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The portrait of a lady: A feminist pamphlet?

G'day. Webdiarist Solomon Wakeling gives us his take on James' Portrait of a Lady. Solomon's last piece was Tender is the night: The strain on family members of sufferers of mental illness.

by Solomon Wakeling

Henry James' The Portrait of a lady is a novel about life-choices. It is a meditation on the theme of marriage and whether there is life outside of marriage. The protagonist, Isabel Archer, sets out to find out and ends up throwing her life away on the first person she meets outside her sheltered world. Appearing intelligent and cosmopolitan at first, her husband, Gilbert Osmond reveals himself as monstrously immature and selfish.

When Isabel is presented with her first major life decision she makes the right choice. She chooses to decline the proposal of the gentle yet dull aristocrat Lord Warburton. This proposal would have made her sufficiently happy but would have thwarted her ambition. This was a safe and comfortable choice. Declining his proposal was both wise and astute; Isabel doesn't know what she wants, but she at least knows what she doesn't want. Her second decision, choosing to delay answering the proposal of an American businessman, Caspar Goodwood, was also correct. She knew she had too little life experience behind her to commit to anyone.

Isabel chooses to marry someone she doesn't understand, because he fascinates her. When she finally does come to understand him and to despise him for it, she doesn't show the will-power to leave. Marrying Gilbert Osmond was her first mistake and it is forgiveable. Not leaving him when she is offered an alternative, in the form of Caspar Goodwood, towards the novel's close, is not. Showing fidelity to such a creature as Gilbert Osmond, who is portrayed as marrying her for her money, as well as trying to forbid her from seeing a dying friend, is utterly fruitless. Her motives for staying are not made clear. She becomes a tragic figure, not because she made a mistake, but because she loses her nerve.

The hero of the novel, in my eyes, is not the protagonist, but her best friend, Henrietta Stackpole. She is a successful career journalist, with a frank and boisterous personality. When asked about her ideas on marriage she replies "Not until I've seen Europe!." Damn right. A woman should place herself and her ambition ahead of marriage. A passion for life, above a passion for love, is attractive in a woman. She doesn't decline love when it arises, but she doesn't base her life around it. She is more sophisticated than Isabel, who tries to express herself through the partner she chooses, rather than standing alone. Henrietta is an individual; Isabel is a couple.

Isabel is granted the opportunity to do whatever she wants with her life, thanks to her cousin Ralph Touchett, who organises for her a small fortune in inheritance from his dying Father. He does this from a desire to see her fulfill her true potential, because it amuses him. He is portrayed as loving her but from a safe distance. Economically, Isabel is male, not female, making her squandering of her fate all the more tragic. She is allowed to marry someone poor, who ruins her, thanks to the whim of her cousin who made her rich.

Like Ralph Touchett, James watches Isabel Archer from a distance, objectively, curious about her fate. He enjoys the freedom money gives to her. He understands that economics alters a person's destiny and can see the beauty in being relieved of the pressures of lack of money, especially on women of the time. This emphasis of money as the controller of destinies has Marxist-feminist undertones. Isabel's life is a failure, not because of her infidelity, as in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, but because of her fidelity. This is an affront to patriarchy and the institution of marriage. The title is apt; Isabel ends the novel as a "lady", not a woman. She chooses, through lack of will-power, to live in a man's world. James views this event not with triumph, but with despair, which is why I claim him for the feminists. This book should be read by young women as a cautionary tale.
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Onya girly

Jane Lahey, that's the spirit, girly! I love when chicks talk like you. I think men become possessive, jealous, insecure. They need women but they also fear them. It might have something to do with ol' Mom, who knows, ask Freud.

Keep the faith, Sol

“Jane Lahey, you're making me sick! I think if I followed your recipe I'd lose my faith in womankind.”

Oh … all right then. But at least let me explain.

Solomon, you don’t have to lose faith in womankind, because female masochism is not something women want or choose. They are not born masochistic. Little girls learn early on in life that it’s actually a ‘badge of honour’ pinned on them by the culture. All women come to accept this badge to a greater or lesser degree.

Patriarchal cultures rely on a system of ongoing brutal behaviour carried out mainly, but not always, by men. So the culture's very existence is contingent on women who will love their man unconditionally, despite brutality, weakness, selfishness, ugliness and failure. This is why the cultural icon of the abused woman standing by her man – or its counterpart, the brutal man transformed by the love of a good woman – refuses to go away, and is redefined for every generation.

Novels like the Mills and Boon series (which are basically all the same story - of a heroine falling for a hero who insults her over and over again), literary works like Pride and Prejudice and The Taming of the Shrew, films like Pretty Woman and Gone With the Wind, and songs like ‘Love has no pride’, are based on the ‘abusive love as salvation’ theme, in which a woman overcomes the limitations of her existence by enduring an ongoing romantic union with an abusive man. Another example is the culturally influential TV sitcom, which frequently includes a Marge Simpson-style character who, despite being attractive, sensitive and intelligent, remains maddeningly loyal to a selfish, regressive, ugly husband.

In patriarchal cultures, rich men dominate poor men, and men dominate women, so the pattern of masochism moves down the line.

Most men are masochistic too, but in a different way. Their masochism is directed, not at women, but at the wealthy, powerful, older men who control the culture. For example, male workaholism and the idealisation of the soldier are forms of male masochism. In this sense, the corporation or the military becomes the abusive, unappreciative ‘father’ whose love men crave.

The question is often asked of why so many women are attracted to abusive men. However, Susan Faludi, in her book Backlash, asks the far more important question: “Why are there so many abusive men for women to get attracted to?”


Jenny Hume, I'm surprised how consistently smart women tend to shy away from the feminism label. I can well understand how zealotry in any movement can be a bad thing and I think your points are well made. Sometimes empowerment can be confused with selfishness and that can produce, as you say, heartache.

Jane Lahey, you're making me sick! I think if I followed your recipe I'd lose my faith in womankind.

Give me marriage or give me death

Solomon, you write that Isobel Archer’s motives for staying with her husband ‘are not made clear’.

Not a problem. Go out and buy a few Mills and Boon novels, take out a Cinderella genre-DVD (aka chick flick) – the ickier the better, track down some reruns of Ally McBeal and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and listen to a Dusty Springfield album from start to finish. Trust me, you’ll be thinking like a female masochist in no time at all.

Isobel’s motives will then become crystal clear. ‘I’m married. Therefore I am.’

Ah, feminism again.....

Solomon, I confess I never had much time for all that feminist stuff. Personally but can accept it did a lot to free women from some of the worst shackles of inequality. But some feminists went far too far for my liking. Men can defend themselves but I saw a lot of heartache back in the seventies that impacted on a lot of children at the time. Feminism became just another religion for many in its formal ranks and they pursued it with blind faith in the righteousness of their beliefs. I wonder if some of the heartache it caused was really worth it.

Yes, risky business marrying someone because they fascinate you and opposites do attract as they say. As we girls used to say to one of our number so afflicted, strip him down to his red flannel underpants and see what he is really like. But you couldn't tell them, anymore than they could tell you when it was your turn. I took that plunge, shocking both his and my friends and relatives alike. It would never last they all cried. It has, for 30 years. I guess I just got lucky.

I believe that if women have confidence in their own ability to retain their identity within the framework of marriage they usually can, even though the parties might hold very different views on many things, and have very different interests. I believe for a marriage to last,  the man and the woman must have compatible personalities, values and emotional needs. Then the differences of views and so on do not matter.

Of course in violent situations women can develop what is commonly called learned helplessness, where they simply cannot make the break from an unhappy situation, and I have seen people trapped like that. I guess that is what Isabel in the book suffered, losing her nerve and unable to leave. Sometimes it is the children who are abusive, rather than the partner, and that can make it even harder for a woman. But believe me I have seen men similarly trapped. It is just a fact that when there is one dysfuncational person in a relationship, be it husband or wife, parent or child, or whatever, then the whole family system can become dysfunctional. It is not necessarily a gender thing.

And that is where I think the feminists got it wrong at least where man/woman relationships were concerned. They simply blinded themselves to the fact that dysfunctional people, irrespective of whether they are male or female will have a negative effect in any relationship. They saw entrenched patriarchy as the cause, and indeed in some societies it is. But some perfectly good relationships broke down that would I believe have continued, had it not been for the radical feminist views that some pursued, as I say like a religion, seeking to free their fellow women from the bondage they saw as marriage.

Now them's fighting words so I'll just head out of town for awhile. Cheers.

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