Henry James. (1843–1916). The Portrait of a Lady.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
There was no mistake at least about his being very intelligent and cultivated, and knowing almost everything in the world. Although he said the most interesting and entertaining things, Isabel perceived that he never said them to exhibit himself, and though he had a great good fortune, he was as far as possible from making a merit of it. He had enjoyed the best things of life, but they had not spoiled his sense of proportion. His composition was a mixture of good-humoured manly force and a modesty that at times was almost boyish; the sweet and wholesome savour of which—it was as agreeable as something tasted—lost nothing from the addition of a tone of kindness which was not boyish, inasmuch as there was a good deal of reflection and of conscience in it.
“I like your specimen English gentleman very much,” Isabel said to Ralph, after Lord Warburton had gone.
“I like him too—I love him well,” said Ralph. “But I pity him more.”
Isabel looked at him askance.
“Why, that seems to me his only fault—that one can’t pity him a little. He appears to have everything, to know everything, to be everything.”
“Oh, he’s in a bad way,” Ralph insisted.
“I suppose you don’t mean in health?”
“No, as to that, he’s detestably robust. What I mean is that he is a man with a great position, who is playing all sorts of tricks with it. He doesn’t take himself seriously.”
“Does he regard himself as a joke?”
“Much worse; he regards himself as an imposition—as an abuse.”
“Well, perhaps he is,” said Isabel.
“Perhaps he is—though on the whole I don’t think so. But in that case, what is more pitiable than a sentient, self-conscious abuse, planted by other hands, deeply rooted, but aching with a sense of its injustice? For me, I could take the poor fellow very seriously; he occupies a position that appeals to my imagination. Great responsibilities, great opportunities, great consideration, great wealth, great power, a natural share in the public affairs of a great country. But he is all in a muddle about himself, his position, his power, and everything else. He is the victim of a critical age; he has ceased to believe in himself, and he doesn’t know what, to believe in. When I attempt to tell him (because if I were he, I know very well what I should believe in), he calls me an old-fashioned and narrow-minded person. I believe he seriously thinks me an awful Philistine; he says I don’t understand my time. I understand it certainly better than he, who can neither abolish himself as a nuisance nor maintain himself as an institution.”
“He doesn’t look very wretched,” Isabel observed.
“Possibly not; though, being a man of imagination, I think he often has uncomfortable hours. But what is it to say of a man of his opportunities that he is not miserable? Besides, I believe he is.”
“I don’t,” said Isabel.
“Well,” her cousin rejoined, “if he is not, he ought to be!”
In the afternoon she spent an hour with her uncle on the lawn, where the old man sat, as usual, with his shawl over his legs and his large cup of diluted tea in his hands. In the course of conversation he asked her what she thought of their late visitor.
“I think he is charming,” Isabel answered.
“He’s a fine fellow,” said Mr. Touchett, “but I don’t recommend you to fall in love with him.”
“I shall not do it then; I shall never fall in love but on your recommendation. Moreover,” Isabel added, “my cousin gives me a rather sad account of Lord Warburton.”
“Oh, indeed? I don’t know what there may be to say, but you must remember that Ralph is rather fanciful.”
“He thinks Lord Warburton is too radical—or not radical enough! I don’t quite understand which,” said Isabel.
The old man shook his head slowly, smiled, and put down his cup.
“I don’t know which, either. He goes very far, but it is quite possible he doesn’t go far enough. He seems to want to do away with a good many things, but he seems to want to remain himself. I suppose that is natural; but it is rather inconsistent.”
“Oh, I hope he will remain himself,” said Isabel. “If he were to be done away with, his friends would miss him sadly.”
“Well,” said the old man, “I guess he’ll stay and amuse his friends. I should certainly miss him very much here at Gardencourt. He always amuses me when he comes over, and I think he amuses himself as well. There is a considerable number like him, round in society; they are very fashionable just now. I don’t know what they are trying to do—whether they are trying to get up a revolution; I hope at any rate they will put it off till after I am gone. You see they want to disestablish everything; but I’m a pretty big landowner here, and I don’t want to be disestablished. I wouldn’t have come over if I had thought they were going to behave like that,” Mr. Touchett went on, with expanding hilarity. “I came over because I thought England was a safe country. I call it a regular fraud, if they are going to introduce any considerable changes; there’ll be a large number disappointed in that case.”
“Oh, I do hope they will make a revolution!” Isabel exclaimed. “I should delight in seeing a revolution.”
“Let me see,” said her uncle, with a humorous intention; “I forget whether you are a liberal or a conservative. I have heard you take such opposite views.”
“I am both. I think I am a little of everything. In a revolution—after it was well begun—I think I should be a conservative. One sympathises more with them, and they have a chance to behave so picturesquely.”
“I don’t know that I understand what you mean by behaving picturesquely, but it seems to me that you do that always, my dear.”
“Oh, you lovely man, if I could believe that!” the girl interrupted.
“I am afraid, after all, you won’t have the pleasure of seeing a revolution here just now,” Mr. Touchett went on. “If you want to see one, you must pay us a long visit. You see, when you come to the point, it wouldn’t suit them to be taken at their word.”
“Of whom are you speaking?”
“Well, I mean Lord Warburton and his friends—the radicals of the upper class. Of course I only know the way it strikes me. They talk about the changes, but I don’t think they quite realise. You and I, you know, we know what it is to have lived under democratic institutions; I always thought them very comfortable, but I was used to them from the first. But then, I ain’t a lord; you’re a lady, my dear, but I ain’t a lord. Now, over here, I don’t think it quite comes home to them. It’s a matter of every day and every hour, and I don’t think many of them would find it as pleasant as what they’ve got. Of course if they want to try, it’s their own business; but I expect they won’t try very hard.”
“Don’t you think they are sincere?” Isabel asked.
“Well, they are very conscientious,” Mr. Touchett allowed; “but it seems as if they took it out in theories, mostly. Their radical views are a kind of amusement; they have got to have some amusement, and they might have coarser tastes than that. You see they are very luxurious, and these progressive ideas are about their biggest luxury. They make them feel moral, and yet they don’t affect their position. They think a great deal of their position; don’t let one of them ever persuade you he doesn’t, for if you were to proceed on that basis, you would be pulled up very short.”
Isabel followed her uncle’s argument, which he unfolded with his mild, reflective, optimistic accent, most attentively, and though she was unacquainted with the British aristocracy, she found it in harmony with her general impressions of human nature. But she felt moved to put in a protest on Lord Warburton’s behalf.
“I don’t believe Lord Warburton’s a humbug,” she said; “I don’t care what the others are. I should like to see Lord Warburton put to the test.”
“Heaven deliver me from my friends!” Mr. Touchett answered. “Lord Warburton is a very amiable young man—a very fine young man. He has a hundred thousand a year. He owns fifty thousand acres of the soil of this little island. He has half-a-dozen houses to live in. He has a seat in Parliament as I have one at my own dinner-table. He has very cultivated tastes—cares for literature, for art, for science, for charming young ladies. The most cultivated is his taste for the new views. It affords him a great deal of entertainment—more perhaps than anything else, except the young ladies. His old house over there—what does he call it, Lockleigh?—is very attractive; but I don’t think it is as pleasant as this. That doesn’t matter, however, he has got so many others. His views don’t hurt any one as far as I can see; they certainly don’t hurt himself. And if there were to be a revolution, he would come off very easily; they wouldn’t touch him, they would leave him as he is; he is too much liked.”
“Ah, he couldn’t be a martyr even if he wished!” Isabel exclaimed. “That’s a very poor position.”
“He will never be a martyr unless you make him one,” said the old man.
Isabel shook her head; there might have been something laughable in the fact that she did it with a touch of sadness.
“I shall never make any one a martyr.”
“You will never be one, I hope.”
“I hope not. But you don’t pity Lord Warburton, then, as Ralph does?”
Her uncle looked at her a while, with genial acuteness.
“Yes, I do, after all!”