of a Lady is its supremely boring heroine in Isabel Archer. Her commitment to her own “independence” lasts about as long as this sentence. Her ambitions fall prey to the usual predators of marriage and motherhood. Duty to her husband and social convention wins out, in most cases, over her own feelings.
None of this would be grating (OK, as grating) if we weren’t repeatedly reminded of Isabel’s supposed independence, ambition, and defiance of tradition—and if Isabel weren’t constantly patting herself on the back for these very qualities. She’s not even as autonomous or accomplished as her own friend Henrietta Stackpole, next to whom she is a wilting wallflower.
James is not as funny as Jane Austen, or as gifted as William Makepeace Thackeray. His ambition is weak next to George Eliot’s, and his themes look timid up against the Brontës’. But overall, I enjoyed my trip across Europe through the eyes of Henry James and Ms. Archer—particularly the plot twist I inexplicably did not foresee. I just wish there had been a scene where all of Isabel’s lame suitors lined up one in front of the other, and she knocked them down like dominoes. Literally or figuratively—I’m not picky.
“You are too fond of your liberty.”
“Yes, I think I am very fond of it. 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.
She wondered whether his sense of humour were by chance defective.
She had too many ideas for herself; but that was just what one married for, to share them with someone else.
I don’t want everyone to like me; I should think less of myself if some people did.