I seemed to recognize Isabel Archer from the time I was 19. I didn’t know myself much when I was 19. At least that’s the way it seems to me now, looking back, as one usually does with some amount of affectionate patronizing. I assume that I would have guessed what was to happen to both Banno and Isabel if I had only been 43 when I was 19.
Like Isabel, I prided myself on making my own decisions and going forth to meet my own destiny, under my own steam. Isabel’s free spirit is helped along by her cousin Ralph Touchett’s generosity in getting his father to pass on half his inheritance to Isabel. But in fact, that huge portion of money makes her more vulnerable to disaster than if she had wandered around alone, struggling to survive.
I did not have the benefit of any such generosity. One would have thought that the lack of money in my life would have made me more desirous of it, but it attuned me, in fact, to not caring about it at all. Isabel is eager to give away her wealth to someone who seems more deserving of it, I was ready to give away even the notion of owning wealth.
Isabel rejects her first suitors, Caspar Goodwood and Lord Warburton just because marrying either of them would have been appropriate, though of course, she has other reasons for herself like the desire to travel and see the world and be independent. Sadly the pursuit of independence is put away at the earliest, and an independent choice in fact lands her into a situation more common than a conventional choice would have been. Too late, Isabel recognizes her husband Gilbert Osmond to be a cold, unfeeling man who has married her for her money and too late she realizes how Madame Merle has tricked her into the marriage. Too late does Isabel realize that Madame Merle is wicked.
Like Isabel, it seemed to me imperative that I make a choice devoid of any materialistic considerations. Like Isabel, I made a marriage which soon revealed itself to be an abyss into which I had thrown myself with a naive foolhardiness. Like her, I learned slowly, bit by bit, what evil can be and yes, that wickedness does exist, outside of Hindi films. And unlike Hindi films, in life, the wicked don’t always repent or get punished and the heroine does not always win.
It took me 2 months to read ‘The Portrait of a Lady’.
That is a feat for me as I normally speed-read my way through books, or daydream as I read. But this time, a persistent migraine, worries about my eyesight fuelled by Teja who delights in giving me unwarranted fears about spectacles ever since I turned 40, and distractions like Dharmendra and Sonia Sahni made sure that I read the book as slowly as I do most other things in life.
I also spent a lot of time wondering how Henry James wrote as if he were 19 year old Isabel much as I had wondered months ago how Mulk Raj Anand wrote as if he were a coolie. It’s not often one meets an author who does not write about someone but as if he or she were that someone. This feat is even more intriguing when that someone and their circumstances could reasonably be assumed be to quite unlike the author in real life.
When Isabel pushed by Ralph’s illness does decide to rebel against her husband and go to England without his permission to meet Ralph, I was relieved. I thought she had finally got out of his clutches. But then, but then, after Ralph’s death, and seeing and recognizing passion for the first time, in her first lover Caspar Goodwood’s face, she ran away back to Rome, back to that stifling marriage, I was confused and dissatisfied.
I know from my own experience, that women who are prone to be wooed by words, by cleverness, by intelligence, are the most vulnerable to getting trapped. Words can so easily become a source of honour, and honour is so often designed to suit men. A woman’s strength is most often used against her, even by herself. Her husband, Gilbert Osmond still holds Isabel by flimsy words of honour that are transparently dubious to everyone, even to Isabel herself, and yet she refuses to nullify them.
I could excuse Henry James for the end of his novel, and the path he chose for his heroine, because he wrote in 1881. But I know that many, many women, specially in India, continue to chose responsibility over freedom, duty over love, and pay lifelong dues for silly mistakes they may have committed in their youth. It never ceases to amaze me how lightly women hold their lives in esteem, and how ready they seem to throw them away.
Unlike Isabel, I refused to accept the mantle of being honourable, but even I stuck it out for 10 long years. In an average life span of 60 years, 10 years is a long time. Particularly for a woman, they can mean loss of youth, loss of child-bearing years, loss of friends and a social circle, loss of home and possessions, loss of precious professional years that could have been more fruitfully spent. Sometimes the price of learning one’s own lessons in life can be too high.
I wonder what it will be like for Dhanno’s generation. The girls around her and Dhanno herself are not frightened of their sexuality, they mingle freely with the boys, and move from one crush to another without any emotional baggage. They are too pampered to contemplate suffering for too long a period for anyone else, without reasonable cause.
And yet, I know this is still a minority of women. I know that the girls may wear miniskirts and halter tops now, but a lot of them will still be willing to sacrifice their identity the moment they get married. And like Isabel, a lot of women even today will keep quiet about what is going wrong in their marriages because that is what a woman does. Out of pride, out of a mad attempt to preserve dignity, out of a reluctance to burden loved ones with her suffering, out of a mistaken notion that marriage is for keeps.