This is an addendum to my previous entry:
Faded greatness seems so passe. It’s the standard trope for the decay in Edgar Allen Poe or the early Romantics, whether it be Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” or the physical decay of Frankenstein’s monster.
At one point in my life, I was a devoted enough reader of Louisa May Alcott to have read all her potboilers, in which young women go to Europe, get entangled with the young lord, only to find he’s a product of incest and that she herself now is part of the cycle of decay. Oh, wait — that was Poe’s “House of Usher.” Or was it Wuthering Heights?
You get my point. The Romantics love the sense of decay and whether it is a function of historical situation (like the Industrial Revolution replacing the countryside life) or more of the love of the macabre, everything seems to fall down. Henry James is considered a realist (thanks Wikipedia) or impressionist novelist, but anyone can tell you he is not a Victorian when they open his book and realize the characters don’t seem to have those funny Dickens names or satirical wunderkins a la Becky Sharp.
What I found important in The Portrait of a Lady was the legacy of decay. Although the novel does not have a metaphoric example of decay (I didn’t notice one, but I tend to be a bad reader), it relies on past decay to further the future. Italy is important to the setting because it allows the past to radiate its greatness. But the past is also stagnant (I almost want to insert some sort of comment about Italy’s modern politics, but another time, another time) and because everything dwells on remnants of what was, there can be no future. There is no evolution, good or bad. This world is all permeating. Paris, and almost everywhere else, is too fresh at this moment in time, too reactionary in its art to allow a character like Isabel to reach her final conclusion.
I had read the last page of the novel weeks before I reached it and yet I could deduce nothing. But when I finally reached it in sequence, there was that moment when I realized that Italy was not chosen as a setting because it allowed Isabel to be the great American lady. Rather its stagnation was the point of no return, a purgatory for the visionary, and Isabel was the Victorian stuck in a modern world.