Henry James and His Women

An Excerpt from a Research Essay by Meredith Ludwig

....One final female figure important in understanding James' view of women is his cousin Minny Temple. Minny and James developed a relationship so deep and close it is often compared to the love shared between two of James' characters, Ralph Touchett and Isabel Archer. For James, as Kaplan states, Minny took on "some of the presence of [a sister] and some of the glamour of female mystery" (48). James had a fondness for Minny, for her "precociousness, her brashness, her independence of spirit" (Kaplan 49). James felt a love for Minny that went much beyond the love one feels for a cousin. He became passionate over Minny; however, he knew that a marriage between them could never exist, just as Ralph knew he could never really have Isabel. It is no surprise that with such strong feelings towards Minny she would appear time and again in James' women characters. Perhaps Minny most presents herself in James' characters because, as Kaplan states, "Minny attacked life. If she was reckless, it was a recklessness that excited [James]" (74).

Her recklessness was not the only reason James fell in love with Minny. She also found herself pulling away from her narrow role in the Victorian Age. Minny wished to travel, discover and challenge the world around her. This is found in many of James' female characters, women who are independent of their social role, remaining strong in their personality. The relationship between Minny and James may have also influenced his writing because he found himself taking the feminine role in their relationship. Kaplan says that James "reversed their gender roles and acted as the passive support for her aggressive independence" (91). It seems that James' affinity towards his feminine side came from a better understanding of those things feminine rather than those things masculine.

Now, having a clearer view of the important women in James' life and the characteristics they had, it is somewhat easier to comprehend the depth of the personal attachment James had to his created women. He called his characters his "agitated friends" (Springer 1) who he made a habit of creating first, then developing the story around them. James knew, however, that his heroine would not gain life until he answered the question, what will she do with her life? One of James' characters is so finely developed that she answers this question for James and his readers.

This character in James' works clearly reflects an influence of James' home life. As Edward Wagenknecht, creator of Eve and Henry James, says, "Isabel had at least one important nonliterary source in James' cousin Minny Temple" (38). Minny's desire for life is exactly that of Isabel Archer's. Just as Minny wished to explore her freedom in life, Isabel is able to do that to the utmost extent. The freedom that James gives to his women goes beyond that of any woman of the Victorian Age and beyond any freedom James himself felt he had. The Portrait of a Lady can be said to only be about one's freedom. Isabel expresses her love of freedom when she states to Ralph, "I am not a candidate for adoption. I am very fond of my liberty." Isabel tells Casper Goodwood of her love for her freedom as well, "I like my liberty too much. If there is a thing in the world that I am fond of it is my personal independence" (James 149).

Isabel is also said to be a Jamesian self-portrait. James creates Isabel out of exactly what he never was or was able to do. Isabel receives an inherited fortune, which James did not. He gives Isabel incredible freedom because he endows her with a large inheritance from her uncle's fortune. To James, as Dorothy Van Ghent states in her essay "On The Portrait of a Lady," "in an acquisitive culture, money is the chief symbol of freedom." (29). James makes a point of this belief when he expresses, through Ralph, the intent on Isabel being free through affluence. While Ralph is trying to persuade his father to divide his inheritance, he says, "[Isabel] wishes to be free, and your bequest will make her free." (James 170). James is able to give Isabel a freedom he never had by endowing her with a financial freedom he did not have for himself.

Isabel is also free from James' family life with a steadfast Puritanical father; however, through Isabel's downfall, James suggests that the absence of this father may have been just as detrimental. There may have been times when James wished to be an orphan from such a lifestyle, yet he was not. James did make Isabel just such an orphan to make up for it. Kaplan proposes the theory that, "Isabel dramatizes the Jamesian paradox that the absence of parents can be as damaging as the presence of parents" (239). Isabel, being given the chance to go to Europe with her aunt, "had the desire to leave the past behind her, and, as she said to herself, begin afresh" (James 30). James must have had the same desires when he left to tour Europe himself as a young man; however, he had his family in America writing, wishing him to return. What would it have been like to have the freedom to do with his life what he chose devoid of feeling the pressure of taking care of his family?

James has placed into Isabel all of these conflicts and tribulations of his own childhood and young adulthood. Although Isabel is physically disconnected from James' family, she nevertheless becomes just another victim of the Henry James senior belief in the impurity of one's sexual desires. Like James who was unable to feel excited by most women, Isabel is seemingly unaroused by any sense of manliness and sexuality around her. Suitor One: Casper Goodwood has no effect on her except to repulse her. Suitor two: Lord Wharburton, also, is ineffective in seducing her. The only man able to succeed in gaining Isabel's affections is Suitor Three, the one man who is the worst possible choice for her. Despite the encouragement of his mother to marry (in a letter from Mary to Henry), "You know Father used to say to you, that if you would only fall in love it would be the making of you" (Mary James/Henry James 8/8/1869; Kaplan 105), James never found the woman to "make" him. It may be because of his aversion to sexuality that James may have seen himself one step ahead of Isabel in the fact that he chose not to marry, as opposed to settling for the wrong choice....

Works Cited

James, Henry. The Portrait of a Lady. 1881. New York: Penguin Group, 1995.

Kaplan, Fred. Henry James: The Imagination of a Genius. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1999.

Springer, Mary Doyle. A Rhetoric of Literary Characters. Chicago: The U. of Chicago P., 1978.

Van Ghent, Dorothy. "On The Portrait of a Lady." The English Novel: Form and Function. New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, Inc., 1953. Rpt. in Studies in The Portrait of a Lady. Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company, 1970.

Wagenknecht, Edward. Eve and Henry James: Portraits of Women and Girls in His Fiction. Norman: U. of Oklahoma P., 1978.

» Back to Research Essays Menu

» Back to Home