“A genius for upholstery”, Kim Hill

Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady: such an adolescent cliché, you could say, not to mention a literary one. Spirited young thing falls in thrall to a superficially sophisticated older man, and ruins her life. The Victorians were apparently fascinated by the “girl marries monster” plot, as Joan Aitken observes in her introduction to my Folio Society edition of Portrait.

But let’s face it, how many times have you wondered how that nice woman could have ended up with “that bastard”? Plus ça change. Sorry, chaps, but it still doesn’t happen the other way around quite as often, at least in my neck of the gender woods.

Plus, of course, how many times do we see a Perfectly Decent Chap spurned for someone from the nether world? In Portrait, there are three PDCs, all unable to save Isabel from her ghastly fate at the hands of the satanic Gilbert Osmond.

Most people’s Favourite Books have some personal resonance about them, so I should put in a disclaimer, lest the satanic or the perfectly decent in my past life start trying to work out who’s who. Oh, what the hell.

It’s a coming-of-age novel, yes, among other things. James had apparently read Middlemarch, but Dorothea Brooke’s husband Casaubon is clearly ghastly from the start, whereas Osmond seems pretty sexy for a while there. Really ghastly men do. There’s the rub.

Some people can’t figure why Isabel, who’s an independent woman of means, would marry Osmond. I can’t figure why they can’t figure. He presents as original and perverse. Perversity is a hugely seductive quality. It speaks of brilliance, singularity, carelessness of the conventions. Those of us who are not invented by Henry James might become drawn to men who can’t remember to change their socks, who get messily drunk, or who are rude to people in inappropriately public places. Let’s be clear here. I am not saying men are generally like this. But those that are tend, with counter-intuitive frequency, to find a woman who, at first at least, finds perversity alluring. This seems to indicate some biological imperative. I have no idea what that could be. “These things cannot be reasoned about,” says Isabel when turning down PDC Lord Warburton’s proposal of marriage.

I can understand why Jane Campion wanted to film Portrait. It seems so contemporary in its concerns. Isabel, rebuked by Mrs Touchett for not withdrawing from the gentlemen after dinner, thanks her aunt for the etiquette lesson, saying she always wants to know the “things one shouldn’t do”.

“So as to do them?” asked her aunt.
“So as to choose,” said Isabel.


(But Nicole Kidman? No no! Even though James doesn’t give us a physical description of Isabel, unlike every other character, you just KNOW she doesn’t look like Kidman, don’t you?)

The fact that James was probably more interested in exploring the difference between American and European sensibilities doesn’t dim the feminist fascination of Isabel’s dilemma, and, besides, his views on the former still seem relevant.

The arch-villain of the story, however, is a woman after all – the serpentine Madame Merle, who delivers Isabel, “a present of incalculable value”, to Osmond. Here are distinct shades of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, published almost exactly a century earlier. For Madame Merle, read the Marquise de Merteuil. I have no idea whether Henry James knew that book, but John Malkovitch plays both Osmond and the Vicomte de Valmont in the respective filmed adaptations.

Portrait is both exceedingly (one uses such words under the influence of James) old-fashioned and exceedingly modern in its depiction of the ghastliness of Isabel’s married life with Osmond. It’s presented in a very oblique way, the leaden disillusionment she feels about her aesthetically controlled, dessicated life. Osmond’s fatal flaw that at first made him so attractive is that “he took himself so seriously; it was something appalling.” He’s a truly hollow man who despises and envies simultaneously, and to whom love is a myth or a weakness. He is a classic control freak: “He had an immense esteem for tradition; he had told her once that the best thing in the world was to have it, but that if one was so unfortunate as not to have it one must immediately proceed to make it.”

No easy outs for Isabel, either. Some, including Campion, I think, have read the ending as ambiguous, and wishfully suppose that Isabel might end up with Caspar Goodwood, especially after their hot and heavy Mills and Boonish clinch on the second to last page. But Isabel has a duty to her stepdaughter, and a bed to lie on, and James has a heroine to put in place, so he gets Caspar to offer her the easy way out:

Why shouldn’t we be happy – when it’s here before us, when it’s so easy? … You must save what you can of your life; you mustn’t lose it all because you’ve simply lost a part …. We can do absolutely as we please … Ah, be mine as I’m yours!


Go, Isabel! But although it’s a great speech, Isabel falling into his arms and living happily ever after would not be the stuff of which tragedy is made. And if it’s true, as someone once said, that Henry James creates a cathedral in which to bury a mouse, that kind of ending would certainly qualify for the description of rodent interment.

As it is, it’s a bit of a stretch. But, as a cautionary tale, it’s superb, and an elegant antidote to the vapid “Why shouldn’t we be happy?” argument. Sometimes you make a really bad decision, and things turn rotten and you have to live with it. End of story. I don’t know why, but I find it strangely comforting to read The Portrait of a Lady and find life treated not merely as a series of disconnected and diverting exploits but as something with obligations and unpleasant repercussions from which you can’t walk away.

And if that sounds far too grim and didactic, the descriptions of the homes and gardens of England and Italy are so gorgeous that you almost find yourself wishing you too could be as unlucky as poor Isabel, trapped in a loveless marriage with a husband whom she describes to PDC Lord Warburton as having “a genius for upholstery”. How wonderfully eloquent is that line? I use it as often as I can.


Kim Hill hosts National Radio’s Nine-to-Noon programme.


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