The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, adapted by Rachel Joyce

Contact Us

BBC Radio 4, 13-27 July 2008
This version made ingenious use of the radio medium to transform James’s novel into a power-struggle for Isabel Archer’s (Anna Maxwell Martin’s) soul. It was divided into three episodes – the first of these (‘Innocence’) ended at the point where Isabel leaves London and travels abroad. Throughout this episode, the listener’s judgment was shaped by the narrator (William Hope), who not only told the story but offered a running commentary on the characters’ behavior. In structural terms, Joyce had tried to reproduce as far as possible the novel’s original structure; but on radio it seemed as if the narrator was perpetually seeking to speak on Isabel’s behalf, in the belief that this was the only way to reaffirm his position at the center of the action. This was especially evident in the scene where Isabel rejected Lord Warburton’s (Robert Bathurst’s) proposal. She delivered her line “I adore a moat […] Good-bye (PL 240), but the final word was lost as the narrator rather excitedly commented on the preceding action: “What view of life, what design upon fate, what conception of happiness, had she that pretended to be larger than these large, fabulous occasions?” (240).[i] He was more than ready to pronounce judgment on her, calling her “a cold, hard, priggish person,” with the stress placed on the three adjectives, emphasizing his disgust (241).
For her part, Isabel endeavored to make sense of her environment without being unduly influenced by her immediate circle of acquaintances. She informed Warburton in no uncertain terms that she did not want to marry, as that would mean “giving up other chances” (254), even if she realized at the same time that she could not escape unhappiness. As she delivered this line, a piano could be heard in the background playing a mournful tune, suggesting that Isabel knew her fate in advance – in spite of her best efforts, someone would exploit her. That someone turned out to be Madame Merle (Gayle Hunnicutt), a soft-talking schemer who befriended Isabel immediately. Merle’s intentions were disclosed in an aside: “How very delicious! After she has done that [withdrawn money] two or three times she’ll get used to it” (306). This represents a significant change from the novel, which has Merle delivering the line with “a quite benignant smile” to Mrs. Touchett.
Like the listener, the narrator was perfectly aware of Merle’s purpose; he commented sourly in another aside that Isabel had “given to a complete stranger the key to her cabinet of jewels” (291). Such bitterness, however, was caused by self-interest: Madame Merle had removed Isabel from the narrator’s control.
The second episode “Deceit” focused on Isabel’s sterile marriage to Osmond (Colin Stinton) and ended with Warburton expressing a wish to marry Pansy (Penelope Rawlins). The word “deceit” referred not only to Osmond’s and Merle’s schemes but also defined the narrator’s attitude; he resented the fact that Isabel had in a sense deceived him by escaping his authority and contracting a loveless marriage, while treating Ralph Touchett (Paul Venables) as her confidante. His description of Isabel walking with Ralph in the Cascine reflected his state of mind: “Isabel, when she strolled […] with her lover, felt no impulse to tell him how little he was approved at Palazzo Crescentini. The discreet opposition offered to her marriage by her aunt and her cousin, made on the whole no great impression upon her; the moral of it was simply that they disliked Gilbert Osmond” (398). The narrator spat the word “lover” out, followed by heavy stresses on the words “opposition” and “disliked.” Clearly he resented the fact that Isabel had chosen to ignore his advice.
The parallels between the narrator and Osmond were repeatedly emphasized through a similarity of delivery; both of them took pleasure in making cutting observations. Thus the narrator remarked with heavy irony that Osmond was “immensely pleased” with his young lady (i.e. Isabel) (399), while Osmond himself remarked that Rosier (Nyasha Hatendi) was nothing more than a “donkey […] with his eternal majolica” (414).
Confronted with two such powerful figures of male authority, Isabel found that silence was the most effective weapon. As Osmond told her with heavy irony that “the fame of your Thursdays [at home] has spread to England” (418), Isabel did not reply for a few moments, then turned away from the microphone and observed sotto voce to Warburton that she was flattered to see him. This was significantly different from the novel, where Isabel responds directly to her husband: “It’s very nice of Lord Warburton to come so soon; we’re greatly flattered” (419). Joyce’s adaptation showed her refusing to respond to her husband’s taunts and thereby remaining true to her wish (expressed earlier on) of not “giving up other chances” of future happiness.
The final episode “Truth” witnessed a significant shift in the narrator’s tone, as he made strenuous efforts to understand Isabel’s motives: “There were days when the world looked black and she asked herself what she was pretending to live for. But if she had troubles, she must keep them to herself” (432-3 slightly adapted). This created confusion in the listener’s mind: were such sentiments genuine, or was the narrator employing another stratagem to bring Isabel back under his control? The answer was definitely no; following the climactic conflict between Osmond and Isabel, where he accuses her of conniving against him (ch. 46), the narrator became even more sympathetic as he understood the futility of Osmond’s efforts to dominate her: “He was too strange, too different; he didn’t touch her” (486). This was delivered as a crescendo, with long pauses between each phrase: the line “he didn’t touch her” sounded like a shout of triumph. Isabel had emerged victorious; now she had to compunction about returning to Gardencourt – against her husband’s express wishes – to be with the dying Ralph.
As Ralph passed away, he told her that “if you’ve been hated you’ve also been loved. Ah, but, Isabel, adored!” (550) This was once again accompanied by the elegiac piano melody heard in the first episode. It was a sad, yet oddly satisfying moment: Isabel had lost the only man who really loved her (hence the music) but she had also acquired self-knowledge. At last she knew that she could be adored for what she was, not for what her numerous male admirers expected her to be. The narrator acknowledged this in an aside - “She was not afraid, she was only sure” (550) – taking a long pause in between the last two words. She might choose to go back to her husband and refuse Caspar Goodwood’s (Corey Johnson’s) offer, but from now on her marriage would proceed on her own terms, regardless of Osmond’s wishes. Henrietta Stackpole (Laurel Lefkow) offered sound advice to Goodwood (and to anyone else seeking to control Isabel) in a newly-created line – it was time to “let her go.”
This Portrait offered a feminist view of the novel similar to that put forward by Jane Campion in the 1996 film. What made it memorable was the way in which director Tracey Neale made ingenious use of the radio medium – drawing no distinction between the narrator and the other dramatis personae – to show how males manipulate words as instruments of power, and how women employ silence to frustrate them. This was one of the best radio productions of James I have ever heard; I hope that Neale and Rachel Joyce will have the chance to work on another one of his novels in the future.

[i] All references to the text of Portrait of a Lady from Henry James: Selected Novels and Stories (Feltham, Middx: Hamlyn Publishing, 1995).