FSG Book Keeping asked authors to write about a childhood favorite or a book they considered to be an ancestor to theirs. Michelle Huneven on The Portrait of a Lady.
The first time I read The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James I was fifteen years old. And Isabel Archer, so barely formed herself, became a major formative part of my literary life.
To a young, precocious teenager, Isabel’s arrival in England seemed like a beautiful, verdant dream. To step out onto the vast lawn and be greeted by an adorable terrier and three appreciative men—one an English Lord!—and to be deemed interesting . . . why, I could imagine nothing finer. Ah, to be interesting! Interesting!
I was disappointed and confused when Isabel turned down Lord Warburton, but it had all happened so quickly, I was sure she would come back to him, after she’d traveled around and had a chance to think. Who turns down a moat? Who spurns those kind sisters?
I disliked Madame Merle from the start. Unlike Isabel, I was not enchanted by her piano playing or her conversation. She was taking Isabel away from the plot I had in mind, the one full of romance and color. And even from my teenaged perspective, Madame Merle seemed like a mooch. I begrudged her Isabel’s interest and felt she drew Isabel away from the emotional core of the book, from Ralph, and Lord Warburton. I wanted something finer for Isabel—if she had turned down a ladyship and moat, she should have a more lively and adventurous companion for what was now looking like an overly-chaperoned Grand Tour.
The deeper I read in the book, the more I hated the cover of my paperback edition. So I replaced it with a cover of my own making, from a postcard of a Sargent portrait (strangely appropriate, I see in retrospect). This effort certainly presaged my deep identification with the cover designs of my own books.
In my first reading of the novel, I thought it charming and generous that Ralph talked his father into bankrolling Isabel, thus allowing her the freedom to gain her treasured “experience.” The bequest seemed more of the stuff of fairy tales: to be transported to magical woods, to have the local landed gentry smitten with you, then to be made rich?
The unease I felt when Isabel transferred her allegiance from the Touchettes to their freeloading houseguest broke some of the spell. Isabel was taking some wrong turns. I was fearful, yet undeniably curious to see where she’d go.
I disliked Osmond instantly. He was no fun, and strange. He creeped me out: the way he treated his daughter, socking her away in a convent. Holding her between his knees.
Was Isabel so blind? Or did she see something I was missing? And—this interested me the most—Isabel was willful.
Once rich, despite the remonstrances and advice of loving friends, she ran directly into Madame Merle and Osmond’s snare, and for years she didn’t know what hit her.
All along, Isabel was so certain of herself—but on what did she base this certainty? Newly orphaned, she had never been particularly well-parented or well-educated. Essentially, she had the self-knowledge of that English terrier in the opening scene. Her youth, innocence and American openness left her ill-equipped for musty, corrupt old Europe. How could she even guess what she was up against, especially given the recent headspinning shifts in her circumstances? Her alluring confidence and self-possession, her strong will, would soon enough prove gimcrack and naive, no match for what the Old World held store for her.
But I understood willfulness. I already sensed my own deep currents, whose pull was non-negotiable—and I would similarly be carried into dubious, even perilous company and inappropriate love.
In my own small high school world, I was like Isabel. I didn’t like the track star and straight-A boy who courted me, I liked the slouchy, smart-ass kid kicked out of Catholic school for God knows what good reason. I was strong in math and science but eschewed them for more expressive pursuits, namely literature. For the next two decades—and thus, in some ways, for life, I was often the victim of my own unexamined willfullness, my decisive, often wrongheaded choices.
The unexamined will of intelligent woman—so vivid and unstoppable in Isabel Archer and Dorothea Brooks, and Gwendolyn Harleth—was a fictional construct I would explore in my writing: How and why do certain otherwise intelligent young women know so absolutely what they want, and why does what they insist upon so often lead them into peril?
Isabel Archer is the great-grandmother of my own heroines, who mulishly go their own way, headlong into trouble. I am interested in the nature of that trouble, what it says of them and I am even more interested in the mechanism that eventually frees them.
For it is there, deep in the hell they have entered so confidently, so assuredly—alone in a big craftsman house or jail cell—that, like Isabel Archer, they start at last, to wake up, when the embattled ego, the “I,” finally slips free and sees for the first time that it has long been sold a bill of goods not by others, but by the primal needs of a ravening, unconscious self.