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Chapter 6

CHAPTER VI

Isabel Archer was a young person of many theories; her
imagination was remarkably active. It had been her fortune to
possess a finer mind than most of the persons among whom her lot
was cast; to have a larger perception of surrounding facts and to
care for knowledge that was tinged with the unfamiliar. It is
true that among her contemporaries she passed for a young woman
of extraordinary profundity; for these excellent people never
withheld their admiration from a reach of intellect of which they
themselves were not conscious, and spoke of Isabel as a prodigy
of learning, a creature reported to have read the classic authors
--in translations. Her paternal aunt, Mrs. Varian, once spread
the rumour that Isabel was writing a book--Mrs. Varian having a
reverence for books, and averred that the girl would distinguish
herself in print. Mrs. Varian thought highly of literature, for
which she entertained that esteem that is connected with a sense
of privation. Her own large house, remarkable for its assortment
of mosaic tables and decorated ceilings, was unfurnished with a
library, and in the way of printed volumes contained nothing but
half a dozen novels in paper on a shelf in the apartment of one
of the Miss Varians. Practically, Mrs. Varian's acquaintance with
literature was confined to The New York Interviewer; as she very
justly said, after you had read the Interviewer you had lost all
faith in culture. Her tendency, with this, was rather to keep the
Interviewer out of the way of her daughters; she was determined
to bring them up properly, and they read nothing at all. Her
impression with regard to Isabel's labours was quite illusory;
the girl had never attempted to write a book and had no desire
for the laurels of authorship. She had no talent for expression
and too little of the consciousness of genius; she only had a
general idea that people were right when they treated her as if
she were rather superior. Whether or no she were superior, people
were right in admiring her if they thought her so; for it seemed
to her often that her mind moved more quickly than theirs, and
this encouraged an impatience that might easily be confounded
with superiority. It may be affirmed without delay that Isabel
was probably very liable to the sin of self-esteem; she often
surveyed with complacency the field of her own nature; she was in
the habit of taking for granted, on scanty evidence, that she was
right; she treated herself to occasions of homage. Meanwhile her
errors and delusions were frequently such as a biographer
interested in preserving the dignity of his subject must shrink
from specifying. Her thoughts were a tangle of vague outlines
which had never been corrected by the judgement of people
speaking with authority. In matters of opinion she had had her
own way, and it had led her into a thousand ridiculous zigzags.
At moments she discovered she was grotesquely wrong, and then she
treated herself to a week of passionate humility. After this she
held her head higher than ever again; for it was of no use, she
had an unquenchable desire to think well of herself. She had a
theory that it was only under this provision life was worth
living; that one should be one of the best, should be conscious
of a fine organisation (she couldn't help knowing her organsation
was fine), should move in a realm of light, of natural wisdom, of
happy impulse, of inspiration gracefully chronic. It was almost
as unnecessary to cultivate doubt of one's self as to cultivate
doubt of one's best friend: one should try to be one's own best
friend and to give one's self, in this manner, distinguished
company. The girl had a certain nobleness of imagination which
rendered her a good many services and played her a great many
tricks. She spent half her time in thinking of beauty and bravery
and magnanimity; she had a fixed determination to regard the
world as a place of brightness, of free expansion, of
irresistible action: she held it must be detestable to be afraid
or ashamed. She had an infinite hope that she should never do
anything wrong. She had resented so strongly, after discovering
them, her mere errors of feeling (the discovery always made her
tremble as if she had escaped from a trap which might have caught
her and smothered her) that the chance of inflicting a sensible
injury upon another person, presented only as a contingency,
caused her at moments to hold her breath. That always struck her
as the worst thing that could happen to her. On the whole,
reflectively, she was in no uncertainty about the things that
were wrong. She had no love of their look, but when she fixed
them hard she recognised them. It was wrong to be mean, to be
jealous, to be false, to be cruel; she had seen very little of
the evil of the world, but she had seen women who lied and who
tried to hurt each other. Seeing such things had quickened her
high spirit; it seemed indecent not to scorn them. Of course the
danger of a high spirit was the danger of inconsistency--the
danger of keeping up the flag after the place has surrendered; a
sort of behaviour so crooked as to be almost a dishonour to the
flag. But Isabel, who knew little of the sorts of artillery to
which young women are exposed, flattered herself that such
contradictions would never be noted in her own conduct. Her life
should always be in harmony with the most pleasing impression she
should produce; she would be what she appeared, and she would
appear what she was. Sometimes she went so far as to wish that
she might find herself some day in a difficult position, so that
she should have the pleasure of being as heroic as the occasion
demanded. Altogether, with her meagre knowledge, her inflated
ideals, her confidence at once innocent and dogmatic, her temper
at once exacting and indulgent, her mixture of curiosity and
fastidiousness, of vivacity and indifference, her desire to look
very well and to be if possible even better, her determination to
see, to try, to know, her combination of the delicate, desultory,
flame-like spirit and the eager and personal creature of
conditions: she would be an easy victim of scientific criticism
if she were not intended to awaken on the reader's part an
impulse more tender and more purely expectant.

It was one of her theories that Isabel Archer was very fortunate
in being independent, and that she ought to make some very
enlightened use of that state. She never called it the state of
solitude, much less of singleness; she thought such descriptions
weak, and, besides, her sister Lily constantly urged her to come
and abide. She had a friend whose acquaintance she had made
shortly before her father's death, who offered so high an example
of useful activity that Isabel always thought of her as a model.
Henrietta Stackpole had the advantage of an admired ability; she
was thoroughly launched in journalism, and her letters to the
Interviewer, from Washington, Newport, the White Mountains and
other places, were universally quoted. Isabel pronounced them
with confidence "ephemeral," but she esteemed the courage, energy
and good-humour of the writer, who, without parents and without
property, had adopted three of the children of an infirm and
widowed sister and was paying their school-bills out of the
proceeds of her literary labour. Henrietta was in the van of
progress and had clear-cut views on most subjects; her cherished
desire had long been to come to Europe and write a series of
letters to the Interviewer from the radical point of view--an
enterprise the less difficult as she knew perfectly in advance
what her opinions would be and to how many objections most
European institutions lay open. When she heard that Isabel was
coming she wished to start at once; thinking, naturally, that it
would be delightful the two should travel together. She had been
obliged, however, to postpone this enterprise. She thought Isabel
a glorious creature, and had spoken of her covertly in some of
her letters, though she never mentioned the fact to her friend,
who would not have taken pleasure in it and was not a regular
student of the Interviewer. Henrietta, for Isabel, was chiefly a
proof that a woman might suffice to herself and be happy. Her
resources were of the obvious kind; but even if one had not the
journalistic talent and a genius for guessing, as Henrietta said,
what the public was going to want, one was not therefore to
conclude that one had no vocation, no beneficent aptitude of any
sort, and resign one's self to being frivolous and hollow. Isabel
was stoutly determined not to be hollow. If one should wait with
the right patience one would find some happy work to one's hand.
Of course, among her theories, this young lady was not without a
collection of views on the subject of marriage. The first on the
list was a conviction of the vulgarity of thinking too much of
it. From lapsing into eagerness on this point she earnestly
prayed she might be delivered; she held that a woman ought to be
able to live to herself, in the absence of exceptional
flimsiness, and that it was perfectly possible to be happy
without the society of a more or less coarse-minded person of
another sex. The girl's prayer was very sufficiently answered;
something pure and proud that there was in her--something cold
and dry an unappreciated suitor with a taste for analysis might
have called it--had hitherto kept her from any great vanity of
conjecture on the article of possible husbands. Few of the men
she saw seemed worth a ruinous expenditure, and it made her smile
to think that one of them should present himself as an incentive
to hope and a reward of patience. Deep in her soul--it was the
deepest thing there--lay a belief that if a certain light should
dawn she could give herself completely; but this image, on the
whole, was too formidable to be attractive. Isabel's thoughts
hovered about it, but they seldom rested on it long; after a
little it ended in alarms. It often seemed to her that she
thought too much about herself; you could have made her colour,
any day in the year, by calling her a rank egoist. She was always
planning out her development, desiring her perfection, observing
her progress. Her nature had, in her conceit, a certain
garden-like quality, a suggestion of perfume and murmuring
boughs, of shady bowers and lengthening vistas, which made her
feel that introspection was, after all, an exercise in the open
air, and that a visit to the recesses of one's spirit was
harmless when one returned from it with a lapful of roses. But
she was often reminded that there were other gardens in the world
than those of her remarkable soul, and that there were moreover a
great many places which were not gardens at all--only dusky
pestiferous tracts, planted thick with ugliness and misery. In
the current of that repaid curiosity on which she had lately been
floating, which had conveyed her to this beautiful old England
and might carry her much further still, she often checked herself
with the thought of the thousands of people who were less happy
than herself--a thought which for the moment made her fine, full
consciousness appear a kind of immodesty. What should one do with
the misery of the world in a scheme of the agreeable for one's
self? It must be confessed that this question never held her
long. She was too young, too impatient to live, too unacquainted
with pain. She always returned to her theory that a young woman
whom after all every one thought clever should begin by getting a
general impression of life. This impression was necessary to
prevent mistakes, and after it should be secured she might make
the unfortunate condition of others a subject of special
attention.

England was a revelation to her, and she found herself as
diverted as a child at a pantomime. In her infantine excursions
to Europe she had seen only the Continent, and seen it from the
nursery window; Paris, not London, was her father's Mecca, and
into many of his interests there his children had naturally not
entered. The images of that time moreover had grown faint and
remote, and the old-world quality in everything that she now saw
had all the charm of strangeness. Her uncle's house seemed a
picture made real; no refinement of the agreeable was lost upon
Isabel; the rich perfection of Gardencourt at once revealed a
world and gratified a need. The large, low rooms, with brown
ceilings and dusky corners, the deep embrasures and curious
casements, the quiet light on dark, polished panels, the deep
greenness outside, that seemed always peeping in, the sense of
well-ordered privacy in the centre of a "property"--a place where
sounds were felicitously accidental, where the tread was muffed
by the earth itself and in the thick mild air all friction
dropped out of contact and all shrillness out of talk--these
things were much to the taste of our young lady, whose taste
played a considerable part in her emotions. She formed a fast
friendship with her uncle, and often sat by his chair when he had
had it moved out to the lawn. He passed hours in the open air,
sitting with folded hands like a placid, homely household god, a
god of service, who had done his work and received his wages and
was trying to grow used to weeks and months made up only of
off-days. Isabel amused him more than she suspected--the effect
she produced upon people was often different from what she
supposed--and he frequently gave himself the pleasure of making
her chatter. It was by this term that he qualified her
conversation, which had much of the "point" observable in that of
the young ladies of her country, to whom the ear of the world is
more directly presented than to their sisters in other lands.
Like the mass of American girls Isabel had been encouraged to
express herself; her remarks had been attended to; she had been
expected to have emotions and opinions. Many of her opinions had
doubtless but a slender value, many of her emotions passed away
in the utterance; but they had left a trace in giving her the
habit of seeming at least to feel and think, and in imparting
moreover to her words when she was really moved that prompt
vividness which so many people had regarded as a sign of
superiority. Mr. Touchett used to think that she reminded him of
his wife when his wife was in her teens. It was because she was
fresh and natural and quick to understand, to speak--so many
characteristics of her niece--that he had fallen in love with
Mrs. Touchett. He never expressed this analogy to the girl
herself, however; for if Mrs. Touchett had once been like Isabel,
Isabel was not at all like Mrs. Touchett. The old man was full of
kindness for her; it was a long time, as he said, since they had
had any young life in the house; and our rustling, quickly-moving,
clear-voiced heroine was as agreeable to his sense as the sound of
flowing water. He wanted to do something for her and wished she
would ask it of him. She would ask nothing but questions; it is
true that of these she asked a quantity. Her uncle had a great
fund of answers, though her pressure sometimes came in forms that
puzzled him. She questioned him immensely about England, about
the British constitution, the English character, the state of
politics, the manners and customs of the royal family, the
peculiarities of the aristocracy, the way of living and thinking
of his neighbours; and in begging to be enlightened on these
points she usually enquired whether they corresponded with the
descriptions in the books. The old man always looked at her a
little with his fine dry smile while he smoothed down the shawl
spread across his legs.

"The books?" he once said; "well, I don't know much about the
books. You must ask Ralph about that. I've always ascertained for
myself--got my information in the natural form. I never asked
many questions even; I just kept quiet and took notice. Of course
I've had very good opportunities--better than what a young lady
would naturally have. I'm of an inquisitive disposition, though
you mightn't think it if you were to watch me: however much you
might watch me I should be watching you more. I've been watching
these people for upwards of thirty-five years, and I don't
hesitate to say that I've acquired considerable information. It's
a very fine country on the whole--finer perhaps than what we give
it credit for on the other side. several improvements I should
like to see introduced; but the necessity of them doesn't seem to
be generally felt as yet. When the necessity of a thing
is generally felt they usually manage to accomplish it; but they
seem to feel pretty comfortable about waiting till then. I
certainly feel more at home among them than I expected to when I
first came over; I suppose it's because I've had a considerable
degree of success. When you're successful you naturally feel more
at home."

"Do you suppose that if I'm successful I shall feel at home?"
Isabel asked.

"I should think it very probable, and you certainly will be
successful. They like American young ladies very much over here;
they show them a great deal of kindness. But you mustn't feel too
much at home, you know."

"Oh, I'm by no means sure it will satisfy me," Isabel judicially
emphasised. "I like the place very much, but I'm not sure I shall
like the people."

"The people are very good people; especially if you like them."

"I've no doubt they're good," Isabel rejoined; "but are they
pleasant in society? They won't rob me nor beat me; but will they
make themselves agreeable to me? That's what I like people to do.
I don't hesitate to say so, because I always appreciate it. I
don't believe they're very nice to girls; they're not nice to
them in the novels."

"I don't know about the novels," said Mr. Touchett. "I believe
the novels have a great deal but I don't suppose they're very
accurate. We once had a lady who wrote novels staying here; she
was a friend of Ralph's and he asked her down. She was very
positive, quite up to everything; but she was not the sort of
person you could depend on for evidence. Too free a fancy--I
suppose that was it. She afterwards published a work of fiction
in which she was understood to have given a representation--
something in the nature of a caricature, as you might say--of my
unworthy self. I didn't read it, but Ralph just handed me the
book with the principal passages marked. It was understood to be
a description of my conversation; American peculiarities, nasal
twang, Yankee notions, stars and stripes. Well, it was not at all
accurate; she couldn't have listened very attentively. I had no
objection to her giving a report of my conversation, if she liked
but I didn't like the idea that she hadn't taken the trouble to
listen to it. Of course I talk like an American--I can't talk
like a Hottentot. However I talk, I've made them understand me
pretty well over here. But I don't talk like the old gentleman in
that lady's novel. He wasn't an American; we wouldn't have him
over there at any price. I just mention that fact to show you
that they're not always accurate. Of course, as I've no
daughters, and as Mrs. Touchett resides in Florence, I haven't
had much chance to notice about the young ladies. It sometimes
appears as if the young women in the lower class were not very
well treated; but I guess their position is better in the upper
and even to some extent in the middle."

"Gracious," Isabel exclaimed; "how many classes have they? About
fifty, I suppose."

"Well, I don't know that I ever counted them. I never took much
notice of the classes. That's the advantage of being an American
here; you don't belong to any class."

"I hope so," said Isabel. "Imagine one's belonging to an English
class!"

"Well, I guess some of them are pretty comfortable--especially
towards the top. But for me there are only two classes: the
people I trust and the people I don't. Of those two, my dear
Isabel, you belong to the first."

"I'm much obliged to you," said the girl quickly. Her way of
taking compliments seemed sometimes rather dry; she got rid of
them as rapidly as possible. But as regards this she was
sometimes misjudged; she was thought insensible to them, whereas
in fact she was simply unwilling to show how infinitely they
pleased her. To show that was to show too much. "I'm sure the
English are very conventional," she added.

"They've got everything pretty well fixed," Mr. Touchett
admitted. "It's all settled beforehand--they don't leave it to
the last moment."

"I don't like to have everything settled beforehand," said the
girl. "I like more unexpectedness."

Her uncle seemed amused at her distinctness of preference. "Well,
it's settled beforehand that you'll have great success," he
rejoined. "I suppose you'll like that."

"I shall not have success if they're too stupidly conventional.
I'm not in the least stupidly conventional. I'm just the
contrary. That's what they won't like."

"No, no, you're all wrong," said the old man. "You can't tell
what they'll like. They're very inconsistent; that's their
principal interest."

"Ah well," said Isabel, standing before her uncle with her hands
clasped about the belt of her black dress and looking up and down
the lawn--"that will suit me perfectly!"

Henry James