the portrait of a lady (henry james, 1881)

portrait of a lady(And I chose this cover, because her gaze reminds me of Dhanno’s)

I’ve always found ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ (Henry James, 1881) ominously disturbing. I think this was my second reading. I was hoping, in some strange way, that it would be different this time. Maybe the story would have changed. Maybe, after all these years, the characters would have changed, that they would make different choices. Once again, fanciful, I know.

But the book remained the same, as it was when Henry James wrote it in 1881. As it was when I read it the first time. Isabel made the same stupid choice, yet again. The choice I dread. I’ve always dreaded this conditioning to sacrifice oneself to what is expected of you. By religion, caste, community, society, by family. In life, in films, in books. And  of course, the one handing over her neck to be axed is usually a woman.

And why Isabel’s fate frightens me even more, is that she is very intelligent, very bright. She wants to live life on her own terms, even when she does not have money. She wants to form her own opinions, see the world for herself and come to her own conclusions. And her cousin, Ralph, out of love, makes that possible for her. He ensures she inherits enough wealth so that she can remain independent, she does not have to marry for money, she can choose to live life in her own way. Sadly, the money undoes her. She becomes prey to an unscrupulous friend and her partner. And Isabel, in her cleverness and her intelligence thinks she is making the right choice. And then come, honour and pride. Honour and pride, the two stupidest things that keep you trapped to a life that is going horribly wrong. Because hey, you gave your word.

You would think that things would change in 135 years. That Henry James’ book would be outdated. Completely irrelevant. But sadly, no. Isabel’s character remains familiar. Her actions remain recognizable.

Obviously, the book resonates with me, because I have done my fair share of being trapped in a marriage because I made the choice, I wanted to honour it, I was too proud to admit I had made a mistake. I wanted to honour it. Hmm.

But fortunately, for me, I am too weak a character. I like my comfort; I like my happiness. Stoic suffering is not something I can manage for long. And so I got out.

But I know so many women, far too many, who abide by the mistakes they made in their youth. Who continue to suffer, because they said ‘I do’, once upon a time. Intelligent women, hard-working women, kind women, generous women. Generous in their ability to give up their lives for some Gilbert or the other, someone who wants nothing more than to own them, to make sure they have no opinions of their own, that they see life only on the terms of their husbands and their husbands’ families.

When Dhanno was a teenager, and beginning to explore relationships, that was my biggest worry for her, still is. That she would commit, and then not be able to back out, because she felt she had committed. That she would put aside her wishes to please someone else. That she would think it incumbent upon her to fit in to someone else’s version of what she should be.

Even if what I’ve attempted to teach her is different, even if what she sees in me is different, I am wary about the mass influences of the world around us, movies, songs, peers, all those people around us, who say, ‘That’s how it is. A girl must adjust. A girl must be this, or that, or like this, or like that.’

Now that I’ve seen her negotiating relationships over the last few years, I am a little more confident. Not completely putting my protective gear down. But yes, a little more confident that she will be able to look out for herself.

I am going to watch the film today, ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ (Jane Campion, 1996). I was telling Dhanno about the book, how depressing it was. And when I said, I was going to watch the film, she said I was weird. Why should I want to get depressed all over again? I’m hoping Nicole Kidman will change the plot, somehow.

As the plot is being changed, ever so slowly, much more slowly than one can take sometimes, in 135 years, by women such as these. One thousand reasons not to marry me.

8 thoughts on “the portrait of a lady (henry james, 1881)

  1. To make a mistakes and learn from them, that is life, I think.
    But it hurts more to see the near and dear ones commit mistakes and hurt themselves.
    Thanks for the article, One thousand reasons not to marry me. Absolutely fantastic!

    1. Yes, that is the tough part, to see people you love, continue in their suffering. Thanks for reading, Harvey.

  2. I hope Dhanno has reached wherever she was going to, Banno, and that she’s settled in. You’re right to worry about peer pressure, and social pressure. Even today. Even here, in the supposedly free and liberated US of A. I find young woman fascinated with a fairy tale wedding and ‘happily ever after’. I find them still labouring under the impression that guys will not marry ‘geeky’ women (read, women in the sciences). I find them still wanting that engagement ring, that monstrous wedding, that Prince Charming. I find them claiming to be independent and liberated and still wanting the guy to pay for their dates – because they are worth it.

    And I worry for my son because the young men have different social pressures to withstand.

    My best wishes for Dhanno. And so, so glad you got out of a bad marriage and made your way – on your own steam. (((hugs)))

    1. Dear Anu, Thanks for reading this, commenting as you have. Oh yes, the monstrous big fat wedding. 😦

      And yes, Dhanno has reached Taiwan, settled in. Working.

  3. This resonated with me: “I wanted to honour it, I was too proud to admit I had made a mistake. I wanted to honour it. Hmm.

    But fortunately, for me, I am too weak a character. I like my comfort; I like my happiness. Stoic suffering is not something I can manage for long. And so I got out.”

    I’ve come to embrace my selfishness, to treasure it. I want to be as happy as I can be, and I am glad to be selfish enough to seek that happiness.

    1. Thank you, Unmana. Yes, it’s good to be selfish. And want happiness. Enough of all the self-sacrificing imposed on us in the name of being good, virtuous women. 🙂

    1. Dipali, it’s a good book. I like it, though I always cringe at Isabel’s choices. Like watching someone you love fall into a trap.

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