A Daughter and a Lady

April 5, 2009 at 8:05 pm 3 comments

Be warned, here be spoilers! And please forgive the academic bent of this entry! An actual book review of either of these books, both so often written about already, seemed pointless and repetitive, so I took a different tactic.

In January, I spent my time reading the stories of two mid-nineteenth-century women. Both stories told the tale of a young woman as she matures, falls in love, makes some serious mistakes and then how she somehow handles everything that has befallen her. In both books, the stories span decades of time and feature revolving casts of characters who occur and reoccur, forcing the young woman to face her past and her future as she attempts to handle what her life has become. In both books, the young woman is left ambiguously at the end of the book (which, also in both cases, was by no means the end of the story). Isabel Archer and Eliza Sommers are the two young women in question, from Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady and Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune respectively.

Portrait of a Lady

Portrait of a Lady

Portrait appropriately provides a portrait of Isabel Archer as she is plucked from relative obscurity and poverty in America by her wealthy aunt and endowed with a great fortune by her dying uncle (at the behest of her loving cousin, Ralph). The book serves as a kind of social experiment concocted by Ralph who argues for giving her the fortune because he wants to let Isabel have the financial freedom to do as she pleases. The book then follows along as she does just that, unsurprisingly making mistakes and getting manipulated as she goes. Her aunt introduces her to a nefarious but charming character in the person of Madame Merle, who insidiously matches Isabel up with Madame Merle’s former beau, Gilbert Osmond. Isabel spends the book pursued by her former suitors, Caspar Goodwood and Lord Warburton, both still madly in love with her, and eventually becomes desolate in her prison of a home, married to the controlling Osmond. The only bright spots in her otherwise miserable life are her step-daughter, Pansy, Ralph, and her old friend Henrietta (who she often finds too meddling anyway).

Daughter of Fortune

Daughter meanwhile takes place half-way across the world (seriously, Chile and California) from the upper-class life of Isabel Archer and tells the story of Eliza Sommers, her family and the people she meets. Her adoptive mother, Rose Sommers, claims that Eliza was found left on the front stoop when she was a newborn and that, always desiring children herself, Miss Rose beneficently took her in. The story then follows Eliza, the Sommers family, Eliza’s lover (Joaquin) and Tao Chi’en, her friend from China as they all travel afar, emotionally and literally. The perspective of Daughter is far less focused as it is in Portrait and the book benefits from that. The focus remains on Eliza, but unlike Portrait, Daughter tells all the stories of those around Eliza fully so motives, decisions and characters are more clearly defined and understood. Rather than being only a portrait of a lady, the book paints portraits of many characters, through which we can better understand their actions towards Eliza. In the end, Eliza chases after Joaquin to California (where he ran off to find gold), befriends Tao on the ship over from Chile and eventually, after poverty, hardship and good deal of saddle burn, falls in love with Tao.

Stylistic Choices & Perspective

For all the two books’ similarities (mid-nineteenth-century + woman + love = drama), there are inherent stylistic differences that separate the two books and make them very different. As I mentioned above, the perspective in Daughter is much more omnipotent that that in Portrait. While James does flit about sampling different scenes that do not necessarily feature Isabel, he only looks away from her directly when characters are doing something that affects her. For example, he shows her uncle’s death scene with his son Ralph only because his last moments are spent discussing what to do for Isabel with Ralph. Indeed, that scene births the main plot movement in the book, wherein Ralph insists that his father leave Isabel a fortune at his death. But, had they chosen to discuss all the good times they had as father and son, expatriate exiles in Britain instead of talking about Isabel, it would not have been in the book. This perspective choice is focused and presents a fuller picture of what happens to Isabel. If we simply followed her solely without any forays into what Madame Merle is scheming or what Henrietta is doing on her behalf, there would not be as good an understanding of Isabel as a woman and of what happens to her (through her own choices and not).

Similarly, while Allende explores all the character’s biographies and back stories from Tao to Miss Rose, she does so to get them to where they are with Eliza. She gives us all the background and information of all these disparate people who are only connected through their relationships with Eliza. As I mentioned before, Daughter is a portrait of a community in relation to one daughter, not a portrait solely of that daughter. Portrait, however, only sheds light on other characters when it relates to Isabel or pertains to their relationship with Isabel. We know Caspar Goodwood is a good man with a strong jaw and good business prospects only because these things prove that he is a good choice for Isabel. But we know nothing more than that of him, nothing biographical and certainly nothing is told from his perspective throughout the book.

Indeed, James rarely looks into the minds and feelings of the other characters. The scenes where he ventures away from Isabel are much more factual and simply relay the words spoken or the movements made, rather than giving any insight into what those characters thought. The thoughts are left to Isabel and much time is devoted to Isabel sitting, standing or walking and thinking. Her thoughts are a major plot point, in fact, with her suitors finding them utterly charming and her husband hating the fact that she does have her own thoughts. She is apparently the only person who does actively think in Portrait (or at least the only one who is shown to do so) and the fact that they are included in the book gives us a fuller understanding of Isabel. The book is aptly titled and James does only give a portrait of one lady, not of any one else, leaving the other characters mostly in shadow and only allowing them to come into light when they near the book’s star, Isabel.

Reverse Fortunes & The Ends

Rather funnily, the books provide stories of reverse fortunes. Isabel starts of in Portrait poor, but content and ends the book wealthy as sin, but deeply unhappy. Eliza, meanwhile, begins the book living in comfort and with everything a girl could want as the ward of the influential Sommers family and ends the book happily living near poverty in Chinatown. Neither book proselytizes in the least, suggesting one way is the better than the other. Rather, the books leave the judgment to the reader and end with a good dose of uncertainty.

The ends of each book suggest that each woman got her peace in very different ways but with similar ambiguity. At the end of Portrait, we know that Isabel had an epiphany and returned to Italy, but we do not know if that epiphany was that she must return to her beastly husband out of duty or that she must save her sweet step-daughter from said beastly husband and then flee. Either way, there is a calm to Isabel in the last scenes where we see her and the book ends, not with Isabel, but with Henrietta and Caspar. Through them, we learn of Isabel’s decision, but we have lost the perspective that would have given the situation any clarity. Like Caspar, we are left to be stunned and confused by her actions, particularly after being given her perspective and inner tribulations about her marriage throughout the book.

Similarly, at the end of Daughter Eliza goes to identify the man she followed to California and who seemingly became a notorious criminal. Now deceased, she goes to view his remains. After a book filled with her seeking this man, despite her realizations towards the end that she no longer truly cares for him, the ending of Daughter also takes perspective away from the reader and simply relays the events. Eliza’s inner monologue (as well as Tao’s) is completely gone and the reader is again on his or her own to decipher what happened. Despite the ambiguity, like Isabel, Eliza is undeniably calm and peaceful by the end of her adventures, even if the end to her story is left unclear. “I am free,” she says to Tao as the pair walks away from the remains. One can imagine Isabel claiming the same thing after fleeing Caspar to return to Italy and shucking her past’s demons (or suitors, as the case may be). Both women are left free and finally at peace at the end of their respective books, but without closure or an end to their stories.


Entry filed under: Classics, Historical Fiction. Tags: , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. KT  |  April 7, 2009 at 4:44 pm

    These both sound delightful for different reasons! I’ve heard excellent things about Isabel Allende, so I may need to find that book!

  • 2. Corey  |  April 7, 2009 at 10:13 pm

    “Portrait” is my mom’s favorite book ever but I found it rather disheartening, so I guess I would go with “Daughter” first, although I wasn’t in love with that book either. “Portrait” at least had flashes of Jamesian eloquence. He’s one of those authors who can (occasionally) put into the perfect words something you’ve always felt or thought but couldn’t articulate. I’d like his stuff a lot more if that happened more often!

  • […] that this device was also later used by Wilkie Collins in his The Woman in White and Henry James in Portrait of a Lady. Since France is the traditional enemy of England, why do you think so many English authors turned […]


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