Monday, September 10, 2012

Isabel Archer and Caspar Goodwood

Last week, excited about Michael Gorra's new book on Henry James and the writing of The Portrait of a Lady, Portrait of a Novel, I put a question out there via Twitter: should I read Gorra's book, then re-read the novel--last read fifteen years ago, or vice-versa?

Cardinals baseball writer Dan Moore offered a third suggestion, rooted in his ADHD: read both at once. That's not really my style--but it turns out to be exactly the right way to go. Gorra, though offering much, much more in his book than a simple recounting and analysis of the novel, does organize his biographical investigations around developments in the book, and it's easy (and rewarding) to go back and forth, a section or so at a time in each one. The combination enriches both books, and I'd highly recommend it to any James fan.

I'm about halfway through both books now. (Is it possible to spoil the plot of such a well-known novel? If so, I'm about to do some of that, so be warned.) Isabel has just announced, via letter, to her earlier, rejected suitor Caspar Goodwood that she's engaged to Gilbert Osmond. It's also the first we readers have heard of it, and, as Gorra notes, it comes as a shock:
[T]e news fills us with the same sense of surprise and dismay as it does the book's other characters. It makes us feel that Isabel had better explain herself.
Even though we've seen this coming, we've allowed ourselves to be fooled by Isabel's declarations of independence into thinking it might not happen--or at least won't happen soon. Yet there it is, an established fact, presented defiantly. Delivering the news this way is an impressive narrative decision on James's part, and it's incredibly effective at unmooring us, reminding us of the limits of our knowledge, and making us feel that we're experiencing the story as it happens rather than looking back on something already known--or, worse, watching a familiar type of tale round into its expected form.

I want to focus, however, not on the delivery of that information itself, but on the way that Goodwood responds. Isabel's letter has prompted him to rush to Florence to confront her, and when he arrives he is flustered and tired from travel and, while controlled, clearly upset:
His jaw showed the same voluntary cast as in earlier days; but a crisis like the present had in it of course something grim.
After the merest of preliminaries about travel, Isabel introduces the topic of her engagement (of which we at that point still know nothing) with a forced joke, saying, "[Y]ou must have felt as if you were coming to bury me!" She follows it with a forced "smile of encouragement to an easy view of their situation," which leads to this exchange:
"No, I didn't feel that; I couldn't think of you as dead. I wish I could!" he candidly declared.

"I thank you immensely."

"I'd rather think of you as dead than as married to another man."
Goodwood, I should be clear, has to that point shown no inclination to violence. There are no Dickensian clenched fists or simmering brows--he's no Bradley Headstone. But even so, such a bald statement of violent desire is a shock, and should be frightening.

Yet in the context of the novel, it's simply a passing statement of passionate, if deluded, love. Isabel seems barely bothered by it:
"That's very selfish of you!" she returned with the ardour of a real conviction.
Presumably that means that James attaches as little importance to it as well--which, I suspect, is why Gorra, too, mostly lets it pass, addressing it only in the context of the revelation of the engagement itself, writing, "The words are like a slap--a slap not to her but to us."

But I was brought up short, even chilled. It's as good a reminder as any of the way society changes--of, in this case, our growing awareness of and concern about violence against women by those who claim to love them--that what strikes us as horrifying and beyond the pale seems to have been perfectly allowable within the range of passionate expression at the time of the novel. And that fact by itself makes as clear as almost anything else in the book how different Isabel's world and era are from ours, and just what forces she's up against in her attempt to chart her own unfettered fate.

No comments:

Post a Comment