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The Portrait of a Lady

Chapter 6
Isabel Archer was a young person of many theories; her imagination was
remarkably active. It had been her fortune to possess a finer mind than most of
the persons among whom her lot was cast; to have a larger perception of
surrounding facts and to care for knowledge that was tinged with the unfamiliar. It
is true that among her contemporaries she passed for a young woman of
extraordinary profundity; for these excellent people never withheld their
admiration from a reach of intellect of which they themselves were not conscious,
and spoke of Isabel as a prodigy of learning, a creature reported to have read the
classic authors --in translations. Her paternal aunt, Mrs. Varian, once spread the
rumour that Isabel was writing a book--Mrs. Varian having a reverence for books,
and averred that the girl would distinguish herself in print. Mrs. Varian thought
highly of literature, for which she entertained that esteem that is connected with a
sense of privation. Her own large house, remarkable for its assortment of mosaic
tables and decorated ceilings, was unfurnished with a library, and in the way of
printed volumes contained nothing but half a dozen novels in paper on a shelf in
the apartment of one of the Miss Varians. Practically, Mrs. Varian's acquaintance
with literature was confined to The New York Interviewer; as she very justly said,
after you had read the Interviewer you had lost all faith in culture. Her tendency,
with this, was rather to keep the Interviewer out of the way of her daughters; she
was determined to bring them up properly, and they read nothing at all. Her
impression with regard to Isabel's labours was quite illusory; the girl had never
attempted to write a book and had no desire for the laurels of authorship. She
had no talent for expression and too little of the consciousness of genius; she
only had a general idea that people were right when they treated her as if she
were rather superior. Whether or no she were superior, people were right in
admiring her if they thought her so; for it seemed to her often that her mind
moved more quickly than theirs, and this encouraged an impatience that might
easily be confounded with superiority. It may be affirmed without delay that Isabel
was probably very liable to the sin of self-esteem; she often surveyed with
complacency the field of her own nature; she was in the habit of taking for
granted, on scanty evidence, that she was right; she treated herself to occasions
of homage. Meanwhile her errors and delusions were frequently such as a
biographer interested in preserving the dignity of his subject must shrink from
specifying. Her thoughts were a tangle of vague outlines which had never been
corrected by the judgement of people speaking with authority. In matters of
opinion she had had her own way, and it had led her into a thousand ridiculous
zigzags. At moments she discovered she was grotesquely wrong, and then she
treated herself to a week of passionate humility. After this she held her head
higher than ever again; for it was of no use, she had an unquenchable desire to
think well of herself. She had a theory that it was only under this provision life
was worth living; that one should be one of the best, should be conscious of a
fine organisation (she couldn't help knowing her organisation was fine), should
move in a realm of light, of natural wisdom, of happy impulse, of inspiration