Well. I definitely have a lot to say about this novel. First, Henry James is
not one of my favorite authors. Yes, I realize he is considered one of the greats, but it is just a matter of personal taste concerning his style and
subject matter. I have read quite a few of his works. You may find their reviews on the
Henry James Index Page.
Most of them I liked to varying degrees except for The Ambassadors, which I thought was the longest, most boring book I have ever read. It is
listed as #27 on Modern Library's best novels of the twentieth century, but even in its own time, the critics were sharply divided as to whether it was a
masterpiece or total crap. This one is generally considered one of his finest works, and I would have to agree with that. It is certainly his most
readable—lacking his long drawn-out sentences that last a whole paragraph and must be taken
apart and analyzed in order to understand what he was attempting to say. That kind of became a trademark of his later works, at least it seems so in the ones I
have read. It is also one of the aspects of his writing that absolutely drives me crazy. NOBODY talks like that in normal conversation.
This one is an earlier work, (1881) in which that style was not apparent, so reading it was a breeze, other than the fact that it is very long. The other aspect of James' writing that I don't always like is the fact that so much of it is dialogue, which is often trite, at least in my opinion. But what is interesting in this novel is that after Isabel gets married, there is less and less dialogue, and the story becomes much more compelling. When James is describing people and situations, his metaphors are fascinating and most definitely paint a "portrait." Here is one by Osmond as he mulls over how he can mold his new wife to his benefit:
What could be a happier gift in a companion than a quick fanciful mind, which saved one repetitions and reflected one's thought upon a scintillating surface? Osmond disliked to see his thought reproduced literally—that made it look stale and stupid; he preferred it to be brightened in the reproduction. His egotism, if egotism it was, had never taken the crude form of wishing for a dull wife; this lady's intelligence was to be a silver plate, not an earthen one—a plate that he might heap up with ripe fruits, to which it would give a decorative value, so that the conversation might become a sort of perpetual dessert. He found the silvery quality in perfection in Isabel; he could tap her imagination with his knuckles and make it ring.
Now, the other thing about Henry James is that his stories are based on a deep
analysis of people, their morals, beliefs. . . what makes them tick, but there is rarely passion or emotion, and perhaps that's why I don't like his writing
as much as other authors. He unfolds the essence of his characters very slowly—often
too slowly, which, for myself, makes me feel as if I am plodding through, longing for more action. It's not that I mind authors who delve deeply into the
human psyche. Dostoyevsky and Joseph Conrad both go very deep, and they are two of my favorites. I guess the difference with them is that their subject matter,
to me, is of a greater importance. Dostoyevsky paints a portrait of life in Russia through his characters that is really not about individual people but
the mindset of a whole country. Conrad takes on deep issues of morals and integrity that go beyond his characters or their country, but are of global
importance. James—well, his specialty is social issues and correctness in behavior during his time, and his focus is on social mores in America vs. those
in Europe, pitting them against each other. And add to that, he explores relationships between the sexes. His women are usually strong and independent.
James was an American who travelled frequently to Europe, eventually moved permanently to England, and became a British subject shortly before he died. He
was friends with Edith Wharton, who also explored social/sexual values and behavior.
I cannot imagine living within the moral restrictions of Victorian England. But even worse, I cannot imagine living within the social behavioral expectations of the upper class in nineteenth-century America. What I personally perceive as trite, to the people of that period, and the characters in James' novels, these were issues of utmost importance, which is why his writing doesn't interest me as much as those who tackle issues of morals and human rights. My mindset is very far removed from the correctness of social behavior, especially of the wealthy and aristocratic members of the population. I couldn't care less, nor would I ever adjust my behavior just to be socially acceptable.
So, having said all that, I will give you a brief synopsis of the (long) story: Daniel Touchett, an American, has been in banking for a good long time in England. He is wealthy, but now elderly and an invalid. He lives with his sickly son, Ralph, who doesn't do much of anything, but the two love each other and are content at Touchett's estate, Gardencourt. Ralph, because of his illness, however, spends much of his time, especially the winter months, on the continent—Italy in particular, because the English climate is too harsh for him. But now he is home, conversing with his friend, Lord Warburton, a wealthy landowner and prominent politician, along with being a downright good fellow. Ralph's parents are separated, but there is no animosity. Lydia just prefers to be on her own and travel where she pleases. She comes to spend time at Gardencourt when she pleases, and she pleases now. She is also bringing her niece, a spirited and independent young lady who is now an orphan. She has two sisters who are married and established, so Isabel Archer jumps at the offer from her aunt. She wants to travel and know the world.
With their arrival, all the gentlemen immediately fall in love with Isabel. Lord Warburton actually proposes, (but is turned down), Ralph loves her, but in a different way, and is determined to enable her to fulfill her wish of "knowing the world and being independent." The elderly Touchett is also stimulated by Miss Archer, and basks in her presence and delightful chatter.
A few other characters enter the stage, and two are from America. One is Henrietta Stackpole, a close friend to Isabel. She is the epitome of feminist aggression: strong, independent, and outspoken. She is a journalist for the New York Interviewer, and has come to Europe to see it, write about it, and check in on her friend. She may not always be likable, but one must respect her total candidness. She also proves to be the best friend, other than Ralph, that Isabel is blessed with. She stays at Gardencourt. The other visitor is one not so welcome—a former lover of Isabel, whose proposal of marriage she had also turned down. Caspar Goodwood is a wealthy cotton mill owner, and I find him one of the most unlikable characters in the novel. He is aggressive to the point of being scary, and one to whom I would get away from fast. Isabel has mixed feeling about him, but she surely doesn't want him around. Henrietta traveled with him and unbeknownst to Isabel, is attempting to get Ralph to invite him to Gardencourt. Ralph is more cautious, and invites him in request of Henrietta, not Isabel. He declines.
The three decide to visit London, and while there, three important things happen. Henrietta meets a friend of Ralph—Mr. Bantling, and they immediately hit it off. Caspar visits Isabel. She is quite shook up, and tells him to go away, and that he may contact her again in two years. He complies. And the third is that Ralph's father takes a turn for the worse. Ralph and Isabel hurry back to Gardencourt, while Henrietta stays. Though Mr. Touchett has had bad spells before, this one is for real.
And here the third person arrives on the scene. It is Mrs. Touchett's "friend" Madame Merle, whose occupation it is to travel the world and stay with friends, (and make trouble as we learn later). Isabel, however, is captivated by her, believing her to be the picture of perfection, her definition of a "lady." Madame Merle begins to work her deceitful charms.
Meanwhile, Mr. Touchett really is dying, and Ralph stays by his side, wishing it were he instead, and not wanting to imagine life without his beloved father. As a last request, he asks his father to change his will so that Isabel gets half of his portion of the inheritance, even though he has left her a rather large portion already. Though Ralph means well, he lives to regret this request. Ralph has plenty to live on, especially since he does not believe he will be around much longer either. So now Isabel becomes a wealthy woman, and Madame Merle takes even greater interest in her.
After Mr. Touchett's death, Ralph goes to the Mediterranean warmth of San Remo, Italy, and Isabel travels with her aunt. They go to Paris, then head to Lydia's house in Florence. It is here that we begin to see the true colors of Madame Merle, who begins plotting with her "friend," Mr. Osmond, a widower with a teenage daughter, who is in need of a wife with money. Though her family warns her, Isabel becomes acquainted with this man who can be most charming when he wishes. Though Isabel still claims her main goal is to travel and be free, after doing that for a while, she makes the worst decision of her life: to marry Mr. Osmond. Here is actually the point where the story becomes really interesting, as Isabel peels away the layers of illusion and understands things now that were hidden before.
I will leave you with that bit of enticement, but I want to say just one more thing about this novel, and it is probably what I found absolutely the most offensive. It is Osmond's daughter, whose name is "Pansy," a terrible name, in my opinion, and the portrait painted of her is even worse. Even though she is a teenager when we meet her, then ages into her twenties as the book progresses, she is petite, and treated like a child throughout the story. It strikes me that James purposely created her diminutive in stature in order to stress her weakness, (although she proves to be stronger than we might imagine). I find this downright obnoxious because I too am petite, and I am anything but weak, and I know many strong women who are also petite and slender as myself. That smallness in size and weakness of character should be associated is insulting. And to name her Pansy! Oh my!!
But despite that, I mildly recommend this book. It is certainly one of the great literary classics and most people who enjoy reading fine literature from the Victorian era would enjoy this novel.
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