The Portrait of a Lady

portraitHenry 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.

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12 Responses to The Portrait of a Lady

  1. Christopher Lord says:

    I love James (although I’ve never thought of him and Thomas Hardy in the same sentence), so try him again. If the sheer weight of the “Grand Style” of The Golden Bowl is too much, try something more approachable like What Maisie Knew or, better yet, The Spoils of Poynton or Washington Square. I thought that The Golden Bowl was the finest novel I’ve ever finished; The Ambassadors and Wings of the Dove being not far behind. But I tried to read The Golden Bowl again about five years ago and couldn’t get through it, possibly because I was too stressed in my work. But it yields its gifts finely, if slowly.

  2. litlove says:

    How interesting. I have struggled with James’ longer works, but I really enjoyed Washington Square and The Aspern Papers. I will have to try him again, too.

  3. Eva says:

    I just finished this one!

    I love James’ novels, but both of his novellas that I’ve read (the same ones as you) left me distinctly unimpressed. So I’m sticking with his long stuff from now on. :)

  4. Steph says:

    Oh, you found Turn of the Screw boring? I read it earlier this year and really enjoyed it! But different strokes, I suppose.

    I read this one ages ago when I was a highschool senior, and I really would like to revisit it. At times I’m surprised I was able to make my way through it because James’s prose is not for the faint of heart, I found, but I remember being really engrossed by the tale of Isabel, and it’s such a great look at relationships and downfall. One of these days I’ll approach it again! Glad you liked it!

  5. Jeane says:

    My mother really liked Henry James, but I’ve never been able to get through a single one of his books. I always thought the Turn of the Screw just looked so- creepy.

  6. Teresa says:

    Christopher: I’m definitely interested in reading more James. Thanks for all the recommendations! The Hardy comparison, btw, mostly has to do with prose style–the long paragraphs and fine attention to detail–as well as my emotional response to it. (Hardy is one of my top-five favorite authors.)

    litlove: Ok, that’s a second Washington Square recommendation. It’s definitely one I’m interested in.

    Eva: I’m so glad someone else had the same reaction to James’s short vs. long fiction. I hope you’re going to post a review of this one–I want to see what you thought!

    Steph: I know lots of people who liked Turn of the Screw, so I was as surprised by my reaction as you are. I’d attribute it to my mood at the time, except that I read it twice. I think maybe I was expecting a more melodramatic style, given the storyline.

    Jeane: James is definitely not to everyone’s taste. He’s wordy, and if Portrait is any indication, much of the action is in people’s heads. And I expected to love Turn of the Screw because I love creepy books, and it wasn’t creepy enough for me ;-)

  7. melinda says:

    I’ve never read any James, but if I ever do, I’ll know which to start with. Thanks!

  8. Sharone says:

    I have to admit I am a James lover-hater (visiting from the Classics Challenge). It seems that is the only way to be with James, because his writing can be amazing and agonizing at the same time. As far as The Golden Bowl, if you can get through the (painful) first half, I think the second half makes it worth it, because the way Maggie’s character unfolds is breathtaking (if, in true James fashion, unbelievably slow at times). Portrait of a Lady blows me away every time I read it, and I thoroughly enjoyed Washington Square and The Aspern Papers. Of course, I also liked The Turn of the Screw, so who knows? Perhaps you might like The Beast in the Jungle and The Jolly Corner, two of his more popular (long) short stories.

    Good luck :)

  9. Teresa says:

    Melinda: If you do read this, I hope you enjoy it. It seems most readers here have liked it.

    Sharone: Thanks for the suggestions! That’s three for Washington Square, so it’s a good candidate for my next James. As much as I loved Portrait, I get what you mean about how he can be agonzing. I have to be just in the right frame of mind to endure 2-page paragraphs.

  10. Lorin says:

    I never would have read this book – I have an unreasonable thing against classics, and its quite a chunkster – except that I was in Europe and at the whims of what English language books I could find. It was really charming to read about an American in Europe while I was one, too.

    Any plans to see the movie?

  11. Teresa says:

    Lorin: Ooh, I imagine that was a lovely experience. I’m not planning to see the movie. I haven’t heard good things about it, and it doesn’t seem like a story that would translate well to film. Have you seen it? Is it worth checking out?

  12. Lorin says:

    Nope, haven’t seen the movie and I haven’t heard that its worth seeing. Sometimes its interesting to see how books I like get interpreted on the screen, though.

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