In The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James utilizes architecture beyond conventional world building to symbolize the influence of art and the way that art can both express characters’ internal thoughts and feelings as well as mask them. During Isabel Archer’s travels to various European locations, she is hosted by a number of grand households that include Gardencourt (the Touchett family estate), Lockleigh (Lord Warburton’s castle), and Gilbert Osmond’s two unnamed homes (a Tuscan villa and a Roman castle). James’s descriptions of these buildings, which are works of art in their own right, always resemble their principal inhabitants to some degree. Gardencourt is a harmonious and peaceful place of rest; Mr. Touchett and Ralph Touchett are similarly calm and kindly figures. Lockleigh is a castle with a defensive moat that symbolizes Warburton’s fixed (or “locked”) pride in his noble heritage. Osmond’s Tuscan villa in Florence is dark and isolated, with great narrative attention devoted to the front of the building that mask the household behind it. Osmond is a similarly ominous character who deceives Isabel into marrying him. He also owns a Roman castle that is described as a grim fortress, which reflect Osmond’s attitude toward his marriage with Isabel—he curbs her ideas and restricts her behaviors.
In the novel, architecture also represents what kind of life lies in store for Isabel during her time in each household. The narrator describes Isabel’s family home in Albany, New York, as dull and dreary. This aesthetic shabbiness suggests that Isabel’s life has been mundane compared to the glamor and opportunity that Europe will offer her. On her first visit to Gardencourt, Isabel fits seamlessly with the household’s aesthetic as well as family, suggesting that Gardencourt will become a comfortable home for the protagonist. Lord Warburton’s splendid Lockleigh offers stability and protection, just like its owner, but Isabel interprets this as mundane and easy. Art directly influences her behavior for she begins to avoid Lockleigh and rejects Warburton’s marriage proposal. Finally, the ominous physical features of Osmond’s Florence and Roman homes reflect his deceptive and menacing character. Subsequently, Isabel suffers greatly under the limitations Osmond imposes on her after marriage.
Architecture Quotes in The Portrait of a Lady
The villa was a long, rather blank-looking structure […] [It’s] antique, solid, weather-worn, yet imposing front had a somewhat incommunicative character. It was the mask, not the face of the house. It had heavy lids, but no eyes; the house in reality looked another way—looked off behind, into splendid openness and the range of the afternoon light. […] The windows of the ground-floor, as you saw them from the piazza, were, in their noble proportions, extremely architectural; but their function seemed less to offer communication with the world than to defy the world to look in.
The object of Mr. Rosier’s well-regulated affection dwelt in a high house in the very heart of Rome; a dark and massive structure overlooking a sunny piazzetta in the neighbourhood of the Farnese Palace. In a palace, too, little Pansy lived—a palace by Roman measure, but a dungeon to poor Rosier’s apprehensive mind. It seemed to him of evil omen that the young lady he wished to marry, and whose fastidious father he doubted of his ability to conciliate, should be immured in a kind of domestic fortress […] he could see that the proportions of the windows and even the details of the cornice had quite the grand air.