I don't know how I managed it but my last two reads of 2010 have not only been two of my best reads of the year but possibly two of my best reads of all time.
The Portrait of a Lady and The Age of Innocence have been two books I have been meaning to read for quite a while now and for some reason they both fell into my hands at about the same time. I was taken by the similarities between the two even though they were written at different times (Portrait was first published in 1881 and Innocence in 1920 - although it does focus on the era of the 1870's). Both stories have young, inexperienced heroines (although one seems to be clearly seeking the expected path of marriage and family while the other tries hard to steer a different course at first) and both focus on the society of the time and the way in which rules and expectations impact on the decisions and behaviours of the characters.
The Portrait of a Lady was my first experience of reading Henry James and it was pure bliss! How could I not have known what I was missing out on??! I have heard quite a few people list him as one of their favourite authors and I think I will become one of them now.
I was hooked from the very first line of the book;
Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.
I couldn't agree more! Of course the book does explore deeper topics than the joy of afternoon tea. The heroine of the novel, Isabel Archer is a young American woman brought to England by her aunt, Mrs Touchett, after the death of her father. Isabel becomes close friends with her uncle and her cousin Ralph and when Mr Touchett dies soon after Isabel's arrival in England he leaves her (at the request of Ralph) a considerable fortune to enable her to live out her life goals of exploration and travel. Isabel is approached by several young men with marriage proposals but she refuses them all - until the arrival of the older and more charming Gilbert Osmond. Isabel accepts Osmond's proposal even after the disapproval of her family and friends is voiced to her, especially Ralph's;
'You were the last person I expected to see caught'.
'I don't know why you call it caught'.
'Because you're going to be put in a cage'.
'If I like my cage, that needn't trouble you,' she answered.
Of course soon after the marriage Isabel realises that Osmond is not the person she thought he was but it is too late and her family and friends watch her turn from a bright, passionate woman into a faded version of her true character.
I loved Isabel but I was frustrated by her at the same time - when she agreed to marry Osmand I found myself yelling out loud "NO - Listen to Ralph!!!". But then the novel would not have been what it was without that decision. The second half of the book is painful to read as we witness Isabel's awful marriage and see Ralph's prediction come true - she is caught in a cage with no sign of release and yet she finds that maybe she doesn't like it so much after all.
I decided to read The Age of Innocence after finishing The Portrait of a Lady because I wanted to stay in a similar era with my reading (truth be told I really wanted to go back and start The Portrait all over again I loved it so much!). This novel again focuses on women characters and the impact of their decisions to marry certain people but told from the perspective of a male character. Newland Archer is a member of upper class New York society in the 1870's and as the novel begins his engagement to May Welland is just about to be announced - an event that coincides with the return to New York of May's cousin, Countess Olenska who has scandalously left her brutal marriage to a Polish nobleman.
Countess Olenska raises thoughts and feelings in Newland that have been rising for a while - why is society so structured and rule bound - why must women (and men for that matter) be constrained to act and behave in certain ways even when that goes against their natural instinct?
Newland begins to see the constraints of his upper class society and he himself begins to feel constrained by it - he falls in love with the Countess but marries May anyway because it is what is expected of him.
The novel is really about the games that the members of the upper classes played at this time to keep their society and it's structure intact - through Newland's newly opened eyes we are able to see these games for what they really are - and yet no one ever stops playing them!
It is the conventions of this society that stops Newland from following his heart - even at the very end.
I cannot recommend either of these two books highly enough - and I think I will be re-reading them again myself very soon!