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MonkeyNotes-Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
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Here we are introduced more fully both to Mrs. Touchett and to Isabel Archer. The setting is Albany, New York, in Isabelís paternal grandmotherís house where she first encountered Mrs. Touchett. Thus in the first chapters of the book, James is careful to set up the American context of the expatriates in England, and later in Italy. The matriarch, Mrs. Archerís house is as symbolically important to the novelís Themes as is the English country estate described in the first chapters. It is two houses built into one. It has two doors, and although only one is in operation, no one has bothered to close up the second one, it has an ample number of rooms, but the favorite room is the old, isolated room called the office where old furniture is kept. It is treated as a sort of provincial inn by Mrs. Archer, open all the time to her children and grandchildren. Mrs. Touchett calls it bourgeois and compares it unfavorably with homes in Florence. It is also the site of Isabel Archerís education. It is here that she was given carte blanche to read whatever suited her fancy. She seems to have read purely out of interest with no one to push her in any direction. Her reading is by no means light. When she is interrupted by Mrs. Touchett, she has begun on the German philosophers.

Henry James obviously enjoyed drawing the portrait of Mrs. Touchett. She is a person who "might do a great deal of good, but she never pleased." Her manner isnít intrinsically offensive, the narrator relates, "it was just unmistakably distinguished from the ways of others." She is a plain-looking person who has few graces and little elegance, but who has "an extreme respect for her own motives" which she will explain if asked in the proper tone. Mrs. Touchett seems to have been a New Woman before they were called by this term. When her marriage to Mr. Touchett didnít suit her, she left him and moved to Venice. She is in New York to handle her investments, which are her own and have nothing to do with her husbandís fortune. Mrs. Touchett is one kind of independent woman.


Isabel Archer is another. Her independence is very cleverly brought out in her self-possession in the face of Mrs. Touchettís invasion of her privacy. When she realizes who her strange guest is, she exclaims, "Ah, you must be our crazy Aunt Lydia!" When Mrs. Touchett presumes to take over her life, Isabel shows her own independence while at the same time showing her desire to go to Europe with her aunt. She seems to be a person who is able to assert her boundaries without putting up a wall. For instance, when Mrs. Touchett implies that she is stupid for not knowing about her financial situation, Isabel says simply that she is not stupid, but that she doesnít know about money. When Mrs. Touchett questions her affection for her grandmotherís house, Isabel replies thoughtfully, not taking up the gauntlet of Mrs. Touchettís insulting implications. When Mrs. Touchett sets up the terms of her benevolence--that Isabel must be "good and do everything [she] tell[s] her"--Isabel again replies simply. She tells her she canít promise this but she does want to go to Florence.

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