Warning: This is an article replete with Portrait of a Lady spoilers, and that will actually piss you off if you haven’t read the novel; Henry James’s plot twists rock, even if they are not primarily what he’s known for.
As I took my spot at the front of my classroom, beaten copy of The Portrait of a Lady in hand, I looked out at my students who, like me, were living in the midst of a transatlantic global tsunami–Brexit, Calais refugees, Donald Trump, the Anthropocene, Black Lives Not Mattering, the disintegration of the Labour Party–and paused. Why should any of us care about Henry James?
How frustrating, to have such doubts. Henry James’s fiction may be one of the best guides to the present moment, especially its gender politics. James is a political writer, through and through, even if he only rarely writes explicitly about politics (when he does so, as in The Bostonians, it’s a hot mess, but that’s another story). His main topics are people lying to themselves and to others about sex, money, emotional attachments, their pasts. And one thing James’s novels tell us is just how structurally impossible it is to be a woman who wants power, who has desire.
In The Portrait of a Lady, the initially naïve American heroine, Isabel Archer, befriends the sophisticated Madame Merle who turns out to be one of the most duplicitous characters in all of James, and that is really saying something. She is a deadly frenemy to Isabel, maneuvering her into a disastrous marriage with her sadistic ex-lover Gilbert Osmond, in order to secure Isabel’s fortune for her and Osmond’s illegitimate child, the appallingly named, Pansy. (It’s hard to imagine that the tasteful Madame Merle had anything to do with naming her own daughter. The name itself seems like one of Osmond’s bad jokes.) Serena Merle (always “Madame”–she is not a first name lady) arrives in the book quite late for a major character, in Chapter 18, almost two hundred pages in, after Isabel has fended off marriage proposals from multiple suitors. Seductively playing piano when she and Isabel first meet, Isabel soon gets a serious mentor-crush on the worldly, older, American-by-birth/European-by-temperament Madame Merle. Her knowledge of the world makes her more appealing than any of Isabel’s suitors; for a short time, she even wrests Isabel’s affection away from her other main source for how to be an American abroad: Isabel’s cynical, adored, invalid cousin, Ralph Touchett.
There is no doubt that Madame Merle is poisonous to Isabel; you can think Isabel is a bit not-all-that as a heroine while still recognising the coruscating, life-destroying evil of Madame Merle. However, I think Madame Merle might have more to say to contemporary feminism, or even post-feminism (if, God forbid, there is such a thing. Spoiler alert: there’s not) than almost any other character in nineteenth-century literature. She is an example of what nineteenth century leaning-in looks like in the European upper classes; if her story is ugly, then it is also tragic and true, because almost everything she says is eventually proved right.
We can see Merle’s incisiveness about femininity in a conversation that Isabel and Madame Merle have early in their friendship (in Chapter 29), about how we judge others. Isabel insists she does not care about people’s money, clothes or houses; that material considerations have nothing to do with how she sees others. Madame Merle pulls rank on Isabel, responding with what critics have come to call “the shell speech” in which she asserts that “every human being has his shell and you must take that shell into account. By the shell I mean the whole envelope of circumstances. There’s no such thing as an isolated man or woman…What shall we call our ‘self’? Where does it begin? where does it end? It overflows into everything that belongs to us– and then it flows back again. I know a large part of myself is in the clothes I choose to wear.” Isabel firmly disagrees: “I think just the other way. I don’t know whether I succeed in expressing myself, but I know that nothing else expresses me. Nothing that belongs to me is any measure of me; everything’s on the contrary a limit, a barrier, and a perfectly arbitrary one.”
We might initially sympathize with Isabel’s position as more attractive, more moral than Madame Merle’s–none of us want to be judged by our appearances–however, the novel reveals that this kind of freedom, to be oneself apart from one’s economic circumstances, is illusory, especially for women. Isabel might express herself, might be herself, but in the end she is married for her money, not for her Isabel-ness. Madame Merle realises that what is required of women, in every facet of their lives is a performance: “Isabel found it difficult to think of her in any detachment or privacy, [Madame Merle] existed only in her relations direct or indirect, with her fellow mortals.” Madame Merle self-consciously adheres to Joan Riviere’s psychoanalytic idea of “Womanliness as Masquerade,” which posits that there is nothing at all to femininity other than masquerade. Every aspect of Madame Merle is highly wrought performance, to the point where her performance becomes itself a kind of critique of the excruciating cages that trap women like herself and Isabel into rivalrous and duplicitous relationships, competing for the same pot of gold, the same nasty man, even the same daughter or daughter substitute.
Portrait underscores the extent to which women’s masquerades leave them exiles: from nation, power, selfhood, community. Madame Merle says of herself and the novel’s many other Europeanized Americans, “If we’re not good Americans we’re certainly poor Europeans; we’ve no natural place here. We’re mere parasites, crawling over the surface; we haven’t our feet in the soil.” She continues in a way that sounds to me, shockingly modern, “At least one can know it and not have illusions. A woman perhaps can get on: a woman it seems to me, has no natural place anywhere; wherever she finds herself she has to remain on the surface and, more or less, to crawl.” A woman is a better exile, Madame Merle maintains, because she is always already banished; she is always already clinging to the surface of a place, rather than in any sense, naturally “of” it. Politically not a citizen (this is long before women had the vote in England or the US), she is not rooted in the society that keeps her down. In Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf would use this insight into women’s essential exile from structures of political power and belonging, to suggest that women’s sympathy could extend universally. Woolf writes, “as a woman, I have no country. As a woman, I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.” But for Madame Merle, this is not, as it is for Woolf, an insistence that women are better placed to understand the needs of everyone because they are citizens of nowhere. For Madame Merle, rather, women have to “get on”; they have to creep and manipulate.
If Madame Merle is a monster she is also, even moreso than Isabel, the book’s unresolved tragedy, the woman who knows the ugly truth about how the world works, but also that she will never escape it, that it will destroy her. We see her last when she encounters Isabel, while visiting Pansy at the convent where Osmond has banished their daughter for not securing the rich man he wanted her to marry and for preferring another suitor. Isabel has just discovered that Madame Merle is Pansy’s mother and her husband’s ex-lover, and is reeling from the knowledge. James’s description of Isabel’s shift of perspective is intense: “Now that she was in the secret… the truth of things, their mutual relations, their meaning, and for the most part, their horror, rose before her with a kind of architectural vastness.” Isabel is living in the house that Madame Merle built, the portrait that Merle has painted, but, as Madame Merle points out, she herself is the one who will pay the most. “You’re very unhappy, I know” she says “But I’m more so.” “Yes; I can believe that. I think I should like never to see you again.” Isabel replies. “I shall go to America,” she quietly remarked while Isabel passed out.” Madame Merle ends the book banished, from the friend who once looked up to her, from her ex-lover who clearly despises her, from the daughter who does not know she is her mother, and from the cosmopolitan European culture which is her only home. Isabel even in her rage, understands her predicament: “What remained was the cleverest woman in the world standing there within a few feet of her and knowing as little what to think as the meanest.”
Under the opacity and the obscurity, Henry James writes about ideology; he writes about the ways in which people believe their own lies, or those of others, and try to make them real. Some people fail, and some succeed (usually the ones with more money, and therefore more power succeed). If you are a character in a work by James you should always remember that whatever activity you think you are engaged in (romance, marriage, art appreciation, enjoying Paris, women’s suffrage, the gathering of knowledge, the exercise of “freedom,” protecting innocent children from being haunted by evil spirits) will eventually be stripped away to reveal layers of motivation that are at root crassly self-serving and, usually, economically and/or erotically determined. You can find all this in Henry James along with sentences that make you swoon or say “huh?” or both.
If you read James properly you will find a master class in how to manipulate people, but you may also see how manipulation can become art, and how art may let us see the world more clearly, and perhaps, even start to make some reparations toward that world. Reading Portrait now, it is all about Madame Merle for me. Maybe because I am reading it at a point in time when a woman is running for president, whose public and private performances have been scrutinized from every angle, whose relationship to her husband’s aberrant desires has been brutally mocked, whose access to political power has, for some, made her seem like a monster, even as the other candidate boasts about past and future sexual assaults, because the power structures of our culture have made that A-OK, an acceptable staple of masculinity. James’s art is never to let Madame Merle rest as a monster. Through Isabel’s eyes and through ours, The Portrait of a Lady forces us to save some sympathy for Madame Merle, the brutal villainess who is finally so deserving of our clear-eyed understanding. She shows how women, then and now, still often need to find a way, more or less, to crawl.
—Pam Thurschwell is just a wave, not the water.