Wednesday, March 13, 2013

9: Portrait of a Lady - Henry James

"No, I'm not in love with her; but I should be if - if certain things were different." 
"Ah, things are always different from what they might be," said the old man. "If you wait for them to change you'll never do anything."
"I haven't many convictions; but I have three or four that I hold strongly. One is that people, on the whole, had better not marry their cousins. Another is that people in an advanced stage of pulmonary disorder had better not marry at all."

I couldn't resist googling "Why is Henry James so hard?" because it has taken me seemingly forever (really 16 days interspersped with three other books and a paper) to read this 582-page tome. I found a perfect description from noise pollution: "Some people say Henry James is difficult to read but I disagree. Reading Henry James is time consuming and it requires a certain amount of flexibility in understanding a language but that is not the same as difficult."

HJ is really perfection - which may be a surprise to anyone who knows me in real life and has heard me complain about the endlessness of this novel - but he really is. I think I need a month to process this book and I desperately wish I had someone to discuss it with because there is SO MUCH to ask and ponder and discuss. I also wish I had been reading it for pleasure because I had to charge my way through it and read all of the introductory materials which gave away far too much of the plot that is worth not spoiling.

The way he crafts characters and manipulates the reader's feelings towards them is brilliant. I started off loving Henrietta Stackpole from her anticipated entrance:
     "Shall I love her or shall I hate her?" Ralph asked while they moved along the platform.
     "Whichever you do will matter very little to her," said Isabel. "She doesn't care a straw what men think of her."
     "As a man I'm bound to dislike her then. She must be a kind of monster. Is she very ugly?"
     "No, she's decidedly pretty."
     "A female interviewer - a reporter in petticoats? I'm very curious to see her," Ralph conceded. "It's very easy to laugh at her but it is not easy to be as brave as she is."

My margin notes bounce back and forth from loving her to hating her to not understanding her to understanding her perfectly to ultimately really really appreciating all she has done in her life and in her friendship with our heroine. 

An unexpected feature of HJ (especially after reading the Intro and Preface) is that he is truly funny. Ralph Touchett (a participant in both of the dialogues above), Mr. Touchett (the old man), and Isabel Archer (our heroine) all share a dry sense of humor and witty back-and-forth that made me laugh and text my friends because their lines are that good. 

Did I mention he's romantic? I swooned a few times in my reading, absolutely. The various suitors are sometimes sweet, sometimes scary, sometimes pathetic, but each one, at some point, was charming enough that I was ready to run off with them.

Ultimately, the only problem with HJ is that he is not content to end the novel at Chapter 20. Instead he wants to take the characters that we've fallen in love with and the characters that we loathe and puts them into difficult situations that test their morals, beliefs, and relationships. It makes for great literature, but it doesn't make for great happiness for the reader or the characters.

This novel was probably more important when it was published than it is now. The way it presents women and women's choices makes me hopeful that many young women read it and came away from it with a bit of Henrietta's desire to work by writing and Isabel's desire to to travel the world without ever sacrificing her independence for marriage.

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