Isabel Archer was a young person of many theories; her imagination wa_emarkably active. It had been her fortune to possess a finer mind than mos_f the persons among whom her lot was cast; to have a larger perception o_urrounding facts and to care for knowledge that was tinged with th_nfamiliar. It is true that among her contemporaries she passed for a youn_oman of extraordinary profundity; for these excellent people never withhel_heir admiration from a reach of intellect of which they themselves were no_onscious, and spoke of Isabel as a prodigy of learning, a creature reporte_o have read the classic authors —in translations. Her paternal aunt, Mrs.
Varian, once spread the rumour that Isabel was writing a book—Mrs. Varia_aving a reverence for books, and averred that the girl would distinguis_erself in print. Mrs. Varian thought highly of literature, for which sh_ntertained that esteem that is connected with a sense of privation. Her ow_arge house, remarkable for its assortment of mosaic tables and decorate_eilings, was unfurnished with a library, and in the way of printed volume_ontained nothing but half a dozen novels in paper on a shelf in the apartmen_f one of the Miss Varians. Practically, Mrs. Varian's acquaintance wit_iterature 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. He_endency, with this, was rather to keep the Interviewer out of the way of he_aughters; she was determined to bring them up properly, and they read nothin_t all. Her impression with regard to Isabel's labours was quite illusory; th_irl had never attempted to write a book and had no desire for the laurels o_uthorship. She had no talent for expression and too little of th_onsciousness of genius; she only had a general idea that people were righ_hen they treated her as if she were rather superior. Whether or no she wer_uperior, people were right in admiring her if they thought her so; for i_eemed to her often that her mind moved more quickly than theirs, and thi_ncouraged an impatience that might easily be confounded with superiority. I_ay be affirmed without delay that Isabel was probably very liable to the si_f self-esteem; she often surveyed with complacency the field of her ow_ature; she was in the habit of taking for granted, on scanty evidence, tha_he was right; she treated herself to occasions of homage. Meanwhile he_rrors and delusions were frequently such as a biographer interested i_reserving the dignity of his subject must shrink from specifying. He_houghts were a tangle of vague outlines which had never been corrected by th_udgement of people speaking with authority. In matters of opinion she had ha_er own way, and it had led her into a thousand ridiculous zigzags. At moment_he discovered she was grotesquely wrong, and then she treated herself to _eek of passionate humility. After this she held her head higher than eve_gain; for it was of no use, she had an unquenchable desire to think well o_erself. She had a theory that it was only under this provision life was wort_iving; that one should be one of the best, should be conscious of a fin_rganisation (she couldn't help knowing her organisation was fine), shoul_ove in a realm of light, of natural wisdom, of happy impulse, of inspiratio_racefully chronic. It was almost as unnecessary to cultivate doubt of one'_elf as to cultivate doubt of one's best friend: one should try to be one'_wn 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 man_ervices and played her a great many tricks. She spent half her time i_hinking of beauty and bravery and magnanimity; she had a fixed determinatio_o regard the world as a place of brightness, of free expansion, o_rresistible 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 ha_esented so strongly, after discovering them, her mere errors of feeling (th_iscovery always made her tremble as if she had escaped from a trap whic_ight have caught her and smothered her) that the chance of inflicting _ensible injury upon another person, presented only as a contingency, cause_er at moments to hold her breath. That always struck her as the worst thin_hat could happen to her. On the whole, reflectively, she was in n_ncertainty 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, t_e jealous, to be false, to be cruel; she had seen very little of the evil o_he 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 t_corn them. Of course the danger of a high spirit was the danger o_nconsistency—the danger of keeping up the flag after the place ha_urrendered; a sort of behaviour so crooked as to be almost a dishonour to th_lag. But Isabel, who knew little of the sorts of artillery to which youn_omen are exposed, flattered herself that such contradictions would never b_oted in her own conduct. Her life should always be in harmony with the mos_leasing impression she should produce; she would be what she appeared, an_he would appear what she was. Sometimes she went so far as to wish that sh_ight find herself some day in a difficult position, so that she should hav_he pleasure of being as heroic as the occasion demanded. Altogether, with he_eagre knowledge, her inflated ideals, her confidence at once innocent an_ogmatic, her temper at once exacting and indulgent, her mixture of curiosit_nd fastidiousness, of vivacity and indifference, her desire to look very wel_nd 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 eage_nd personal creature of conditions: she would be an easy victim of scientifi_riticism if she were not intended to awaken on the reader's part an impuls_ore tender and more purely expectant.
It was one of her theories that Isabel Archer was very fortunate in bein_ndependent, and that she ought to make some very enlightened use of tha_tate. She never called it the state of solitude, much less of singleness; sh_hought such descriptions weak, and, besides, her sister Lily constantly urge_er to come and abide. She had a friend whose acquaintance she had mad_hortly before her father's death, who offered so high an example of usefu_ctivity that Isabel always thought of her as a model. Henrietta Stackpole ha_he advantage of an admired ability; she was thoroughly launched i_ournalism, and her letters to the Interviewer, from Washington, Newport, th_hite Mountains and other places, were universally quoted. Isabel pronounce_hem with confidence "ephemeral," but she esteemed the courage, energy an_ood-humour of the writer, who, without parents and without property, ha_dopted three of the children of an infirm and widowed sister and was payin_heir school-bills out of the proceeds of her literary labour. Henrietta wa_n the van of progress and had clear-cut views on most subjects; her cherishe_esire had long been to come to Europe and write a series of letters to th_nterviewer from the radical point of view—an enterprise the less difficult a_he knew perfectly in advance what her opinions would be and to how man_bjections most European institutions lay open. When she heard that Isabel wa_oming she wished to start at once; thinking, naturally, that it would b_elightful the two should travel together. She had been obliged, however, t_ostpone this enterprise. She thought Isabel a glorious creature, and ha_poken of her covertly in some of her letters, though she never mentioned th_act to her friend, who would not have taken pleasure in it and was not _egular student of the Interviewer. Henrietta, for Isabel, was chiefly a proo_hat a woman might suffice to herself and be happy. Her resources were of th_bvious kind; but even if one had not the journalistic talent and a genius fo_uessing, as Henrietta said, what the public was going to want, one was no_herefore to conclude that one had no vocation, no beneficent aptitude of an_ort, and resign one's self to being frivolous and hollow. Isabel was stoutl_etermined not to be hollow. If one should wait with the right patience on_ould find some happy work to one's hand. Of course, among her theories, thi_oung 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 muc_f it. From lapsing into eagerness on this point she earnestly prayed sh_ight 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 possibl_o be happy without the society of a more or less coarse-minded person o_nother sex. The girl's prayer was very sufficiently answered; something pur_nd proud that there was in her—something cold and dry an unappreciated suito_ith a taste for analysis might have called it—had hitherto kept her from an_reat vanity of conjecture on the article of possible husbands. Few of the me_he saw seemed worth a ruinous expenditure, and it made her smile to thin_hat one of them should present himself as an incentive to hope and a rewar_f patience. Deep in her soul—it was the deepest thing there—lay a belief tha_f a certain light should dawn she could give herself completely; but thi_mage, on the whole, was too formidable to be attractive. Isabel's thought_overed about it, but they seldom rested on it long; after a little it ende_n alarms. It often seemed to her that she thought too much about herself; yo_ould 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-lik_uality, a suggestion of perfume and murmuring boughs, of shady bowers an_engthening vistas, which made her feel that introspection was, after all, a_xercise in the open air, and that a visit to the recesses of one's spirit wa_armless when one returned from it with a lapful of roses. But she was ofte_eminded that there were other gardens in the world than those of he_emarkable soul, and that there were moreover a great many places which wer_ot gardens at all—only dusky pestiferous tracts, planted thick with uglines_nd misery. In the current of that repaid curiosity on which she had latel_een floating, which had conveyed her to this beautiful old England and migh_arry her much further still, she often checked herself with the thought o_he thousands of people who were less happy than herself—a thought which fo_he moment made her fine, full consciousness appear a kind of immodesty. Wha_hould one do with the misery of the world in a scheme of the agreeable fo_ne's self? It must be confessed that this question never held her long. Sh_as too young, too impatient to live, too unacquainted with pain. She alway_eturned to her theory that a young woman whom after all every one though_lever should begin by getting a general impression of life. This impressio_as necessary to prevent mistakes, and after it should be secured she migh_ake the unfortunate condition of others a subject of special attention.
England was a revelation to her, and she found herself as diverted as a chil_t a pantomime. In her infantine excursions to Europe she had seen only th_ontinent, and seen it from the nursery window; Paris, not London, was he_ather's Mecca, and into many of his interests there his children ha_aturally not entered. The images of that time moreover had grown faint an_emote, and the old-world quality in everything that she now saw had all th_harm of strangeness. Her uncle's house seemed a picture made real; n_efinement of the agreeable was lost upon Isabel; the rich perfection o_ardencourt at once revealed a world and gratified a need. The large, lo_ooms, with brown ceilings and dusky corners, the deep embrasures and curiou_asements, the quiet light on dark, polished panels, the deep greennes_utside, that seemed always peeping in, the sense of well-ordered privacy i_he 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 al_riction dropped out of contact and all shrillness out of talk—these thing_ere much to the taste of our young lady, whose taste played a considerabl_art in her emotions. She formed a fast friendship with her uncle, and ofte_at by his chair when he had had it moved out to the lawn. He passed hours i_he open air, sitting with folded hands like a placid, homely household god, _od of service, who had done his work and received his wages and was trying t_row used to weeks and months made up only of off-days. Isabel amused him mor_han she suspected—the effect she produced upon people was often differen_rom what she supposed—and he frequently gave himself the pleasure of makin_er chatter. It was by this term that he qualified her conversation, which ha_uch of the "point" observable in that of the young ladies of her country, t_hom the ear of the world is more directly presented than to their sisters i_ther lands. Like the mass of American girls Isabel had been encouraged t_xpress herself; her remarks had been attended to; she had been expected t_ave emotions and opinions. Many of her opinions had doubtless but a slende_alue, many of her emotions passed away in the utterance; but they had left _race in giving her the habit of seeming at least to feel and think, and i_mparting moreover to her words when she was really moved that promp_ividness 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 i_er 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 wit_rs. 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 lik_rs. 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 th_ound of flowing water. He wanted to do something for her and wished she woul_sk it of him. She would ask nothing but questions; it is true that of thes_he asked a quantity. Her uncle had a great fund of answers, though he_ressure sometimes came in forms that puzzled him. She questioned hi_mmensely about England, about the British constitution, the Englis_haracter, the state of politics, the manners and customs of the royal family,
the peculiarities of the aristocracy, the way of living and thinking of hi_eighbours; and in begging to be enlightened on these points she usuall_nquired whether they corresponded with the descriptions in the books. The ol_an always looked at her a little with his fine dry smile while he smoothe_own the shawl spread across his legs.
"The books?" he once said; "well, I don't know much about the books. You mus_sk Ralph about that. I've always ascertained for myself—got my information i_he natural form. I never asked many questions even; I just kept quiet an_ook notice. Of course I've had very good opportunities—better than what _oung lady would naturally have. I'm of an inquisitive disposition, though yo_ightn't think it if you were to watch me: however much you might watch me _hould be watching you more. I've been watching these people for upwards o_hirty-five years, and I don't hesitate to say that I've acquired considerabl_nformation. It's a very fine country on the whole—finer perhaps than what w_ive it credit for on the other side. Several improvements I should like t_ee introduced; but the necessity of them doesn't seem to be generally felt a_et. When the necessity of a thing is generally felt they usually manage t_ccomplish it; but they seem to feel pretty comfortable about waiting til_hen. I certainly feel more at home among them than I expected to when I firs_ame 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. The_ike American young ladies very much over here; they show them a great deal o_indness. 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 i_ociety? They won't rob me nor beat me; but will they make themselve_greeable 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 hav_ great deal but I don't suppose they're very accurate. We once had a lady wh_rote 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 o_erson you could depend on for evidence. Too free a fancy—I suppose that wa_t. She afterwards published a work of fiction in which she was understood t_ave given a representation— something in the nature of a caricature, as yo_ight say—of my unworthy self. I didn't read it, but Ralph just handed me th_ook with the principal passages marked. It was understood to be a descriptio_f my conversation; American peculiarities, nasal twang, Yankee notions, star_nd stripes. Well, it was not at all accurate; she couldn't have listened ver_ttentively. I had no objection to her giving a report of my conversation, i_he liked but I didn't like the idea that she hadn't taken the trouble t_isten 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 _on'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 sho_ou that they're not always accurate. Of course, as I've no daughters, and a_rs. Touchett resides in Florence, I haven't had much chance to notice abou_he young ladies. It sometimes appears as if the young women in the lowe_lass were not very well treated; but I guess their position is better in th_pper and even to some extent in the middle."
"Gracious," Isabel exclaimed; "how many classes have they? About fifty, _uppose."
"Well, I don't know that I ever counted them. I never took much notice of th_lasses. That's the advantage of being an American here; you don't belong t_ny 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 _on'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 takin_ompliments seemed sometimes rather dry; she got rid of them as rapidly a_ossible. But as regards this she was sometimes misjudged; she was though_nsensible to them, whereas in fact she was simply unwilling to show ho_nfinitely they pleased her. To show that was to show too much. "I'm sure th_nglish are very conventional," she added.
"They've got everything pretty well fixed," Mr. Touchett admitted. "It's al_ettled beforehand—they don't leave it to the last moment."
"I don't like to have everything settled beforehand," said the girl. "I lik_ore unexpectedness."
Her uncle seemed amused at her distinctness of preference. "Well, it's settle_eforehand that you'll have great success," he rejoined. "I suppose you'l_ike that."
"I shall not have success if they're too stupidly conventional. I'm not in th_east stupidly conventional. I'm just the contrary. That's what they won'_ike."
"No, no, you're all wrong," said the old man. "You can't tell what they'l_ike. They're very inconsistent; that's their principal interest."
"Ah well," said Isabel, standing before her uncle with her hands clasped abou_he belt of her black dress and looking up and down the lawn—"that will sui_e perfectly!"