Will she or won’t she? The intentions of Isabel Archer, heroine of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, are famously left vague at the close of the novel. All we know is that after the funeral, in England, of her cousin Ralph Touchett, the only man who has ever properly appreciated her, she plans on returning to Rome. Not for the sake of her husband, the odiously reptilian Gilbert Osmond, but on account of his daughter, Pansy, whom he has placed in a convent so as to separate her from an inconvenient suitor. By now Isabel has uncovered the secret of Pansy’s true origins, as the fruit of an illicit union between Osmond and the unscrupulous Madame Merle. The looming question in the book’s final chapters is what she means to do with the information, given that Madame Merle, adept at jumping to conclusions, has guessed exactly how much of her shame Isabel knows.
The exercise of extending or reconfiguring the elements of a narrative after it is officially over is both entertaining and critically illuminating. Thackeray, in Rebecca and Rowena, cleverly deconstructed the conclusion of Walter Scott’s