The Portrait of Madame Merle: George Sand, Gender, and the Jamesian Master
Bellonby, Diana Emery
Madame Merle is perhaps best known as The Portrait of a Lady’s secret mother, the principal source of mystery for both Isabel Archer and Henry James’s readers. I perceive her character through the lens of another woman’s mystery—through James’s career-long critical story of “the riddle” of “the greatest of all women of letters”: George Sand. Madame Sand’s “annexation” of masculinity inspired in James a series of reflections on gender and the mastery of fiction-writing. My two-part analytical portrait examines the intersection of these concerns in Madame Merle. In the essay’s first part, I chart the connective tissue between James’s critical writings about Sand and his characterization of the novel’s “great artist” (432). Focusing on questions of performativity, gender, and marriage, I address the analogously paradoxical positions into which James traps each woman. In the second part, I rely on Carolyn Dever’s Death and the Mother from Dickens to Freud: Victorian Fiction and the Anxiety of Origins (1998) to interpret Madame Merle’s diversely metaphorical role as the text’s secret mother. Madame Merle’s reproductive power and narrative death as chief artificer of Mrs. Isabel Osmond narrate James’s profound ambivalence about the gender of artistry. I argue that James figures his self-reflexive philosophy for achieving literary mastery, and the doubly gendered mandate of that achievement, in the battle between Osmond and Madame Merle over the authority to craft Isabel’s and Pansy’s characters.