|Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer in the |
1996 adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady
In the essay ‘The Decay of Lying’ (1891), Oscar Wilde claims that ‘Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life’. For those writing at the fin-de-siècle with an interest in aestheticism the prospect that life is performative had rich possibilities and drastically alters how we should read ‘character’ in their fictions. In Henry James in particular, a character’s naivety or otherwise is indicated by how well he (or more often she) appreciates the aesthetics of self-presentation. While in mid-century realist novels maturation is linked to awareness of one’s inner life and the inner lives of others (Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke gaining sympathy for those she does and does not know, Dickens’s Pip being able to assess his own past behaviour critically), in James, development consists in social performance and presentation.
In The Portrait of the Lady (1881), Madame Merle, unlike the protagonist Isabel Archer, is worldly – not only in terms of her sexual experience (the revelation of which forms the climax of the plot) but in terms of her belief in this Wildean idea: ‘One’s self—for other people- is one’s expression of one’s self; and one’s house, one’s furniture, one’s garments, the books one reads, the company one keeps—these things are all expressive’. Isabel’s artlessness does not exclude her from the observations inherent in this performative scheme. She is repeatedly cast as an art object, by other characters and by the narrator (the very name of the novel flagging up her existence in a work of art). Ralph observes her in a gallery surrounded by other art objects:
‘He lost nothing, in truth, by these wandering glances, for she was better worth looking at than most works of art. She was undeniably spare, and ponderably light, and proveably tall; when people had wished to distinguish her from the other two Miss Archers they had always called her the willowy one. Her hair, which was dark even to blackness, had been an object of envy to many women; her light grey eyes, a little too firm perhaps in her graver moments, had an enchanting range of concession.’
Isabel is not important in herself here – it is the ideas she inspires in other people which Ralph and the narrator dwell on. And while Isabel’s ‘performance’ – natural as it is – presents her positively (as ‘worth looking at’, ‘light’, ‘tall’, ‘willowy’, ‘enchanting’), we can already see how it could also lead to negative responses, making her into an ‘object of envy’ in a way she is unaware of. As the novel progresses, Isabel’s tragedy (her marriage) is instigated by this attractiveness and her husband Oswald’s desire to collect and curate art works. Her naivety – in not understanding that she is a performer in life’s drama – is what leads to her being put on show, while Madame Merle, whose performance is a deceitful one, can protect her own interests.
Returning to Wilde, the actress Sybil Vane in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), shows a similar ignorance. Abandoning acting upon finding love, she fails to realise that ‘real life’ is as much a performance (at least for an aesthete like Dorian), as the Shakespearean roles she performs onstage. She repulses him and loses his love entirely not just by failing to act well but when she tells Dorian: ‘you taught me what reality really is’. For someone who believes in the artistry of life, like Wilde or Dorian, such a declaration is abhorrent.
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