According to Anthony Lane regarding rereading Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
What I browsed, back then, seemed a serene, rather aristocratic affair, strewn with bright, overtalkative folk who could switch countries at will; one bad marriage didn’t make it any the less romantic. What I discover now feels funnier, still sharp with the Jane Austen-like tartness of its predecessor, “Washington Square,” but it’s more than that. It’s a horror story.
The first critic to notice this, and to lend it adequate stress, was, of all people, Ezra Pound. In a brief essay from 1918, he wrote, “What I have not heard is any word of the major James, of the hater of tyranny; book after early book against oppression, against all the sordid petty personal crushing oppression, the domination of modern life.” In a footnote, he added, of James, “What he fights is ‘influence,’ the impinging of family pressure, the impinging of one personality upon another.” We think of Osmond, the supreme impinger, all the more cruel in his confinement of Isabel’s spirit because she gave herself to him, rather than to his rivals, in a defining flourish of her liberation. That, it turns out, is precisely what rouses his contempt. “One ought to make one’s life a work of art,” he tells Isabel, sounding like a warmup act for Oscar Wilde; any hint of aesthetic levity, however, vanishes after the marriage, once she realizes that he is an anti-Pygmalion, quenching her vital fire and nailing her into place like a statue. Osmond did not fall in love with our heroine; what he loved was “the idea of taking to himself a young lady who had qualified herself to figure in his collection of choice objects.” That is what monsters do, especially the polite and patient ones: they harvest souls. Hand them a human in full bloom, and what they give back to you, after a few seasons, is a pressed flower.