Chapter 36 begins strangely:
One afternoon, towards dusk, in the autumn of 1876, a young man of pleasing appearance rang at the door of a small apartment on the third floor of an old Roman house.
This is at the 65% mark. Has the printer accidentally bound the beginning of a different James novel in the middle of my copy? Why the sudden fuss about dates? The man asks for Madame Merle, who is a character I know. He turns out to be Mr. Edward Rosier, who I do not:
The reader will perhaps not have forgotten that Mr. Rosier was an ornament of the American circle in Paris…
This reader certainly had forgotten. James has, it turns out, leapt ahead three years (thus the date) and reset the novel. For three chapters he pretends, with a straight face, that having solved the problem of Isabel Archer’s marriage, he is now interested in the courtship of Mr. Rosier and Pansy Osmond, the strange, doll-like sixteen year-old who is now an odd, porcelain nineteen year-old.
I have a lot of skepticism about the practice of searching through James for homosexual characters, but Rosier is so gay. He seems to want to add Pansy to his collection of knick-knacks. “He thought of her in amorous meditation a good deal as he might have thought of a Dresden-china shepherdess.” I am glad James provides no further details.
Later, Rosier proves his devotion by, well
“It’s very easily told,” said Edward Rosier. “I have sold all my bibelots!”
Isabel gave, instinctively, an exclamation of horror; it was as if he had told her he had had all his teeth drawn. (Ch. 50)
That’s one of my favorite lines in the novel. He sells his trinkets for nearly a million bucks, current dollars, by the way.
Earlier, Isabel and Edward have this exchange, about Isabel’s husband:
“He must be very clever.”
“He has a genius for upholstery,” said Isabel.
“There is a great rage for that sort of thing now.” (Ch. 38)
In some ways reading A Portrait of a Lady is akin to reading Jules Laforgue’s poems about commedia dell’arte clowns who live on the moon. The characters in The Portrait of a Lady are a rarefied bunch. The fiction of Ronald Firbank is now possible.
I did not mean to write so much about this marvelous minor character. I meant to write about the subtly indirect ways James fills in three years of history for the important characters (it takes six chapters to finally get back to Isabel’s point of view). But I might as well finish him off.
Whatever suspicions I have about Rosier’s love for a doll, the love affair turns out to be quite real for the doll herself, real to the point of genuine pathos, and real to Isabel, which is how the whole subplot transforms into the main plot. I have some arguments with James’s bantering dialogue – maybe I will write about that tomorrow – but it allows Pansy one fine moment.
“Oh yes, I must indeed. I can’t disobey papa.”
“Not for one who loves you as I do, and whom you pretend to love?”
Pansy raised the lid of the tea-pot, gazing into this vessel for a moment; then she dropped six words into its aromatic depths. “I love you just as much.”
I so enjoy the line without dialogue that I almost wish James had left me guessing about the six words.