I argue that the heroines of a cogent quartet of Henry James’s novels, Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady, Tina Bordereau in The Aspern Papers, Fleda Vetch in The Spoils of Poynton, and Lady Grace in The Outcry, achieve a steadily increasing understanding and exercise of aesthetic autonomy and a proportionate ethical autonomy, by which they can free themselves progressively from the social and psychological imprisonment to which others’ objectification of them as the embodiments and custodians of beauty seeks to confine them. They achieve their aesthetic and ethical liberation ironically as they come to understand their suitors’ appreciation of their personal beauty and of their susceptibility to beauty as a means to possess, exploit, and control them. The female protagonists’ aesthetic ideas inform and foster their understanding and employment of ethical freedom in opposition to their antagonists of both sexes, most importantly Gilbert Osmond, Madame Merle, and Lord Warburton in The Portrait of a Lady, Juliana Bordereau and the unnamed lodger in The Aspern Papers, Adela Gereth in The Spoils of Poynton , and Lords Theign and John in The Outcry, for whom on the contrary aesthetic appreciation entails the acquisition, possession, and trading not only of beautiful art objects but also of beautiful women as if they were art objects. The four heroines, variously captured or threatened by such self-interested views of beauty and propriety, attain aesthetic and ethical autonomy by abjuring possessiveness as a motive in both aesthetic and ethical judgments and thus often forgoing both material possessions and romantic satisfactions. The four novels evolve different solutions to the same intractable aesthetic-ethical crux in terms of their heroines’ disinterestedness and their antagonists’ self-interest, with each succeeding heroine’s destiny a happier and more hopeful resolution of this conflict.
I argue that in The Portrait of a Lady Isabel Archer’s quest for aesthetic and ethical freedom involves her resolution of a fundamental dialectic between interest and disinterest as understood by both Kant and Said, who define interest as bias and prejudice in the service of self-centered and hegemonic ends. Isabel’s final return to Rome confirms her momentous and hazardous attainment of an aesthetic-ethical freedom that she achieves through a disinterested regard of the sexual, familial, cultural, social, political, psychological demands that press upon her. In opposition, Gilbert Osmond’s pursuit of valuable and beautiful art-objects and women such as Isabel, Pansy, and Mme. Merle as tradable assets epitomizes his hegemonic agenda, including his own economic and social power. The characters who achieve aesthetic-ethical freedom do so at the cost of ignoring or extinguishing their craving to possess beautiful things and beautiful people, which frees them morally and spiritually from those to whose possessiveness they remain socially and sexually vulnerable. In keeping with this view, James’s heroines, rather than any of their supposedly free male companions and suitors, embody Kant’s ideal of comprehensive human freedom, despite their subjection to the sexual and imperial designs of others on them.
I argue that The Aspern Paper takes up the question of aesthetic chastity in terms of the unnamed narrator’s pretended courtship of Tina when he was a lodger in her home, through which she finally achieves aesthetic-ethical freedom as a single woman. Like Isabel in The Portrait of a Lady, Tina at first does not appreciate her suitor’s self-interestedness, but then manages to establish her aesthetic-ethical autonomy by rendering her virginal spirit proof against its objectification and exploitation by the lodger, in a Kantian parable of freedom. Juliana’s jealous possession of Jeffrey Aspern’s papers and her imperious guardianship of Tina prompt a sustained exploration of Kantian and Saidian notions of interest and disinterest, in which Juliana’s machinations are generally comparable to Madame Merle’s. Kant’s idea of interest refers to bias in the formulation of aesthetic judgment, lacking the disinterest of a truly dispassionate judgment of beauty. Said’s notion of interest represents imperial prejudice. From these two complementary perspectives, Tina’s struggle to transform her presumed feminine interest in masculine sponsorship allows her finally to attain complete disinterestedness in relation to the sexual, familial, historical, and political forces that press on her. On the other hand, the lodger’s ardent pursuit of Aspern’s private papers, tokens of the poet’s aesthetic achievement, involves an imperial agenda to wrest control of them for his own interest as a man of letters and connoisseur of poetry.
The Spoils of Poynton takes up the matter of the aesthetic and ethical autonomy of a solitary and underprivileged but also educated and impressionable young English woman’s quest for beauty of a kind left unanswered by Tina’s predicament in The Aspern Papers. I argue that Fleda Vetch’s more and more assuredly disinterested appreciation of beauty endows her with an aesthetic-ethical freedom lacking in Mona and Mrs. Brigstock and Owen and Mrs. Gereth, all prisoners of their own self-interest, from which Fleda manages finally to wrest only Owen. Immanuel Kant’s opposition of interest to disinterest illuminates the disparate subjectivity of these characters just as Edward W. Said’s idea of interest illuminates their clashing possessive and hegemonic agendas, accounting for their aesthetic and ethical judgments in relation to every dimension of human experience, sexual, social, political, economic, historical, and cultural. Fleda’s final freedom is undiminished by the destruction of Poynton’s treasures and her renunciation of Poynton’s owner, Owen. Whereas Tina burns Aspern’s archive herself, Fleda has to rely on chance, if chance it is, to burn Poynton’s artefacts. The novel narrates a fight for possessions among the Gereths and Brigstocks and a fight against possession and possessiveness between Fleda and both families.
James applies his argument about women’s aesthetic and ethical freedom, echoing Kant and foreshadowing Said, to a financially embarrassed English aristocratic family in The Outcry. I argue that Lady Grace’s aesthetic regard for the paintings owned by her family reveals her kinship with the art objects as those around her reduce both her beauty and the paintings’ beauty to their capital value, given that her father, Lord Theign, looks to sell them to the highest bidders, Mr. Bender and Lord John, to pay off his debts. The conflict between Grace’s disinterest and autonomy and the interest and instrumentalism of the men coveting her and the paintings she loves intensifies when research assigns one of the paintings to the master Mantovano. Although Grace may be less vulnerable than Fleda, Tina, or Isabel, she remains to some degree a prisoner of aristocratic constraint and patriarchal restriction. Yet she escapes her presumed prison by affirming her sexual autonomy in the face of its monetization with the help of Hugh Crimble, who inspires her as no associate of Fleda, Tina, or Isabel inspires them, not even Ralph Touchett. Of course, Grace enjoys considerable aristocratic privilege as long as she accepts the constraints that pay for it, but she is willing to forgo them to give the Mantovano to the nation and give herself to a commoner who cannot treat her as an investment because their marriage will deprive her of any inheritance and grant her autonomy less precarious than Fleda’s or Tina’s.
In conclusion, I argue that although the four heroines are quite different characters ensconced in quite different narratives nevertheless all four become exponents of the virtues born of disinterestedness – integrity, chastity, generosity, magnanimity, and altruism – whereas their antagonists’ cultivation of their own interests or decision to serve others’ interests leads to egotism, viciousness, decadence and corruption of both private and public life. Driven by a sense of duty to dispense with most generous disinterest their favor on every beautiful person, act, object and experience they encounter, the heroines uphold and embody a Kantian cum Jamesian ideal of aesthetic and ethical action and anticipate Said’s geopolitical, postcolonial resituating of such an ideal. In this way, James’s stories of Isabel, Tina, Fleda and Lady Grace constitute a critique of the power of judgment of women that honors their Kantian and Saidian insight and courage.