Lloyd Shepherd is a recovering journalist and digital media producer who has worked for The Guardian, Yahoo, the BBC and Channel 4. His first novel, The English Monster, an historical thriller set around the investigations into the bloody Ratcliffe Highway murders, is published by Simon and Schuster in March 2012. Here Lloyd writes about Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady.
Lloyd Shepherd on The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
For at least 12 months in my very late teens, The Portrait of a Lady became the most important book in my life, which means it established itself as the most important book I would ever read.
Everything that's important to you culturally between the ages of 10 and 20 stays with you more vividly than what follows, imprinted indelibly. I can remember every lyric to every Rush song up to and including Signals, every word to every Not The Nine O'Clock News sketch - even Kevin Turvey's first appearance on A Kick Up The Eighties is pretty clear in my mind.
So Henry James's elegantly vicious tale of the rise and fall of Isabel Archer has remained in my mind with more crystalline clarity than any other book I have ever read. I only have similar recall over two other books: Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising, which I read in primary school, and Stephen King's The Stand, which my aunt gave to me at the age of 13.
I can't remember, now, when and why I first read The Portrait of a Lady. Was it a set text for A Level English? I remember reading a lot of 'American' novels at the time (if James can even be said to be an 'American' writer, since like T.S. Eliot he seemed to occupy some elegantly deracinated island which lay simultaneously just off Massachusetts and Dorset). But I can remember caring - really, really caring - about what happened to Isabel Archer, more so than any other character in a novel, before or since.
I recently re-read the book for the first time since those days, and was delighted to find I loved it as much as ever. More, even. But I also discovered myself reading the novel entirely differently from my teenage self.
The Portrait of a Lady tells the story of a young American woman and her introduction to European society. It begins on the lawn of a beautiful English house owned by a retired American banker who has spent most of his adult life in England, and from this arrival point our heroine (and James likes calling her 'our heroine') travels to London, then Paris, then Florence, then Rome. She is befriended by another American emigré, the secretive and elegant Madame Merle, and is subject to a series of marriage proposals: from a young American, Caspar Goodwood; from an older Englishman, Lord Warburton; and from yet another American emigré living in Italy, the sophisticated aesthete Gilbert Osmond.
Needless to say, she makes a bad choice. The first half of the book describes the process of that choice. The second half describes its consequences.
It sounds a simple tale, but what made it so ragingly compelling to me as a teenager was the way James erected the most statuesque and witty of structures around a primordial story of good being swept away by evil - remember, I'd not long been weaned off Susan Cooper and Stephen King. You could be enchanted by the language - and it really is enchanting, a great deal more accessible than later James, where the sentences and clauses curl in and around themselves until you find yourself lost in an Escher-like complexity - while at the same time being appalled, genuinely so, by the choices Isabel makes and what is done to her as a result of them. A teenager who loved The Shining, where haunted people chase each other around hotel rooms seeking to destroy themselves, couldn't help but love a story which, in different language and in a different context, seemed to describe people doing exactly the same thing. For me, Madame Merle became a sinister locus of evil, an almost supernaturally bad person whose every elegant chuckle, every deliberate bon mot, seemed positively Satanic.
When I re-read the book, a quarter of a century later, all that was still there. Madame Merle still makes me shiver. But the adult me has lived with a lot of things that the teenage me still didn't perceive, and one of those experiences was being around women - not girls or mothers or cousins, but women. Remember, this book is called The Portrait of a Lady; it is very consciously an attempt to describe, minutely and deliberately, a woman. Why is Isabel Archer like she is? Why does she make the choices she makes? When she wrestles with these marriage proposals, how is her mind working? And why, most of all, is Madame Merle such a monster?
The last of these questions is answered, in some way, towards the end of the book, but it seems unsatisfactory to me now, as if such a capacity for evil cannot be given anything so straightforward as a narrative explanation. But Isabel's behaviour is never really explained; she remains as much a mystery to her creator as she does to us (I wonder, now, if that was intended as a critique of the work of James's famous brother William, the founder of modern psychology). James implies caverns of thoughts within Isabel's impenetrable mind, a storm of ego and consideration thudding behind her beautiful eyes. He puts the questions again and again and again: why? why? why? But the great paradox of the novel, its central comedy, is, I think, that he fails to understand. His creation, Isabel Archer, makes choices he cannot explain. That reading of the book - that it essentially tells the same eternal story which a century later would produce Men are from Mars, Women are From Venus - was not available to me as a teenager, but I cherish it as an adult.
And did I mention that it's funny? A funny novel that describes the purest evil and is essentially perplexed by its central character. That'll do as a summary, I think.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]