The Henry James Review 23.2 (2002) 196-217
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Queer Kinship in Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady
Dana Luciano, Hamilton College
If one aspires to play a pivotal role in a nineteenth-century novel, perhaps the best qualification that one can acquire is a mortal illness. This was self-evident throughout the century; it didn't take a Henry James to figure it out. Yet in the New York Edition preface to The Wings of the Dove, James defends the decision to make his heroine sick so defensively that one might imagine such a thing had never before been done. At the same time, he comforts himself by recalling that after all, such a thing had:
Why had one to look so straight in the face and so closely to cross-question the idea of making one's protagonist "sick?"—as if to be menaced with death or danger hadn't been, from time immemorial, for heroine or hero, the very shortest of all cuts to the interesting state. Why should a figure be disqualified for a central position by the particular circumstance that might most quicken, that might crown with a fine intensity, its liability to many accidents, its consciousness of all relations? (AN 289)
Illness is here seen as a boon to realist literature—if not to real life—because it does exactly what art should do: it takes the material of everyday living and puts an intriguing spin on it. James knows this, as he goes on to clarify, because he has done a decent job in the past with what he calls his "secondary physical weaklings and failures," most memorably Ralph Touchett from The Portrait of a Lady (AN 290). Ralph's job, as an "accessory invalid," was to help keep the novel running smoothly, and he acquitted himself admirably; James congratulates himself that he "had clearly been right in counting [Touchett's illness], for any happy effect he should produce, a positive good mark, a direct aid to pleasantness and vividness." Touchett's illness-inflected touchingness was, however, somehow at odds with his maleness, as James goes on to reflect: [End Page 196]
The reason of this moreover could never in the world have been his fact of sex; since men, among the mortally afflicted, suffer on the whole moreovertly and more grossly than women, and resist with a ruder, an inferior strategy. I had thus to take that anomaly for what it was worth [. . .].
If men make less appealing applicants for the position of literary invalid—because, aesthetically speaking, they simply don't do the dying thing well—then there is something less than manly about the accessory Touchett. 1 Yet in this situation, it appears, less is more.
It is precisely this narrative economy, whereby an invalid, anomalously-gendered "accessory" can be converted into the artistic successes of interest, intensity, and "happy effects," that I wish to consider in this essay. By reading the novel through the relations surrounding the "secondary" invalid Touchett, a figure present from the first chapter to the second-to-last, I mean to highlight some of the lightly-sketched but intensely present alternative genealogies of kinship, inheritance, identification, and longing that enliven and trouble its conventional marriage-plot. My focus on this invalid and his relationship to the young woman who is the ostensible subject of the novel may require some explanation, since Portrait is, after all, not about Ralph Touchett; indeed, despite the fondness with which James surveys his creation in the prefaces to Wings and to Portrait itself, Ralph Touchett receives scarcely a mention. Rather, James asserts that insofar as he dedicated himself to tracing, in the novel, the development of Isabel's consciousness, he attempted to decenter the masculine perspective, placing "the [male] interest contributive only to the greater one [i.e., Isabel's]" (AN 51). Yet understanding the effect of the "interest" that accrues from the relationship between the two characters is, I argue, crucial to grasping a sense of the "affront" Isabel Archer...