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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Down the Aisle with Henry James

by Renée Tursi

In his 1881 novel The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James put his heroine Isabel Archer’s marriage at the story’s midpoint. Before then, nuptials had always dwelt at a tale's end. Following Isabel’s ill-considered decision to wed the pernicious Gilbert Osmond, James kept the cameras rolling, giving his readers unnerving access to a very unhappy ever-after.
Having recently entered the marriage plot for the first time in my early fifties, I am thrown off by the return of the fairytale arc in my life. My ever-after, a copiously joyful one so far, has fallen a considerable distance from Isabel’s youthful start of the tale, and presumably well past the middle. Crunching the numbers, I see I could conceivably escape any marital strife just by where my husband and I fall in the actuarial tables. “Before the charm wears off, we’ll be dead” was how the last boyfriend had spun our dating circumstance. He missed the mark for that romance. But he may be spot on about my marriage.
            Yet, while it turned out not to be too late for me to be married, I wonder if it might be too late for me to feel married.
            Mrs. Osmond strikes me as someone who, to James’s astute and life-long unmarried observer’s mind, would have a particular quality that differed from a woman who wed for the first time later in life. It goes deeper than her regret at having married the wrong man—and beyond the fact that, as James notes, “It may seem to the reader that Mrs. Osmond had grown of a sudden strangely cynical.”
            I cannot name the quality, nor would I presume to try. And that’s my dilemma.
Of course I know that marriage in this country today, at least on paper, allows for both partners to remain fully realized individuals. When I talk about feeling married, what I’m referring to is what otherwise strongly autonomous women, ones who had wed at an “expected” age, will often say to me. That long after becoming single again, they still carry a married orientation. They confess to entering rooms as an “I” with ever-so-slight a hesitation, an inner pause registering only on their own finely tuned gauge.
Being unmarried turned out to be nowhere near the “dreadful existence” my 16-year-old self, despite its nonconformist spirit, had imagined such a life. Freedom has been mine in every sense: I made my way through graduate school to an academic career. I went from my own apartment to buying my own house. I had long-term relationships, albeit always fraught ones. I never cooked. And the only diapers I changed were those of my sisters’ children. When one of my nieces was asked once what her aunt does for a living, she replied: “She gives me books.”
But I wasn’t content. I wanted a forever partnership.
That said, the dating advice to “get out there” doing the things you love so as to meet like-minded people landed on my doorstep with a thud. When what one loves most is to curl up at home with Henry James, potential mates tend to remain fictional. 
Plot lines, however, do not. Those tragic miscommunications, tortured ruminations, excruciating choices, and unrelenting disappointments James visits upon his characters were the very storylines I seemed fated to pursue. His heroines and I took on narcissists like lint. 
            After too many decades and very little effort from me, my future husband, in a stroke of impossible irony, just showed up at my door and rang the bell. 
            The day before, I had put down my book and gone for coffee at my neighbor’s, whom he was visiting. He was magnificent. His three children, too. Within a year, he and I wed, surrounded by the people we love and a Vermont downpour.
            When friends ask me “did the marriage take?”, the answer is easy. Happy sped by in a blur. Now I’m in some sort of incandescent bliss. My husband is loving, kind, brilliant, funny, patient, generous, charming, tall, and handsome. Really. When someone talks to him in front of me, I’m so relieved; it’s proof I’ve not made him up.
Astonished to have found each other “at this point in our lives,” we feel so temperamentally enmeshed that he and I are as much a “we” as I imagine two beings can be. As my stepson watches his father and me eat breakfast with our oatmeal bowls touching, he just shakes his head.
But the first time I was asked whether I was planning to change my name to my husband’s, I admitted the thought hadn’t occurred to me. Honestly, at my age, the question felt even a bit embarrassing. Like my trying to pull off a navel piercing. And now when I’m asked what being married feels like, the truth is, beyond my absolute happiness, I don’t know. I think I may have a permanently unmarried state of mind.
            So here’s what I tell people: I feel like a single person who’s married.
            Everything and nothing prepared me for this impasse. During the feminist-turbulent years of my childhood, the fact that my mother had forfeited a dance career because my father deemed it unfitting for a university faculty wife to be seen in a leotard made no small impression on me.
            “Never count solely on a man” she told my sisters and me within earshot of the spouse upon whom she could count for everything, except recognition as a sound decision-maker.
            She loved my father and she loved us. But it was clear that her life had left her in service. I came away with few convincing arguments for becoming a wife and having children myself. Virginia Woolf said what we all know: “we think back through our mothers if we are women.”
            My mother spent the last dozen years of her life a widow. As much as she changed remarkably during that period—traveling, building a house, and tramping the Vermont woods with chainsaw in hand—she would never have been mistaken for a life-long unmarried woman. Mistaken for me. Something about the tilt of her head, as though still listening to my father’s voice.
            She would also never come to like James. A perceptive reader, she found the way he loitered about in a discontented mind unsettling.
            In high school, no one had asked me to the prom; the day after, however, a boy came up to me to say that he had thought about asking me. This utterance, astounding for its Jamesian conflux of misdirection, bewildered me as nothing had before.
I could understand his deciding not to ask me. It was his telling me that was impenetrable.
            I turned to novels. There I was sure that such unfathomable discourse would be explained. I started to really read and I started to date. But the two experiences seemed to conspire to make the possibility of fruitful pairing mere fantasy.
            Had I been able to identify more with another author’s heroines, Jane Austen’s, say, maybe my decisions would have sent me down the marriage path, for better or worse, at a younger age. What I ended up taking to, instead, was James’s sensibility. There is such a profound inwardness to it all. An aching aloneness and yearning that surges through his careful studies of human behavior. I ate it up.
            If only he had chosen, just for me, to keep going his short story “The Jolly Corner.” It ends with the promise of a mature kindling of an earlier friendship. Having waited, on reserve as it were, for Spencer Brydon’s return to New York after thirty-three years abroad, Alice Staverton had been getting on with her life. She “sallied forth and did battle.” In appraising her after all these years, Brydon thinks her appearance “defied you to say if she were a fair young woman who looked older through trouble, or a fine smooth older one who looked young through successful indifference.”
            I would like to read about the married Staverton a decade down the road. Just to know whether or not James would leave her unmarried habits of mind intact.
            Perhaps only someone as never-married as James, someone to whom women often confided quite deeply, could suggest so enigmatically the transformation that the young Isabel Archer undergoes in becoming Mrs. Osmond. When a few years into the marriage James has her become absorbed into thought about her husband’s irregular conduct, he seems to imply that she is feeling emotionally alone. But not exactly solitary.
            Since I’ve been married, my interiority has withstood any breach upon my feeling solitary. This despite the absence of lonesomeness. Despite a husband who, with such sweetness, has somehow come to read my mind and to protect my every vulnerability. Nevertheless, on forms, I still search for a hybrid term somewhere between “single” and “married.”
            My life has been a rich yield from feminists before me. They gave me choice, income, and innumerable rooms of my own. Unlike Mrs. Osmond, who “sometimes felt a sort of passion of tenderness for memories which had no other merit than that they belonged to her unmarried life,” I suffer no need for nostalgia. As my husband works at his desk near mine, his presence offers neither rescue nor suffocation. He is there simply as a pure good, added to my singleness.
            James’s world denied the author the comfortable possibility of a satisfying union for himself. Maybe he is suspect, then, for presuming to write the inner life of women. But his prescribed singleness may explain why his outlook has given me insightful companionship equal to that of any female author.
            At key moments in her life, Isabel Archer has just been reading. She lays down the book and stares ahead while her intricate Jamesian contemplations take shape. It’s terrible how, after all that, she so misreads Gilbert Osmond before marrying him. 
I had the benefit of reading much longer than she did before marriage. As it turns out, a deferred ever-after has its advantages. Even if it means my state-of-mind never catches up. 

Renée Tursi is an associate professor of English at Quinnipiac University, where she teaches (mostly) American literature. Her academic work has appeared in the aesthetics journal Style, the Henry James Review, and Studies in the Novel. Her book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, and the Times Literary Supplement. With her submission to bioStories, she takes her first steps with a new genre.

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