The Portrait of a Lady: A Cautionary Tale for the Unarmed & Ambitious Woman

One of my all-time favorite books is The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. I confess that it is foremost in my mind not because I have taken the time to re-read this formidable classic but because I recently re-watched the 1996 film adaptation directed by Jane Campion.

I seem to remember that the film is fairly faithful to the book and so anything I derive from it will not be too far off the mark. Any missteps here can be directly attributed to my failure not to go for that Masters in English. Pity.

I have a special fondness for The Portrait of a Lady because I feel it not only intensely crafted and a brilliant character study but a perfect bildungsroman that all ambitious young women should read, even today. We all know of that quintessential charming young female practically fevered by her mighty ideals, high hopes and sleepless dreams. And as delightful as she may be we also feel unnerved as we know that there are just as many traps to be had as ideas. Though that woman might not be guilty of bad ideas per say, nor particularly hapless, wisdom really is accumulated through experience, not effervescence.
Let's get some context here - The Portrait of a Lady concerns Isabel Archer, a young American who has come to stay with her wealthy aunt and uncle on their estate just outside of London. Just prior to the death of said uncle, her cousin (ill with consumption and fascinated by the headstrong and opinionated Isabel) requests that she be bequeathed a fortune so that he may observe what she does with such absolute independence. She sets out to fulfill her dreams of experiencing life and seeing the world, with unexpected and tragic results.
The plot largely centres around Isabel's ability to charm all those in her path to believe she is capable of things that she lacks the grounding to obtain, as well as her blindness to detect defects of character within herself and others. I think this section sums up her predicament nicely (oh yes, I've read the book too!):
Altogether, with her meagre knowledge, her inflated ideals, her confidence at once innocent and dogmatic, her temper at once exacting and indulgent, her mixture of curiosity and fastidiousness, of vivacity and indifference, her desire to look very well and to be if possible even better, her determination to see, to try, to know, her combination of the delicate, the desultory, flame-like spirit and the eager and personal creature of conditions: she would be an easy victim of scientific criticism if she were not intended to awaken on the reader's part an impulse more tender and more purely expectant.
[...Sorry! Give me a minute here! I just re-read this passage and I think I'm experiencing a brain orgasm. Who writes like this anymore? Who could ever again? OK. Moving on. OK...]

Yet, close to the end of the book (without giving too much away), Isabel, when reflecting back upon her crucial mistake, will do anything but break with with or damn that choice. And here lies the central lesson of the book, for myself and yourself (if you want it): it never pays to be inflexible and that bridges should not be burned to maintain an island of ideals.
It is too easy in youth to sail upon the wings of conviction and then be felled by many banal stones. The higher the flight, the worse the fall. I wonder that if Isabel hadn't been so afraid to be disappointed by others or so afraid of the weakness within herself, perhaps things would have fared better for her.

Or perhaps it has to do with having a taste for unsightly realities, as the book says: "The love of knowledge coexisted in her mind with the finest capacity for ignorance." Perhaps both ideals and so-called 'hard truths' should be tolerated but the middle ground should be sought above all?

It's clear I'm still working through the kernels of knowledge contained within this difficult yet rewarding book. I'll continue to mine its depths here on ACBA, as long as it doesn't ever disappoint me! But it would be inflexible to expect it not to, no?

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