This year I am joining in once again with the Book Bingo Reading Challenge hosted by Theresa, Mrs B and Ashleigh (The Book Muse). It’s been simplified this year with just 12 squares, one for each month of the year, and a range of themes which could be easily applied to both fiction and non-fiction. The Bingo card is a very pretty and sparkly pink, purple and blue, that is perfect for celebrating the beginning of the 2020’s.
I quite enjoy reading the classics but I had not read The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James despite having seen the movie starring Nicole Kidman. I usually prefer to read the book before I see the film, but that’s the way it goes sometimes. First published in 1881, The Portrait of a Lady, revolves around Isabel Archer, a young American woman, who has come to England to travel, to experience life in Europe and get to know the relatives she never knew. Isabel is bright, confident and determined to experience life while preserving her independence and liberty.
However, after inheriting a large fortune on the death of her uncle, Isabel becomes caught in the machinations of two people: one a supposed friend, Madame Merle; the other, Mr Osmond, the man who becomes her husband. Tragically Isabel finds her freedom, independence and spirit cruelly crushed in a restrictive and oppressive marriage.
Independence is a theme throughout the novel. At a time when marriage was seen as the ultimate ambition and career for a woman, and usually a material necessity, Isabel’s inheritance grants her financial independence. But what does it mean to be independent? This question is raised quite early in the book.
“…is it used in a moral or in a financial sense? Does it mean that they have been left well off, or that they wish to be under no obligations? Or does it simply mean that they are fond of their own way?”
According to the Macquarie Dictionary, independent can mean all of that and more, including….
not influenced by others in matters of opinion, conduct, etc.; thinking or acting for oneself
Isabel prides herself on being completely independent in her decision making. Even as she recognises the role that her friend, Madame Merle, played in her marriage, Isabel clings to her belief that she has acted independently.
It was impossible to pretend that she had not acted with her eyes open; if ever a girl was a free-agent, she had been…the sole source of her mistake had been within herself…she had looked, and considered, and chosen.
Is it possible to be a free agent? Can we really act or choose completely independently, without any sense of obligation or influence? Growing up we are exposed to the influences, both implicit and explicit, of our family, our society, our education, the media, and the world around us. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but we are the sum of a complex mix of inherent tendencies, experience and influence. Even when we think we are making an independent decision, there’s a whole lot of previous experience and influence that unconsciously guides us in the way that we think and act.
The most tragic part of Isabel’s story though is not only her stubbornness in believing she must accept her fate but that she cannot bring herself to admit she made a mistake.
“I don’t know whether I am too proud. But I can’t publish my mistake. I don’t think that’s decent. I would much rather die.”
Does Isabel remain trapped in a miserable marriage or does she reclaim her independence and liberty?