restricted access How Rich Was Isabel Archer?
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How Rich Was Isabel Archer?

When, early in The Portrait of a Lady, Lydia Touchett tells Madame Merle about Isabel’s legacy, she is not entirely candid. She discloses that “Isabel steps into something like seventy thousand pounds” but does not reveal how much her husband has left to various third cousins, Ralph, or herself (180–81). Only after Madame Merle cynically exclaims at the size of Isabel’s new fortune—a self-betrayal that she tries to undo (181)—does Mrs. Touchett reveal additional facts: that Isabel’s money is “to remain in the affairs of the bank, and she’s to draw the interest,” and that Ralph will not object to this bequest, his own share in the estate having been cut down “at his wish.”

Lydia Touchett’s partial disclosures and suppressions reflect the narrator’s own elision of a number of financial, economic, and legal details necessary for a secure view of Isabel’s situation. Isabel’s inheritance evidently makes her rich—but how rich? Where on the scale of income in 1873 does Isabel’s capital of £70,000 place her? She has received the same amount as Ralph, and his mother tells Madame Merle: “Ralph . . . has Gardencourt; but I’m not sure that he’ll have means to keep up the place” (180). Is Isabel just well-to-do, or something more?

Isabel’s entire legacy is substantially less than Lord Warburton’s yearly income of £100,000 (72). In England and Wales in 1865–66 there were 7,500 incomes over £5,000 a year—“very substantial wealth in those days” (Hobsbawm 156). There were 42,000 incomes of £1,000 to £5,000 attained by merchants, bankers, ship owners, factory and mine owners, and the greater part of the doctors, solicitors, barristers, architects, and civil engineers counted in 1871 (156–57). In what follows, I shall estimate how luxuriously a young woman of Isabel’s means could have lived in England and especially in Italy during the 1870s. I shall also attempt to fix the degree of control Isabel would have had over her wealth, given her legal status as Osmond’s wife.

In the fictive world of the Portrait, Henrietta Stackpole and Ralph Touchett believe that Isabel is financially independent (469, 479). The Jamesian narrator, moreover, shows Isabel and Osmond living in Rome in very high style (chapters 36–37). [End Page 81] Both Henrietta and Caspar Goodwood believe that Isabel can leave Osmond without legal or financial difficulty; both urge her to seize her freedom (469, 488–89); both appear to assume that Isabel has secure possession of her legacy.

Is this depiction faithful to the world of the 1870s, faithful to “the way things happen,” as James put it in the preface to The American—“realistic” in James’s sense—(“Preface to The American” 34; FW 1065)? If Isabel’s legacy would not have made her extremely rich in the world of the 1870s, if in that world she could not have left Osmond without losing her financial independence, then James’s treatment of her, by his own definition, is romantic—“the way things don’t happen [being] artfully made to pass for the way things do.” But if James did not make Isabel look more independent than she really could have been, we must look for other considerations to explain his occultation of financial and legal details.

Daniel Touchett’s will does not permit Isabel to touch the principal of her legacy (181). By merely drawing the “interest,” as Mrs. Touchett puts it, could a couple with a marriageable daughter have lived opulently at Rome in the 1870s? The answer in part depends on what Lydia Touchett means by “interest.” If we take her to mean what we ordinarily mean today by “interest,” then her terminology is strange. It implies that Isabel is a lender to the bank. Presumably, however, Isabel is not a creditor, but a part-owner of the bank: Daniel Touchett has bequeathed to her a share in his bank, in which he had gained “preponderant control” (43). A number of senses of “interest” were current in England during the 1870s and...