Many regard Portrait as James’ greatest novel. What they mean by this, of course, is that it’s the easiest to read. Written before James went off on the subordinate clause bender that was only derailed by his death, this is in fact a sensitive if somewhat contradictory portrayal of Isabel Archer, a young woman who, choosing freedom, finds that the ties of tradition are inescapable.
The contradiction I’m referring to is, for me, the most unsatisfactory aspect of the work and spoiled the novel for me. In rejecting the early proposals of marriage in the novel, Isabel is kicking against the goads. Add the epithet of wealthy heiress to those of already being young, free and single and you have a character set up to defy all the Victorian mores that can be thrown at her.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, she accepts a proposal of marriage which every reader knows is completely inappropriate. While James has her famously ruminating later on the mistake this is, it seems strange that he gives such scant regard to her motivations either for this or the earlier rejections of two far superior suitors.
In all three proposals we are, of course, party to information that Isabel isn’t. What we don’t get is any deep insight into her own thoughts in each instance. It’s not until the marriage becomes the cage that we all thought it would that we get an extended run of her meditations on the position she finds herself in. Had we seen this all along, I think the novel would have been stronger for it.
There’s a twist towards the end which anyone who is a well-read Dickens fan will probably see coming, and the novel ends ambiguously so that the told-you-so traditionalists can’t laud it over those who feel like Isabel might still make some desperate bid for her long-cherished freedom.