Monday, January 7, 2013

The Portrait of a Lady Begins

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
Signet Classics - Published 1881

Chapters 1 -19
We are introduced to Mr. Touchett, a sickly, older, wealthy American living in England; his son, Ralph, who suffers from health complications, too; and their neighbor, an English aristocrat, Lord Warburton.  Soon, Mr. Touchett’s wife returns from America with her niece, Isabel Archer, a poor girl, full of beauty, imagination, and a desire to be independent. 

Ralph likes Isabel, but he knows he cannot marry her because of his health, yet they become close friends; while Lord Warburton loves her very much and immediately proposes to Isabel, to which she declines and feels terrible about it. 

An American acquaintance of Isabel’s, Miss Stockpole, travels to England on business, and makes it her business to meddle in Isabel’s business.  She believes it is her concern to see to it that Isabel marry an American when Isabel is not so certain she wants to marry anyone at all.  Stockpole orchestrates a meeting with Mr. Casper Goodwood.

Mr. Casper Goodwood lives in America and wishes to marry Isabel, but before she left for England she told him to give her a year before she would respond.  Impatiently, he follows her to England and forces the issue, further causing her to push her wait time to two years and until after she returns from her travels in Europe.  But she is sure the answer is no, and it gives her great pleasure to exert her independence on the matter.

Meanwhile, Mr. Touchett is dying, and Ralph, who cares immensely for Isabel and wants to see her happy, convinces his father to share half of his inheritance with her.  His main reason: 
“If she has an easy income she will never have to marry for a support.  She wishes to be free, and your bequest will make her free.”
Next, Isabel meets Mrs. Touchett’s friend, Madame Merle, another ex-pat living in Europe, who captivates Isabel with her talents, wisdom, and liberty.   They have long conversations with each other, mostly about Isabel, who trusts her enough to open up to Madame Merle. 

But something tells the reader Merle is superficial.  I, for one, was so tired of hearing her talk, and I wrote this in the margin when she claims to express herself through "things":







But our heroine redeems herself when she replies:
 Sadly, at the end of chapter 19, Mr. Touchett passes away, and a new chapter must begin.

1 comment:

  1. Yep, that's exactly what I feel about Madame Merle: too good to be true, rather inhuman, even. And I'm always suspicious to people who are so perfect...

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