Part Three – Divergent Universes
Henry James did not consider the subject matter of his novels to be inherently the proper one for all novelists. It was the proper one for him. An artist’s subject matter, James reasoned, sprang from his or her own consciousness of circumstances: “The thing of profit is to have your experience—to recognize and understand it, and for this almost any will do; there being surely no absolute ideal about it beyond getting from it all it has to give.” It is of course in terms of subject matter that Henry James and Ayn Rand diverge. The Jamesian subject matter was the old world. It gave him “considerable occasion to appreciate the mixture of manners” in America and Europe, and he created an ironic universe in which the well-heeled ground underfoot successful American capitalists. For Ayn Rand, art grew out of her appreciation of the terrible consequences of both tsarist Russia and the Russian Revolution. She created a benevolent universe in which American freedom and American capitalism brought life.
One critical difference that helps to illustrate the divergent universes of Henry James and those of Ayn Rand has to do with how they viewed money.
Henry James was born into a wealthy New England family, wealthy in a distinctly American way. James’s grandfather, William James, immigrated to the United States from County Cavan, Ireland, in 1789. He had little money when he arrived, but he’d brought with him ambition and a Calvinist work ethic. He took a job as a store clerk in New York, and over time invested his skills, energy, and earnings into real estate, banking, and manufacturing in Manhattan and upstate Albany. At his death in 1832 William James was worth $3,000,000.
Henry James’s father, Henry James Sr., inherited considerable wealth, and the family lived a cultured, intellectual life free of workaday financial concerns. While young Henry James had little formal education, he read copiously—his father dubbing him “a devourer of libraries.” The family travelled often to Europe, where James took advantage of museums, lectures, private tutors, and the occasional stint in private schools. James decided early to pursue a career as a writer, and throughout his life he shunned the entrepreneurialism of his grandfather. James was too smart not to understand that his own financial independence depended on that entrepreneurialism, and that everything he lived on and made his living from—the roast beef; the three-piece suits; the hats; the tea, brandy, and cigars; the pens, paper, and ink; the magazines and books; and eventually the typewriter—were produced by entrepreneurs, but he maintained a patronizing view of business and of financial success. He once bragged that apart from his grandfather’s success, “we were never in a single case, I think, for two generations, guilty of a stroke of business.”
James’s disdain for business and for making money permeated his fiction even as he took for granted the fortunes many of his characters possessed. The richer one was the better as long as one never betrayed any interest in how the money was got. The right sort of people occupied their time refining their manners, not making money. The only good wealth was the aristocratic kind. That way the original conquest of a family’s money was sufficiently in the past and could be taken for granted. For James, manners and mannerisms of wealth were more important than the way it was made. What’s a cotton mill, a railroad, or a law firm compared to taste and charm?
Money for James was less an economic tool than a social distinction, and the individual who ignored the conventions of wealth did so at her peril. In The Portrait of a Lady (1881), for example, Isabel Archer was robbed of her considerable fortune. In the following dialogue, the recently orphaned Isabel was asked by her aunt, Mrs. Touchett, how much money she thought the house that was to make up the bulk (at the moment) of her inheritance would sell for. Isabel considered it a badge of honor that she had no idea:
“How much money do you expect to get for it?” Mrs. Touchett asked of the girl, who had brought her to sit in the front parlour, which she had inspected without enthusiasm.
“I haven’t the least idea,” said the girl.
“That’s the second time you have said that to me,” her aunt rejoined. “And yet you don’t look at all stupid.”
“I am not stupid; but I don’t know anything about money.”
James had considerable affection for his heroine. Isabel Archer was his ideal. That she knew nothing about money was meant by James to characterize her as a person of quality—the right sort—and as someone focused on the right things. Independent (although sheltered) and unschooled, she had spent her childhood passively soaking up knowledge—going to exhibitions, listening to conversations, admiring the landscape, and reading every book in her grandparents library. Except for a deficiency in mathematics, she very liberally educated herself, and that was an admirable accomplishment. So far, however, Isabel hadn’t done anything with her knowledge. She hadn’t written or painted or tinkered. She hadn’t helped in the kitchen or learned to manage the household accounts. She hadn’t dabbled in botany or horticulture. She hadn’t experimented with chemistry or tested the laws of physics. She hadn’t debated the burning issues of the day. She’d shown no interest in building or remodeling or even rearranging the furniture.
What Isabel did do was feel. She had a great, if directionless, desire to live, and she allowed herself to get carried away by the moment: “She carried within herself a great fund of life, and her deepest enjoyment was to feel the continuity between the movements of her own heart and the agitations of the world.” Her willingness to take things as they came to her however left her ignorant of the real value of things. Just as she lacked financial knowledge, she didn’t know how to judge the knowledge she had acquired. She lacked aesthetic values and frequently mistook bad paintings for good ones because she liked the subject matter. She lacked a sense of justice. As a student of history, she remained “stirred almost indiscriminately by the valour of either army.” Most importantly for her, she lacked a moral sense, which left her incapable of judging character.
As the novel opens, Mrs. Touchett has invited Isabel, who was recently orphaned, to come live at the family estate in England while she sorts out what she wants to do with her life. Mrs. Touchett actually spent most of her time in Florence, but Mr. Touchett and Ralph, Isabel’s cousin, called England home. It was something of a running joke that Mrs. Touchett was a family embarrassment—a low-brow—thus the separate address. It was an opinion that Isabel would adopt. Focused on practical matters such as managing her investments and seeing to the welfare of an orphaned niece, everyone agreed, made Mrs. Touchett unpleasant. “Mrs. Touchett might do a great deal of good,” James observed, “but she never pleased.” To please, James explained, was to be soft and impressionable. Mrs. Touchett needed to allow others to impress her, to act upon her. Instead, she remained intact and herself: “This way of her own, of which she was so fond, was not intrinsically offensive—it was simply very sharply distinguished from the ways of others. The edges of her conduct were so very clear-cut that for susceptible persons it sometimes had a wounding effect.” Isabel nevertheless accepted the invitation and traveled to England. In short order she won over Mr. Touchett and Ralph, who together found her perfect.
Just as quickly, Isabel received and refused two marriage proposals and with them the chance to make a mark on life. First, Isabel refused Lord Warburton. Warburton, a peer of England, was handsome, energetic, idealistic, decent, wealthy, and age appropriate. He was in love with her. He was the most eligible bachelor in England. To marry him would have provided her the opportunity to partner with a man of integrity, to share in the oversight of a major estate, and to play a part in political events, in particular the issue of land reform that Warburton spearheaded in Parliament. In her refusal, Isabel explained, first, that she did not want to marry: “I am not sure I wish to marry anyone.” Isabel was admirably within her rights here, and at the moment her decision appeared neither cruel nor self-sacrificing. Marriage simply was not what she wanted out of life, “the idea failed to correspond to any vision of happiness that she had hitherto entertained, or was capable of entertaining.” On a personal level, however, her decision reflected her inability to judge Warburton’s character. She was puzzled as to whether she and Warburton suited each other. She could not decide if she were too good for him—“Who was she, what was she, that she should hold herself superior?”—or that he was too good for her—“She liked him too much too marry him, that was the point; something told her that she should not be satisfied, and to inflict upon a man who offered so much a wife with a tendency to criticize would be a peculiarly discreditable act.”
A week later, Caspar Goodwood proposed. A Bostonian, Caspar Goodwood managed his father’s successful cotton mill business in Massachusetts. He was Harvard educated, an athlete, and a brilliant, ambitious hands-on business man who had invented and patented a significant innovation in cotton spinning. Married to him she would have also had the opportunity to partner with a man of integrity—an energetic, entrepreneurial, and age-appropriate man who loved her.
She would be a part of a successful family business, and she would benefit from the wealth and status to undertake any sort of enterprise that she chose. Unfortunately, Isabel could not make up her mind about Goodwood either. She could not tell if he were a man that might suit her. She liked his ability to manage and command, but “she cared nothing about his cotton-mill, and the Goodwood patent left her imagination absolutely cold.” She liked his height but objected to his jaw-line. His clothes bothered her, and it bothered her that she let his clothes bother her: “She had reminded herself more than once that this was a frivolous objection to a man of Mr. Goodwood’s importance;” although she decided that since she didn’t love him, she could criticize him all she wanted. To Goodwood’s proposal, Isabel also first declared her opposition to marriage in general: “But I don’t want to marry. I shall probably never marry. I have a perfect right to feel that way, and it is not kindness to a woman to urge her—to persuade her against her will.” She had decided since refusing Warburton that it was independence that she wanted, and she told Goodwood, “I like my liberty too much. If there is a thing in the world that I am fond of, . . . it is my personal independence.” Goodwood replied, “Who would wish less to curtail your liberty than I? . . .What can give me greater pleasure than to see you perfectly independent—doing whatever you like?”
Still, her conception of what she would do with her independence was vague at best, and her insistence on forming her own judgment highlighted that she as yet had none. With her modest inheritance she considered herself entitled to an extraordinary life, and she put forth a vague goal of being unconventional:
I therefore am not bound to be timid and conventional; indeed I can’t afford such luxuries. Besides, I try to judge things for myself; to judge wrong, I think, is more honorable than not to judge at all. I don’t wish to be a mere sheep in the flock; I wish to choose my fate and know something of human affairs beyond what other people think is compatible with propriety to tell me.
Ultimately, she declared that it was to whim that she would dedicate herself. Goodwood, exasperated, exclaimed, “One would think you were going to commit a crime!” Isabel replied, “Perhaps I am. I wish to be free even to do that, if the fancy takes me.”
Just when it looked like Isabel would drift aimlessly, her cousin Ralph arranged for her to receive an inheritance of roughly £70,000. Now, Isabel Archer was set. She had her independence, even if her goals remained as vague as ever. She would have an extraordinary life, once she figured out how. About her money she still hadn’t a clue. According to Mrs. Touchett, Isabel “doesn’t know what to think about the matter at all. It has been as of a big gun were suddenly fired off behind her; she is feeling herself to see if she be hurt . . . . The money is to remain in the bank, and she is to draw interest.” At best, now Isabel could drift along with the upper crust. She planned a tour of Europe “to look about me” and “to see for myself.” She wanted to be her own person, to see and to judge, but she did not actually have any criteria to judge the value of things.
Isabel’s aim was to maintain her independence, to tour Europe, to figure out who she was, and to see things for herself. The plan was all well and good while she was among friends and people who cared for her. But once she got out into the world, she became an easy prey for fortune-hunters. Her sense of entitlement still substituting for values of her own, she did exactly what she swore she wouldn’t do: she married. She was tricked into a wholly unsuitable marriage with an older man who wanted her money.
The American ex-pat Gilbert Osmond’s two claims to fame were his good taste and the possession of “a few good things,” which included several old crucifixes and a sketch by Correggio. Otherwise, he had spent his entire life “perfectly passive.” A transplanted stuffed shirt living in Florence, he’d succeeded only in shedding every aspect of his American roots, turning himself into one of the pleasing people James admired:
He was a man of forty, with a well-shaped head, upon which the hair, still dense, but prematurely grizzled, had been cropped close. He had a thin, delicate, sharply cut face, of which the only fault was that it looked too pointed; an appearance to which the shape of his beard contributed not a little. This beard, cut in the manner of the portraits of the sixteenth-century and surmounted by a fair moustache, of which the ends had a picturesque upward flourish, gave its wearers a somewhat foreign, traditionary look, and suggested that he was a gentleman who studied effect. His luminous intelligent eye, an eye which expressed both softness and keenness—the nature of the observer as well as of the dreamer—would have assured you, however, that he studied it only within well-chosen limits, and that in so far as he sought it he found it. You would have been much at a loss to determine his nationality; he had none of the superficial signs that usually render the answer to this question an insipidly easy one. If he had English blood in his veins, it had probably received some French or Italian commixture; he was one of those persons who, in the matter of race, may, as the phrase is, pass for anything.
It was a good look apparently. Isabel fell for it. The woman who didn’t know the value of things finally saw something she could understand—a worthless man. Osmond was all imitation. Even his friends disliked him, and they warned Isabel against him. According to Mrs. Touchett, Osmond was “an obscure American dilettante, a middle-aged widower with an overgrown daughter and an income of nothing.” He’s was someone who had love affairs. He bored easily. In Ralph’s words, “He has a great dread of vulgarity; that is his special line; he hasn’t any other that I know of.” Even Madame Merle, who had his best interests at heart, had to admit that the only talent he had was to arrange just the right things to just the right effect to avoid any hint of the vulgarity he dreaded: “She looked about the room—at the old cabinets, the pictures, the tapestries, the surfaces of faded silk. “Your rooms, at least, are perfect,” she went on. “I am struck with that afresh, whenever I come back; I know none better anywhere. You understand this sort of thing as no one else does.”
Isabel could not determine the value of the accomplishments of either Warburton or Goodwood. Osmond had done nothing, and in that regard he and Isabel were similar, and they shared a sense of entitlement. Thus, Isabel willfully mistook Osmond’s distractedness for “rareness.” She mistook his irony and envy for taste. She confused his passive-aggression with refinement. She confused his mean, withholding nature with sensitivity. She was charmed. “Isabel thought him very pleasant; she liked to think of him.” She saw “a quiet, clever, sensitive, and distinguished man” who had renounced the world. She would not have to deal with him having a seat in Parliament or running a successful business. She would not have to deal with activity she could not understand. Osmond would do nothing but nurture an unearned sense of entitlement and superiority, much like Isabel:
“Because I could do nothing. I had no prospects, I was poor, and I was not a man of genius. I had no talents even; I took my measure early in life. I was simply the most fastidious young gentleman living. There were two or three people in the world I envied—the Emperor of Russia, for instance, and the Sultan of Turkey! There were even moments when I envied the Pope of Rome—for the consideration he enjoys. I should have been delighted to be considered to that extent; but since I couldn’t be, id didn’t care for anything less, and I made up my mind not to go in for honours. A gentleman can always consider himself, and fortunately, I was a gentleman. I could do nothing in Italy—I couldn’t even be an Italian patriot. To do that, I should have had to go out of the country; and I was too fond of it to leave it. So I have passed a great many years here, on that quiet plan I spoke of. I have not been at all unhappy. I don’t mean to say I have cared for nothing; but the things I have cared for have been definite—limited. The events of my life have been absolutely unperceived by any one save myself; getting an old silver crucifix at a bargain (I have never bought anything dear, of course,) or discovering, as I once did, a sketch by Correggio on a panel daubed over by some idiot!”
The life he offered was one of “wilful renunciation”—nothing more. The irony was that it would be Isabel who would willfully renounce her fortune and her freedom. With all his refined resignation, Osmond was not above turning a profit, if it didn’t take much effort. Osmond landed Isabel with the same skill that he arranged furniture: “Success was to seem in advance definitely certain—certain, that is, on this one condition, that the effort should be an agreeable one to make. That of exciting an interest on the part of Isabel Archer corresponded to this description. . . .” He did not really want her, he just wanted to show the other men that he had succeeded where they had failed: “[H]e perceived a new attraction in the idea of taking to himself a young lady who had qualified herself to figure in his collection of choice objects by rejecting the splendid offer of a British aristocrat. Gilbert Osmond had a high appreciation of the British aristocracy—he had never forgiven Providence for not making him an English duke— . . .”
Henry James did not judge Osmond or Isabel harshly. James alluded to some selfishness on Osmond’s part, and he meant “selfish” in the traditional sense of “exploitive” rather than in the Randian sense of self-interest and self-esteem. Still, he stopped short of condemnation, preferring, as always, to put an ironic spin on bad behavior. Money was an unfortunate business, as James made clear, but people had to get it one way or another:
Though I have tried to speak with extreme discretion, the reader may have gathered a suspicion that Gilbert Osmond was not untainted by selfishness. This is rather a coarse imputation to put upon a man of his refinement; and it behoves us at all times to remember the familiar proverb about those who live in glass houses. If Mr. Osmond was more selfish than most of his fellows, the fact will still establish itself. Lest it should fail to do so, I must decline to commit myself to an accusation so gross; . . .
As for Isabel, James was delighted with her. She had made a terrible mistake, full of irony. The one thing she’d neglected to learn was in the end the most important: money mattered. People who don’t earn their money have to get it by deception and force. Her husband married her for money. She had given it to him and received nothing in return. She would have to behave as a woman who knew the value of money from now on. But in the Jamesian universe, this knowledge was cold comfort. It came at a loss of innocence that Isabel Archer could only hope to rise above. But she would not accept the necessity of earning money, and she would not leave the man who had stolen hers, although she had the chance. At the end of the novel, Goodwood returned. He proposed marriage to her again and offered to help her get a divorce. He still loved her, but she could not love a man who worked for a living. She refused and ran back to her husband.