Mind the Gap
Call me Isabel (Archer). I’ve been that girl looking on the picnic on a sunny green, the ferocious, “ridiculously overactive imagination”, the woman who mistook a man for who she wanted him to be, the painter of blank canvases, and the hostage of a kiss. Call me Isabel.
Reading Portrait of a Lady, I find myself missing a mental picture of what Isabel looks like, I suppose this is mainly due to the fact I often see myself in her shoes. But how does a 19th century text, laced with archaic social propriety, pull me into its pages so effectively? The lesson of the Master, as Henry James taught it, can be found in the gaps of the mischievous grin that is this expertly constructed novel.
In writing this essay, I hoped to compare Jane Campion’s film version of the novel with my experience. Upon actually seeing the film, I was inimitably disappointed. In an effort to fulfill her “feminist tragedy” take on the novel, Campion distances the viewer from Isabel. The part that bothered me the most about the film was the contrived attempts to make Campion’s Isabel more relatable to the everyday modern feminist woman. I am an everyday modern feminist woman and I can say, she failed to make me feel closer to her “Isabel”.
The reel of auditory, banalities of lovesick young women fantasizing about various aspects of kissing, at the start of the film, begins the contrived attempt to connect tragic heroine and viewer. As nice as the idea of “finding the clearest mirror to shine oneself back to her” is, the dialogue and the women in the beginning of the film aren’t Isabel. There is something incredibly strong and proud about her that is missing from the introduction. To be fair, there are other moments in the film (like when talking of Pansy’s potential marriage to Warburton) when Isabel’s agency is quite apparent and she becomes more like the relatable, Jamesian Isabel.
Another aspect of the film that made “becoming Isabel” difficult was Campion’s attempts to deal with the “gaps” in James’s book in film form. In a book, it is understood “the whole of anything is never told” but when this film leaves gaps as James did in his novel, it becomes less of an intentional aesthetic tool, and begins to look like mere carelessness or intentional misleading. For example, during Warburton’s proposal to Isabel, there is one of these gaps. There is this awkwardness created in that the visual medium shows the reactions, the people, the scene and essentially funnels the possibilities of what exactly is happening (if the whole of it were told). It is easy to not want to definitively say what happens in the gaps of Portrait of a Lady, and I think this half-showing is an attempt to walk the middle between not painting anything in James’s gaps and painting a full portrait. This is the creative equivalent of being politically correct and to say it is disjointing to the viewer would be an understatement. James’s gaps in the novel are also disjointing to the narrative, but his use is quite divisive in that it allows the reader to experience the gaps as she wishes. Though there is a hole in the text, at the same time reader and heroine experience a momentary synthesis, especially created for the reader by her imagination.
Another distancing component of Campion’s film was the elaborate use of costume and scenery. The primary value of Portrait of a Lady is in its ability to transcend various periods of time and still have relevance. This is done through the reader’s ability to identify with the main character. Though the costumes and scenery in this film are absolutely breath taking, it takes the viewer away from the relatability and forces her to place Isabel above her, or at least in a different frame of reference.
Campion could really take a lesson from James in character development. It’s interesting to think that a modern feminist director is further away from burrowing into the hearts of generations of women then a 19th century, failed playwright is.