Study Guide

The Portrait of a Lady Love

By Henry James


[Mrs. Touchett] was virtually separated from her husband, but she appeared to perceive nothing irregular in the situation. It had become clear, at an early stage of their community, that they should never desire the same thing at the same moment, and this appearance had prompted her to rescue disagreement from the vulgar realm of accident. (3.1)

To Mrs. Touchett, love is secondary to convenience; she views her marriage as a pragmatic arrangement, above all.

It may be added, in summary fashion, that the imagination of loving – as distinguished from that of being loved – had still a place in [Ralph’s] reduced sketch. He had only forbidden himself the riot of expression. (5.5)

While Ralph is convinced that his tuberculosis prevents anyone from loving him, he still retains some faith in the idea of loving someone – cue Isabel.

I came to England simply because you are here; I couldn't stay at home after you had gone: I hated the country because you were not in it. If I like this country at present it is only because it holds you. (11.14)

Love, to Caspar Goodwood, is obsessive and all-encompassing; without Isabel, he cannot be happy.

"One's right in such a matter is not measured by the time, Miss Archer; it's measured by the feeling itself. If I were to wait three months it would make no difference; I shall not be more sure of what I mean than I am to-day. Of course I've seen you very little, but my impression dates from the very first hour we met. I lost no time, I fell in love with you then. It was at first sight, as the novels say; I know now that's not a fancy-phrase, and I shall think better of novels for evermore. Those two days I spent here settled it; I don't know whether you suspected I was doing so, but I paid – mentally speaking I mean – the greatest possible attention to you. Nothing you said, nothing you did, was lost upon me. When you came to Lockleigh the other day – or rather when you went away – I was perfectly sure. Nevertheless I made up my mind to think it over and to question myself narrowly. I've done so; all these days I've done nothing else. I don't make mistakes about such things; I'm a very judicious animal. I don't go off easily, but when I'm touched, it's for life. It's for life, Miss Archer, it's for life," Lord Warburton repeated in the kindest, tenderest, pleasantest voice Isabel had ever heard, and looking at her with eyes charged with the light of a passion that had sifted itself clear of the baser parts of emotion – the heat, the violence, the unreason – and that burned as steadily as a lamp in a windless place. (12.7)

Oh, sigh. Nothing is better than Lord Warburton – he is, as he himself might say, a capital fellow. Here, we see him justify his love for Isabel; even though he’s talking about something as idealistic as love at first sight, we believe every word he says, and we believe, as Isabel does, in his constant, kind, and altogether trustworthy and good nature. However, despite all of this, Isabel still doesn’t love him.

"I’m capable of nothing with regard to you," he went on, "but just of being infernally in love with you. If one’s strong one loves only more strongly." (16.11)

Again, Caspar demonstrates that love takes up all of his energy – and he certainly has a lot of energy to give. He suggests that he wishes he could stop loving Isabel, but it’s impossible. Like Isabel herself, he cannot control his own thoughts or emotions.

The tears came into her eyes: this time they obeyed the sharpness of the pang that suggested to her somehow the slipping of a fine bolt – backward, forward, she couldn't have said which… "Oh don’t say that, please," she answered with an intensity that expressed the dread of having, in this case too, to choose and decide. What made her dread great was precisely the force which, as it would seem, ought to have banished all dread – the sense of something within herself, deep down, that she supposed to be inspired and trustful passion. It was there like a large sum stored in a bank – which there was a terror in having to begin to spend. If she touched it, it would all come out. (29.11)

Talking to Osmond, of all people, Isabel suddenly feels something change. She knows vaguely that she is capable of a great deal of passion, but she’s afraid to let it out.

"I've said what I had on my mind--and I've said it because I love you!"

Isabel turned pale: was he too on that tiresome list? She had a sudden wish to strike him off. "Ah then, you're not disinterested!"

"I love you, but I love without hope," said Ralph quickly, forcing a smile and feeling that in that last declaration he had expressed more than he intended. (34.15-16)

Isabel is just sick and tired of hearing about how everyone just loves her so much; this may not be the typical response, but it’s a legitimate one. After all, as far as we can tell, the bulk of her time in Europe has been taken up by potential suitors, when all she wants to do is get out there and see the world. Ralph, however, loves Isabel in a different fashion from Lord Warburton and Caspar Goodwood, and his love, perhaps because of its hopelessness, shouldn’t make her worry.

[Osmond] was immensely pleased with his young lady; Madame Merle had made him a present of incalculable value. What could be a finer thing to live with than a high spirit attuned to softness? For would not the softness be all for one’s self, and the strenuousness for society, which admired the air of superiority? What could be a happier gift in a companion than a quick fanciful mind which saved one repetitions and reflected one’s thought on a polished, elegant surface? (35.2)

Love, to Osmond, is essentially a self-serving operation; he longs for a companion who can reflect his own glory and charm back at him, and is happy to have found such a delight in Isabel. So not healthy. Seriously.

"What is it you did for me?" she cried, her now extreme agitation half smothered by her attitude. She had lost all her shame, all wish to hide things. Now he must know; she wished him to know, for it brought them supremely together, and he was beyond the reach of pain. "You did something once – you know it. O Ralph, you've been everything! What have I done for you--what can I do to-day? I would die if you could live. But I don't wish you to live; I would die myself, not to lose you." Her voice was as broken as his own and full of tears and anguish.

"You won't lose me – you'll keep me. Keep me in your heart; I shall be nearer to you than I’ve ever been. Dear Isabel, life is better; for in life there's love. Death is good – but there's no love." (54.12)

By Ralph’s side at his deathbed, Isabel finally realizes just how much he loves her – and how she loves him. She exonerates him of any guilt over the inheritance, for she sees how much he tried to do for her. Ralph’s plea, for her to keep living and loving, is one that we fervently hope she’ll listen to…

"And remember this," he continued, "that if you've been hated you've also been loved. Ah but, Isabel – adored!" he just audibly and lingeringly breathed. "Oh my brother!" she cried with a movement of still deeper prostration. (54.20)

Ralph’s final admonition to his beloved cousin is simply to remember that she has been loved deeply, not just by him, but by others. Hopefully, this will help Isabel pull herself out of her miserable and hate-filled marriage with Osmond.