Isabel Archer, Henry James, and the French Revolution: Echoes of the 1780s?

Rachel_Gurney_by_George_Frederick_Watts_1885
This Christmas holiday, I am enjoying Henry James, Portrait of a Lady (1881), published just short of a century after the Taking of the Bastille. Reading the exchange below, between the aged Mr. Touchett and his young niece Isabel Archer–who has recently arrived in the UK from their native United States–I found it quite fascinating to hear echoes of old regime aristocrats voiced by nineteenth-century expats in England. I do not quite understand the politics of this passage, however. Are there any English history or literature experts out there who could explain it?

[The two characters are taking tea in the gardens of Mr. Touchett’s estate Gardencourt where they are discussing Lord Warburton, a dashing, young, and yet somehow unhappy neighboring gentleman.]

The old man: “[Lord Warburton] always amuses me when he comes over, and I think he amuses himself as well. There’s a considerable number like him, round in society; they’re very fashionable just now. I don’t know what they’re trying to do—whether they’re trying to get up a revolution. I hope at any rate they’ll put it off till after I’m gone. You see they want to disestablish everything; but I’m a pretty big landowner here, and I don’t want to be disestablished. I wouldn’t have come over if I had thought they were going to behave like that,” Mr. Touchett went on with expanding hilarity. “I came over because I thought England was a safe country. I call it a regular fraud if they are going to introduce any considerable changes; they’ll be a large number disappointed in that case.”

“Oh, I do hope they’ll make a revolution!” Isabel exclaimed. “I should delight in seeing a revolution.”

“Let me see,” said her uncle, with a humorous intention: “I forget whether you’re on the side of the old or on the side of the new. I’ve heard you take such opposite views.”

“I’m on the side of both. I guess I’m a little on the side of everything. In a revolution—after it was well begun—I think I should be a high, proud loyalist. One sympathises more with them, and they’ve a chance to behave so exquisitely. I mean so picturesquely.”

“I’m afraid, after all, you won’t have the pleasure of going gracefully to the guillotine here just now,” Mr. Touchett went on. “If you want to see a big outbreak you must pay us a long visit. You see, when you come to the point it wouldn’t suit them to be taken at their word.”

“Of whom are you speaking?”

“Well, I mean Lord Warburton and his friends—the radicals of the upper class. Of course I only know the way it strikes me. They talk about the changes, but I don’t think they quite realize. You and I, you know, we know what it is to have lived under democratic institutions: I always thought them very comfortable, but I was used to them from the first. And then I ain’t a lord; you’re a lady, my dear, but I ain’t a lord. Now over here I don’t think it quite comes home to them. It’s a matter of every day and every hour, and I don’t think many of them would find it as pleasant as what they’ve got. Of course if they want to try, it’s their own business; but I expect they won’t try very hard.”

“Don’t you think they’re sincere?” Isabel asked.

“Well, they want to feel earnest,” Mr. Touchett allowed; “but it seems as if they took it out in theories mostly. Their radical views are a kind of amusement. … these progressive ideas are about their biggest luxury. They make them feel moral and yet don’t damage their position.”

–Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady, ed. Nicola Bradbury (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 91-92.

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