Well, after reading rab 1953's Comment, I don't even have to read the book!
Superb... one of few the novels I would re read!
Alright, yes, this is slow-moving, detailed and introspective. Why does anyone read Henry James if that is not what they want?
But in addition to those qualities, it has wit and social satire involving real characters trying to work out their lives. Does it have less comic activity than that other wordy nineteenth century writer and satirist, Charles Dickens? Yes, but in place of Dickens’ comic caricatures, we have real characters, even the women. With James, I feel that I am exploring the complex choices of a variety of women characters who could be dealing with equally difficult choices today (unlike the one-dimensional ideals of Dickens’ women). The specifics of their choices may be different from contemporary conditions, but I can imagine these characters as people wrestling with modern issues.
The book looks at the unusual marriage choices of a number of women – Mrs. Touchett’s life separate from a husband she seems indifferent to; Mme Merle’s unhappy marriage which has left her in relative poverty, reliant on the generosity of friends; the Contessa’s sham of a marriage to a philandering man she despises; Henrietta’s unmarried relationship with her admiring Bantling, which she eventually transforms into a conventional marriage; and at the centre, Isobel’s initial choice to reject two attractive offers before finally accepting the worst of her options.
The first part of the book is taken up with Isobel’s background and character, focusing on her independence and unconventionality. She is a clever and thoughtful young woman who does not want to be tied into the restricted domestic life of most of the women she knows. Her observations are often sharp and witty. Drawn to her ambition and independence, and at the suggestion of her cousin Ralph Touchett, Ralph’s father leaves her a large inheritance.
In her naivety, or her attraction to an intelligent worldly woman, Isobel is drawn into the circle of the interesting Mme Merle as someone who seems to live a life outside of convention but still within respectable society. She is charmed by Mme Merle’s sophisticated friend Gilbert Osmond, and takes him at face value, although Mme Merle has manipulated the situation to marry Isobel to Gilbert so that he can take advantage of her money. It’s not really clear why she marries Osmond, although there is the pressure of convention, and it later appears that they deceived each other in their reliance on social conventions. Both put on their best appearances and fell for what they saw in the other.
When Isobel realizes that Gilbert has no feelings for her and intends only to keep her, like his daughter, as an attractive and useful addition to his chilling collection of beautiful objects, she concludes that her only choice is to live up to the marriage vow she made and live with Gilbert in misery. This seems an odd conclusion given the many different models among her friends and her willingness to reject convention. Her generosity of spirit perhaps impels her to stay in order to support Gilbert’s daughter, and fighting convention all the time is a hard choice, particularly when the unconventional relationships of her friends appears problematic and unattractive. Perhaps this is why she finally needs the excuse of Ralph Touchett’s illness to break with Gilbert.
The ending is, of course, ambiguous. After the very touching scene of Ralph’s death, Isobel returns to Rome, either to submit to Gilbert or to confront him. The strength of her connection to Ralph, and her rejection (again) of Caspar Goodwood’s demand that she go with him, lead me to believe that she is going to break finally with Gilbert. She is a strong figure, and she knows her mind. I take it that she will go her own way, as she always has, and accept the consequences.
As always, a fascinating, fully absorbing study by Henry James that rewards readers who are looking for thoughtful social and psychological insight.
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