Midweek @ Musings: Reading Henry James

As mentioned in last week’s post, I’m currently reading Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, as part of a group read on LibraryThing.  I’m just over halfway through the book, and thought I’d share some of my favorite bits with you.

Our heroine, Isabel, is an American woman in her 20s.  Her aunt, Lydia Touchett, has spent most of her adult life in England and Italy.  She decides to bring Isabel to England and then take her on a tour of Europe.

I like Isabel, and I like this description of her:

Whether or not she were superior, people were right in admiring her if they thought her so; for it seemed to her often that her mind moved more quickly than theirs, and this encouraged an impatience that might easily be confounded with superiority. It may be affirmed without delay that Isabel was probably very liable to the sin of self-esteem; she often surveyed with complacency the field of her own nature; she was in the habit of taking for granted, on scanty evidence, that she was right; she treated herself to occasions of homage.

Early on, Isabel rejects two marriage proposals (this isn’t a spoiler, honest).  I admit I was a bit surprised, expecting marriage to follow only after a long courtship.   Although I understand the institution of marriage was something quite different in those days. Sometimes it was more of an economic arrangement (i.e.; for the man, to protect property ownership and for the woman, simply to survive).  In one situation, the man had more or less stalked her from America to England, and she asked him to stay away from her for a long time.  Of course he wanted to get back in touch sooner.  Here she is dismissing him:

Do you find it so? It seems to me there’s a great difference. I can imagine that at the end of ten years we might have a very pleasant correspondence. I shall have matured my epistolary style.

And then, after he left:

She leaned back, with that low, soft, aspiring murmur with which she often uttered her response to accidents of which the brighter side was not superficially obvious, and yielded to the satisfaction of having refused two ardent suitors in a fortnight.

Isabel’s uncle, Mr. Touchett, is surprised his son Ralph doesn’t want to marry Isabel.  Ralph has his reasons, not the least of which is his poor health:

I haven’t many convictions, but I have three or four that I hold strongly. One is that people, on the whole, had better not marry their cousins. Another is that people in an advanced stage of pulmonary disorder had better not marry at all.

James’ writing style is filled with this type of dry wit.  And, as an expat, he is particularly good both at portraying Americans abroad and bringing his adopted country to life.  I am particularly enjoying this aspect of the book, as it often reflects some element of my experience.  This comment by Mr. Touchett is a delightful point of view of an American living in England that made me smile:

I’ve been watching these people for upwards of thirty-five years, and I don’t hesitate to say that I’ve acquired considerable information. It’s a very fine country on the whole– finer perhaps than we give it credit for on the other side. There are several improvements I should like to see introduced; but the necessity of them doesn’t seem to be generally felt as yet.

And finally, my favorite bit so far is this quote about English rain, which struck me as so spot on:

Madame Merle liked almost everything, including the English rain. “There’s always a little of it and never too much at once,” she said; “and it never wets you and it always smells good.”

I’ve been using those little post-it page flags, marking passages that have struck me for one reason or another, and my book is now a rainbow of colored sticky things.  I hope the second half of the book is just as enjoyable!


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