09/04/2012 06:53 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2012

In Response to Anthony Lane's New Yorker Piece on The Portrait of a Lady

Anthony Lane, on whom I have had a secret literary crush for years, has just written about The Portrait of a Lady. I love the wit and deft turns of phrase in Lane's film reviews -- he writes the way Astaire dances -- but although Lane is his usual charming self, things are different when he gets to Henry James. I hate to admit it even to myself, but I think I think he misses the point of James' The Portrait of a Lady.

Lane remains focused on the "delectable deluge" of the heroine's senses, calling her an "impressionable young woman, apparently so open to experience...," whereas James makes Isabel Archer one of the most impressive, rather than impressionable, women ever to meet a reader face to face without lowering her eyes.

It is not surprising that the choice puzzling most readers revolves around Isabel's choice of a husband. To paraphrase Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged, at least by readers of fiction, that a young woman in possession of a fortune must be in want of a husband. Of course she has opinions about marriage -- what heroine doesn't? But this heroine is different: "The first on the list was a conviction of the vulgarity of thinking too much of it."

My favorite part of the book is when Isabel refuses the proposal offered by Lord Warburton, a charming, sophisticated, rich radical who would clearly be regarded as a great catch by any young woman, but who is not regarded as such by our Isabel (every reader regards James' character as "his" or "her" own Isabel).

Isabel tests the strength of her independence and her willingness to disregard the usual seductions offered by heroes to heroines. And this Lord has a whole pack of seductions up his sleeve. He has, for example, an enormous estate. He has grand and effective ideas about changing the world for the better.

He has a moat, for heaven's sake, for which he vaguely apologizes to our American heroine in a passage that indicates both his authentic and endearing humility and his genuine affection for Isabel.

When this handsome and powerful English lord is smitten with her, James tells us:

She would have given her little finger at that moment to feel strongly and simply the impulse to answer: "Lord Warburton, it's impossible for me to do better in this wonderful world, I think, than commit myself, very gratefully, to your loyalty." But though she was lost in admiration of her opportunity she managed to move back into the deepest shade of it, even as some wild, caught creature in a vast cage. The "splendid" security so offended her was not the greatest she could conceive.

Offering to leave his family's mansion and land to live in a place of Isabel's choosing, Warburton declares that he's had the house "thoroughly examined; it's perfectly safe and right... But if you shouldn't fancy it you needn't dream of living in it. There's no difficulty whatever about that; there are plenty of houses. I thought I'd just mention it some people don't like a moat, you know. Good-bye."

In contrast to his rather fumbling erasure of his own desires in light of his love for her, Isabel replies -- in what is my favorite moment of self-assurance and composure from any young female character in all of literature -- "I adore a moat," and then says, "Good-bye.'"

I have wanted my entire life to repeat that line, but, sad to say, I have never had the occasion. So why does Isabel refuse Warburton's offer?

In one way, of course, the answer is the same as the answer to the question of why Hamlet does not immediately kill Claudius: There would be no story. George Eliot, a near contemporary of James', wryly noted, "The happiest women, like the happiest nations, have no history." Isabel, for better or worse, is destined to have a history.

She tries to explain as much to Warburton when she announces, "I can't escape unhappiness." She adds, "In marrying you I shall be trying to."

So that he does not misunderstand her, Isabel explains, "I'm not bent on a life of misery... I've always been intensely determined to be happy, and I've told people that; you can ask them. But it comes over me every now and then that I can never be happy in any extra-ordinary way; not by turning away, by separating myself."

Isabel's explanation is given a context by James through her other comments on the nature of her appetites for life. Not for Isabel are the quiet pleasures of the hearth and the joys of a safe and uneventful passing of days. She tells her best friend Henrietta that instead of wanting safety, she longs for the taste of uncertainty. Her imagination is captured by the idea of a "swift carriage, of a dark night, rattling with four horses over roads that one can't see -- that's my idea of happiness." Henrietta accuses of her of sounding "like the heroine of an immoral novel," and she may well be right.

The narrative constructed by James takes the enthusiastic, spiritually ambitious, emotionally charged, attractive, and powerful young woman through the steps made familiar by other writers, and then presents us with what has been regarded as the appropriately happy ending: She meets and marries a man some years her senior who will shape her ambitions to fit acceptable conventions and teach her to harness her energies for suitably feminine purposes. But it does not proceed according to formula.

In one sense, Isabel Archer can be seen as James' portrait of a lady as a young artist. Isabel doesn't paint or write, but at the beginning of the novel, she views the blank canvas of her own future with what can only be regarded as an artistic vision. Believing that she is responsible for creating and crafting her own destiny, she thinks she picks up and puts down her fate the way a painter would a brush, or a writer would a pen. The picture gets ugly; at many points, it is almost impossibly sad.

Yet Isabel's story cannot be contained within the acceptable plot of resignation and unhappiness so familiar to the heroine who has made a failed marriage. Isabel does not surrender, and, most shockingly, she does not die:

It might be desirable to die; but this privilege was evidently to be denied her. Deep in her soul -- deeper than any appetite for renunciation -- was the sense that life would be her business for a long time to come. And at moments there was something inspiring, almost exhilarating, in the conviction. It was a proof of strength -- it was a proof that she should some day be happy again. It couldn't be that she was to live only to suffer; she was still young, after all, and a great many things might happen to her yet.

Isabel is admired by women readers because, unlike poor Anna Karenina, poor Emma Bovary, poor Lily Bart, or poor any-other-woman-who-dies-for-love-and-money, James' American girl struggles to come to terms with her life -- all of it, not just the paths of which she is most proud. This, finally, marks the achievement of her independence: The novel ends not with, as Lane suggests, "words that seem to herald the parched cries of 'The Waste Land'" where, to keep going with the Eliot motif, Isabel might end up living in a violet light, filling her evenings engaged in caresses unreproved if undesired. Instead, at the novel's end, we hear words that shock us back into vitality: "Just you wait!" cries Isabel's best friend Henrietta in the penultimate line of the book. With this half threat, half promise, one woman speaking for another as a silent man looks on, Isabel's life moves beyond the frame. "I adore a moat and good-bye," says Isabel, moving into the future -- where her real story, James suggests, has yet to be written.

This piece was adapted from Gina Barreca's introduction to the Signet edition of the Henry James novel.