Henry James is one of a handful of Victorian authors that I’ve never been able to get along with. How can I possibly become attached to a writer who makes a story of a governess, creepy children, ghosts, and paranoia as boring as Turn of the Screw? And Daisy Miller made no impression on me at all. But I’ve always felt that I should like James. I’m a sucker for Victorian novels, and I loved the film adaptations of Washington Square and Wings of the Dove. So I decided to give James another chance, this time with his 1881 novel The Portrait of a Lady. I’m so glad I did. This novel blew me away, made me cry, and left me slightly shattered. I loved it in the way I love a good Thomas Hardy or E.M. Forster novel. And if you know my tastes well, you’ll know that is extraordinary praise.
The lady in the novel’s title is Isabel Archer, a young American woman who, after her father’s death, is brought by her aunt to England. Before long, Isabel is pursued by multiple suitors, but she refuses to let herself get caught. She prizes her independence too much, telling one long-time suitor, “I don’t wish to be a mere sheep in the flock; I wish to choose my fate and know something of human affairs beyond what other people think it compatible with propriety to tell me.” But there’s also something of fear in her reticence—fear of intimacy or fear of disappointment in intimacy:
She often wondered indeed if she ever had been, or ever could be, intimate with any one. She had an ideal of friendship as well as of several other sentiments, which it failed to seem to her in this case—it had not seemed to her in other cases—that the actual completely expressed. But she often reminded herself that there were essential reasons why one’s ideal could never become concrete. It was a thing to believe in, not to see—a matter of faith, not of experience. Experience, however, might supply us with very creditable imitations of it, and the part of wisdom was to make the very best of these.
For most of the book, there is no great drama. People meet, they converse, they ponder the significance of their conversations. They travel Europe, meet new people, ponder the new relationships, and so on. The paragraphs are long, and the descriptions finely detailed. It’s almost all character development and very little plot. The last half of the book, however, is filled with heartbreak and even a bit of intrigue. It is here that we see Isabel choose between her ideals and the “creditable imitation,” and we see the consequences of her choice.
The Portrait of a Lady paints a sometimes grim picture of human relationships, both romantic relationships and those among friends and family, but there’s also reason for hope. In Isabel’s life, there are people who want her only as a prize, a portrait that they can hang on the wall and keep under their control. But there are other people who insist on giving Isabel the freedom she wants. So the question becomes, Which is which? When friends give advice, are they trying to control Isabel’s fate, or are they speaking out of loving concern? And if a relationship proves to be toxic, does the preservation of one’s spirit trump loyalty to a loved one? And can love even exist in such a circumstance?
There’s a reason some books are classics. They address questions that won’t go away as long as there are people on the planet. The Portrait of a Lady is one of those books. Henry James has won me over at last.