Portraits of a Lady

One way or another, quite a lot of my time last year was spent with Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady – time well, if sometimes frustratingly spent. Why, for instance – and for those of you who don’t know the story, spoiler warning ahead – having sent Isobel, the lady in question, off to Europe in search of a broader, deeper experience of life and landed her in Florence in the machiavellian arms of her suitor, Gilbert Osmond, does he then jump the story forward several years, depriving us of the crucial early days of their marriage, the loss of a child and Isobel’s realisation that she has made a serious misjudgement?

Is it because he feared that to write about those things would draw him, unavoidably, into melodrama and sensationalism?

As a gay and, by all accounts, mostly celibate man, did he find himself lacking the experience and understanding that would enable him to write about such matters with conviction?

Or was it something to do with the architecture of the novel as James conceived it, two halves arranged around a centre that the reader is left to fill in retrospect, using what he tells of Isobel’s feelings about the trap she has walked into, the contrast between before and after being all the more shocking for it being presented to us so suddenly?

But when, as the months elapsed, she followed him further and further and he led her into the mansion of his own habitation, then, then she had seen where she really was. She could live it over again, the incredulous terror with which she had taken the measure of her dwelling. Between those four walls she had lived ever since; they were to surround her for the rest of her life. It was the house of darkness, the house of dumbness, the house of suffocation. Osmond’s beautiful mind gave it neither light nor air…

I thought of this again a week ago, rewatching Jane Campion’s film version of the novel for the first time in a number of years. Like James, she leaves those early married years unseen, the changes in Isobel’s fortunes evident in the manner of Nicole Kidman’s playing, her physical appearance, the suppression of hope or spirit. A life without life or air, indeed.

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Kidman is, I think, excellent, unlike, for my taste, John Malkovich, whose Gilbert Osmond is, in voice and affectation, far too reptilian, too lacking in charm, far too obviously an embodiment of evil for Isobel not to have seen through him sooner.

Campion and her screenwriter, Laura Jones, do make changes and additions … none more extreme, or faintly ludicrous, than the early scene in which Isobel fantasises about being groped by three of her suitors and potential lovers at the same time. And Isobel’s sexuality, repressed if not by personal inclination then by the mores and morals of the time, is allowed freer expression throughout. It only takes Osmond’s touch to send poor Isobel to the edges of hysteria way beyond James’ “she felt her heart throb with a kind of delicious pain”. But then this is, or was, 1996 and no longer 1881.

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The end of the novel, like a great deal of James, is ambiguous. Having returned to England on account of her cousin’s fatal illness, Isobel is confronted again by her American suitor, Caspar Goodwood, who has been pursuing her since before page one. Aware of the mistaken tragedy of her marriage, he urges her not to return, but she makes clear that, like it or not, her duty is to go back to her husband and that duty she will fulfil. ‘”As you love me, as you pity me,” she pleads, “leave me alone!”‘ Goodwood does no such thing.

He glared at her a moment through the dusk, and the next instant she felt his arms about her, and his lips on her own lips. His kiss was a flash of lightning; when it was dark again she was free.

If the implications were not sufficiently clear, James himself made these additions in his 1908 revision of the novel …

His kiss was like white lightning, a flash that spread, and spread again, and stayed; and it was extraordinarily as if, while she took it, she felt each thing in his hard manhood that least pleased her, each aggressive fact of his face, his figure, his presence, justified of its intense identity and made one with this act of possession. So had she heard oƒ those wrecked and under water following a train of images before they sink. But when the darkness returned she was free.

Additions which, had it been in existence at the time, might have given James a shot at that year’s Bad Sex Award.

But ‘free’ … what does that mean? Free from her obligations to her husband and thus free to take up with Goodwood? Free from the thrall of sexual passion, which, now experienced, she can turn her back on and resume a life of duty? The darkness, after all, is what she associates with Osmond.

She walks away from Goodwood – they have been in the garden – and back towards the house.

In an extraordinarily short time – for the distance was considerable – she had moved through the darkness (for she saw nothing) and reached the door. Here only she paused. She looked all about her; she listened a little; then she put her hand on the latch. She had not known where to turn; but she knew now. There was a very straight path.

In the novel there is one further short scene: Goodwood follows Isobel to her friend Henrietta’s lodgings in London and is told she has started out that morning for Rome; when he turns away in disappointment, Henrietta seizes his arm and urges patience (as if the poor man has not been waiting long enough) a patience that James himself suggests in a 1908 rewrite, has, on the spot, added thirty years to his life.

Campion ends her film at the moment of Isobel’s pausing at the door; she may well know where she is heading, the decision she is making; Campion leaves it for us to decide what that decision will be.

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