Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure

By Tessa Hadley | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
'Just you wait!': reflections on the last chapters of
The Portrait of a Lady

Critics (and presumably readers) have been tripping up on and debating the ending of The Portrait of a Lady since the novel first appeared in 1881: in those early days with unsophisticated perplexity and often impatience. Even the very sympathetic review by James's friend W. D. Howells in Century balks at James's leaving us 'to our own conjectures in regard to the fate of the people in whom he has interested us' before submitting to swallowing his treatment meekly: 'We must agree, then, to take what seems a fragment instead of a whole, and to find, when we can, a name for this new kind in fiction'. 1

In The Portrait James has constructed his impasse: the spirited Isabel in an impossible marriage, having made what feels like a terminal rupture in disobeying her husband and coming to England to be with her dying cousin, tempted momentarily by the renewed importunity of Caspar Goodwood. But he does not seem to have left us all the instructions for how we get out of it. Does Isabel have to return to her hated husband and his punishments for her defection ('It will not be the scene of a moment; it will be a scene of the rest of my life', 565)? 2 What other possible futures does the novel allow us to envisage for her? Is Caspar a solution? These speculations sound very like Isabel's own, in her railway carriage crossing Europe on her way to Ralph (although she has not calculated yet on Caspar's offer), and she too feels that the 'middle years', the years ahead, the immediate question of what she will do, are wrapped from her in a 'grey curtain', she only has a 'mutilated glimpse' of any future (M492 3).

These days we are more sophisticatedly perplexed. The problem is not simply one of James 'frustrating the reader's curiosity' about a handful of 'characters'. 4 As readers — or at least as critics — we are irreversibly committed to the idea that a serious novel will have moved beyond '“objectively realistic representation” to a stage of reading the significations that lie behind or within reality'. 5 What James means us to

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