Portrait of a Lady, The, Level 3, Penguin Readers

ISBN: 058241783X
ISBN 13: 9780582417830
By: Henry James

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About this book

Isabel Archer has been brought to England from Albany, New York, by her Aunt Touchett to extend her education, possibly to marry well.Isabel, proud and independent, has other ideas. She has no desire to marry and wishes to create her own future, rather than finding it as a wife. Consequently she refuses two very eligible suitors: Lord Warburton and Caspar Goodwood, who has followed her to Europe from America. When her uncle Lord Touchett dies, leaving Isabel a fortune, he unwittingly does her a great disservice, for on a visit to Italy she is introduced by Madame Merle to Gilbert Osmond. Osmond is a charming but worthless dilettante who sees Isabel as a beautiful prize, a mother for his daughter Pansy, and a source of easily attained wealth. From his cruel cynicism comes Isabel's tragic disillusionment. In his exquisitely crafted and deeply ironic novel, Henry James depicts the heart and soul of a young woman whose destiny is taken from her own hands.

Reader's Thoughts

David

My dear, dear Isabel, I wish you well,But into a dang'rous trap you fell!What choice in husbands you have made,But you were played! Then prayed, and stayed.My dear, I pity your misfortune, really,But I think a divorce would be, ideally,How you'd deal with such a grave mistake,With all your heart and purse at stake.But, Author James, king of discretion,Made you a martyr for convention.To two proposals you said "no, sir"But with Osmond you felt closer,And said (alas, miss) "yes, sir!"But found he's love's transgressor."No" to Goodwood, American beau,And Again, Warburton: said "no."Two young men who off'red rings,Without grabbing at purse strings.Madame Merle who played the devilAnd deceived you head, so level.And for her Pansy, bastard daughter,She gave you up for spirit slaughter.And your independence you gave upFor a man's affection purely made-up,How took advantage of senses-betterTo strap you, Isabel, with fetters.Corruption is the price of money,That vile gild is bitter honey,Which Ralph gave to spirits-liftBut 'twas a burdening gift.Or perhaps it is the Eur'pean airWhich rusted your innocence, so fair.

Mike Puma

Exquisite, cozy, at times funny, at times sad, and unforgettable. I won’t bore readers with another summary of the story; they’re abundant on this site. I will say that with Isabel Archer, James earns his place in the canon with a proto-feminist (yes, I said it, proto-feminist) novel of a remarkable, if hard to describe heroine, who is faithful to her idea(l)s, rejects the affections of strong (but good) men, and suffers unnecessarily at the hands of a Machiavellian cad and an equally manipulative woman. If you don’t like long novels—avoid this one like a plague. If you don’t like novels written in style from another era, get thee hence! If wordy, complicated sentences are anathema to you, you’ve probably already stopped reading this mini-review.If I were to advise a reader at all, I’d suggest reading it in as short a period as you can. Bite the bullet, finish it off keeping as much in mind as you can. I’d also advise reading it on a Kindle (for the built-in dictionary) or, at the very least, keep a dictionary at hand. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have; and if you don’t—if you read the wrong book for you (this one), please, please, don’t say James is an idiot (or some equivalent) or that the book is just boring (or some equivalent)—instead, face the fact, you read the wrong book.

Adam

Honestly? Isabel Archer isn't extraordinary at all. So I take this book as kind of a comedy about how a bunch of English pranksters messed with a bland American girl, pretending she was amazing to see what would happen, and then felt pretty bad about it when it turned out wrong. Which is actually pretty close to the real plot, too. The "honest simple faithful guy" found here was way too similar to the farmer guy in "Far From The Madding Crowd" to me, and I guess that's just a stock character. I don't really like this time period in literature at all. If you do you'll probably like it.

Martine

The Portrait of a Lady has to be my favourite of the fifteen or so Henry James books I've read. The crowning achievement of James' middle period, when he had honed his powers of observation to perfection but had not yet slipped into the long-winded obscurity that makes his later novels so hard to read, it is in my opinion one of the most perfect novels of the nineteenth century. Very little actually happens in it, but what little does happen is described so exquisitely that you hardly notice it's a whole lot of nothing spread out over 600+ pages. That's masterful story-telling for you.The Portrait of a Lady centres on Isabel Archer, a young, lively and intelligent American who is taken to Europe by her eccentric expatriate aunt. In Europe, she is courted by eligible bachelors who appreciate her independent-mindedness and wish to see where it will lead her, but for all their attentions, she ends up marrying a cold-hearted bastard who treats her like an ornament and all but breaks her spirit. The rest of the book revolves around the question whether Isabel will stay with her husband out of a sense of duty or live up to her old ideals of independence.As I said, there's not an awful lot of story here (the above paragraph is a near-complete summary of the plot), but James makes the most of it. With his powerful observations and descriptions and superb characterisation, he paints a vivid portrait of nineteenth-century womanhood and the institution of marriage, of love, loyalty and longing, of purity versus artificiality, of betrayal, of the differences between Americans and Europeans (a recurring theme in his oeuvre) and of major themes in life: duty, honour, commitment, freedom. Isabel Archer is a likeable heroine whose dreams are quite recognisable to the modern reader, so while James keeps his distance from her, analysing her as a case study rather than as a flesh-and-blood human being, the reader feels for her; it's quite torturous watching her go and make the mistakes which will ruin her life. Both Isabel's struggles and the other characters' are described in elegant but sharp and incisive prose. The result is a big book that is subtle yet dramatic, understated yet powerful, and that ranks among the best things James ever wrote.

Gwen

I went into this knowing literally NOTHING about the book or James' writing. This was one of those books where I'd fall asleep after twelve pages, drop it off of the bed and forget it existed for weeks at a time. The amount of months invested in this book eventually made it much more emotionally potent for me. I expected it to go in a stereotypical direction and it shocked me. The last few chapters went by in an excited blur and I cried, shocked, on the metro.

Mike Moore

I read this many years ago, and was deeply impressed by a couple of things: First, the focus on structure as a way to develop theme. I'm no formalist, but I found this novel a powerful argument that an author can convey as much through construction as through the actual storyline. There is a beauty in the symmetries of the narrative that brings his message into focus with great efficacy. Second, that message seemed to me (then and now) to be a kind of proto-existentialism. James' story of the struggle of personal identity and responsibility with the mores and expectations of an old order (where even rebellion has its expected and acceptable forms) seemed to speak with subtlety and sympathy to issues that other writers (Neitzche) were attacking with vehemence. I've been told that I may be reading too much into this, and that James is actually just talking about the social contrast between Europe and America. However, it seems to me that in tackling one, James is addressing the concerns of the other.

Megan Baxter

I just...I don't know. I have now read The Portrait of a Lady and I'm just feeling a little flat. Like I stubbed my toe on something invisible, and I'm not quite sure what. I'm not sure why this book didn't grab me, I only know it didn't. Note: The rest of this review has been withdrawn due to the recent changes in Goodreads policy and enforcement. You can read why I came to this decision here.In the meantime, you can read the entire review at Smorgasbook

Rakhi Dalal

"Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it." ----- G.B.Shaw With no offence to men at all, I quoted the above because of its relevance with this work by Henry James.Essentially written about the idea of freedom / liberty, its assertion and realization, in the wake of limits imposed by conventions or moral ideals, specifically in case of women, is at the heart of this work. A beautiful Portrait, a work of art. An art work not because the protagonist is looked upon as an object by other characters, but also because one can look upon the portrait, marvel at the depth of her character and contemplate what her final gesture meant. While Ralph, her cousin, is amused by her and helps her to inherit a fortune, if only to witness what the liberal woman would make of it, a reader looks upon her, empathetically. While Madam Merle orchestrates (arranges) her meeting with Osmond and make sure that she marries him, the reader is appalled at the apparent innocence on her face. While Osmond thinks of her as a material to work with, thereby decorating his house with her, the reader is apprehensive about her next step. While Mr. Goodwood never looses interest in her life and come back again and again to see how she is living, the reader is curiously stirred by mere thought of a passion. So everyone, including the reader, look upon her, judge her decisions and contemplate her steps. But this work by James is not mere that. It is a reflection upon the ideal of freedom and its execution in a woman’s life; an action, struggle and the consequent decisions taken, by choice. This is what James has achieved with this work; that liberty is not only an ideal but a responsibility too. Though the reader may not approve of her step at the end, keeping in mind the betrayal of trust brought about by Madam Merle and Osmond, but it is to kept in mind that her decision at the end is her own will too. A will which comes not merely from the limitations imposed but also from the vow to remain true to oneself. In Isabel’s case, it must be attributed to her choice to remain present in Pansy’s life. P.S.A star less because of the apparent infatuation of H.James with aristocracy; big houses, paintings, idle ways, travels and interestingly, no one seemed to be doing anything of importance whatsoever other than taking an interest in Isabel’s life.

Beth

I expected to like this more than I did. I found it needlessly long, occasionally pompous, and ultimately unsatisfying. Still, there's a lot of good stuff in here: the exciting independence of Isabel in the early chapters, her palpable misery in her marriage, the vivid and memorable secondary characters, and above all (for me, at least) the set pieces. James was always able to make me feel like I knew just what a room or garden looked and felt like -- though he also frequently made me feel as though I was observing it from behind a glass wall.I read somewhere that Edith Wharton was always striving to be as good a writer as Henry James; frankly, I think she's much better. Wharton's work is far more elegant, focused, economical, and empathetic. There were moments in this book when James convinced me that he understood what it's like to be a human, but for the most part his prose seemed strangely removed and difficult to penetrate -- and therefore kind of annoying. I got used to it, but I never fully warmed to it.It took me the entire month to get through this; on some days I avoided it like a chore, but on others I couldn't wait to curl up in bed with it. I'm glad to have read it, but I don't feel like I *needed* to have read it.

Clare Cannon

In this magnificent work James explores the types of human love and where they lead, including infatuation and the weakness of the heart—which can affect even the noblest of people—and the strength of character required to live with the consequences of one's choice. Isabel Archer is a joyful, spirited character who is required to mature through deep suffering, and who emerges with the quiet strength and dignity that comes with acceptance of one's responsibility. A wise book for every girl to read before she gets married, not to learn fear of that state, but to provoke deep thought about the meaning of love.For a warmer take on a similar story The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a wonderful read.

Renato Magalhães Rocha

Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady is considered to be one of the first American novels to make full use of social and psychological realism as European authors - such as Flaubert, Balzac and George Eliot - were already practicing in their works. Considered to be his biggest accomplishment along with The Ambassadors, Portrait added Isabel Archer to the company of great fictional heroines - as the likes of Elizabeth Bennet, Becky Sharp and Jane Eyre - and, in a century marked by unsatisfied bourgeois wives and adultery in fiction - Madame Bovary (see my review) and Anna Karenina come to mind -, it was a breath of fresh air to accompany and delve into James' protagonist's thoughts and inner feelings.Starting with a very slow pace, the narrative contains long and elaborate descriptions. It feels James is painting a richly detailed picture for every scene. As we arrive in Gardencourt - the Touchett's English country estate where our story opens and closes -, we encounter Mr. Touchett, his son Ralph and a family friend called Lord Warburton. Among other things, they discuss how Mrs. Lydia Touchett is in America and will bring along her niece called Isabel Archer to visit Europe.Isabel is a young woman, from Albany, New York, who accepts her aunt's offer to initially stay with her in Gardencourt and then later travel through the continent, eager to explore and be enriched by the places she's never been before and experience life at its fullest. Upon her arrival, we begin to learn what her ideals and plans are, along with her hopes and dreams.Since the beginning, her cousin Ralph seems to have been as curious as we were to see what Isabel would make of her life. In a way, we almost could say Ralph was conducting an experiment: Isabel had an independent mind, she was emotionally and psychologically self-sufficient - didn't seem inclined to get married for the time being, which was different for a girl of her age at the time. She was thirsty for knowledge first and foremost: “I don’t want to begin life by marrying”, Isabel asserts to Ralph. “There are other things a woman can do." But without money, how far could she go with her unattached ways? She was probably bound to eventually getting married. Her cousin, then, arranged it and she became financially independent as well. Certain that he was doing Isabel a good deed, Ralph convinced his father - who was very fond of Isabel - at his deathbed to leave her an impressive amount of money. Now she had all that was necessary to decide her destiny without any barriers or anyone to hold her back. The experiment was on.After traveling for over a year, the now wealthy Isabel Archer is in Florence, where her aunt lives. A friend she greatly admired, Madame Merle - Mrs. Touchett's close friend who Isabel got acquainted with some time after she arrived in Gardencourt - skillfully introduces her to Gilbert Osmond: an American expatriate widower who's lived in Italy for years. Isabel is very impressed with his refinement and intelligence and thinks of him as having a beautiful mind. Despite her family and friends complaints about this relationship, Isabel - after having declined two previous suitors - accepts Osmond's marriage proposal.The story then jumps in time and there's a narrative shift: for a bit, James leaves Isabel and Osmond in the background while he focuses on Pansy Osmond - Osmond's young daughter - and Edward Rosier - Isabel's childhood friend who's in love with Miss Osmond and is trying to get Madame Merle to help him marry his darling girl. Through their story, we still have glimpses of Isabel's life and we learn that she's been now married for two years and that she lost a son who died six months after his birth. Isabel and her husband seems to disagree about everything and we learn she's unhappy.Henry James, who once conducted a very slow paced - almost contemplative - narrative, gradually started to accelerate it, adding drama and a sense of urgency to his words. Right after an unsettling argument with Osmond one evening, Isabel, now feeling more distraught than ever, starts pondering and analyzing the many circumstances she finds herself in. The author immerses us in a deeply personal and intensely psychological account of her thoughts and emotions. Among the things Isabel reflected upon for a long time were the conclusion that her husband must hate her and the realization that Osmond had gained total control of her - the once independent and strong witted woman was now a subjugated spirit; the woman who once seemed to be against doing what was expected of her was now conforming to her husband's decisions. "When the clock struck four she got up; she was going to bed at last, for the lamp had long since gone out and the candles burned down to their sockets."Complicating things even further is the revelation Countess Gemini - Osmond's sister - makes to Isabel of a long time secret, that leaves her completely shaken. This only comes to deteriorate even more her relationship with Gilbert. Now, fully aware of the situation she was put in through manipulations and schemes, Isabel is faced with a big decision: her cousin Ralph is dying in Gardencourt and her dictatorial husband is completely against her visiting England. Showing the old Isabel may still be somewhere locked inside of herself, she confronts her husband and leaves to be with her cousin.The Portrait of a Lady, through its length, presents a number of opposites, but the most striking ones are the battles between freedom vs. destiny and affection vs. betrayal. In the book's final moments, we witness that Isabel is offered a way to go back to where and to whom she was when she first came to Europe: "The world's all before us - and the world's very big", she is told. She could once again explore life and fill herself with hopes - but declined the opportunity: "The world's very small", she answered. With a much talked about conclusion that has both fascinated and infuriated - another battle of opposites? - readers, James' ending remains open to a lot of interpretations.It's disturbing to watch an unhappily married woman with an opportunity to leave it all behind - and the means to do it - simply not choosing freedom. Did Osmond finally accomplish to shatter her spirit? Another theory is that maybe marriage was an unbreakable vow and she felt she had a moral duty to her husband. Or was she trying to be protective of Pansy - who was mirroring Isabel's unhappiness and was another example of a woman who seemed to think that she was obliged to follow other's decisions even if it made her unhappy - and determined to stand by her side and not let the same happen to her step daughter? Innumerable possibilities...James has been known for structuring his novels with a series of circles surrounding a center. With that in mind, a hopeful interpretation of the book's ending is that, in order to complete that circle, Isabel must return to her husband, properly end her marriage so she could once again be able to start anew and free her spirit once and for all.Rating: for such an interesting and comprehensive analysis of freedom, human consciousness and ultimately, existentialism: 4 stars.

Lydia Presley

This was my first Henry James novel. There's a huge part of me that wants to say it will be my last, but I don't think the other part of me that wants more will agree to that.This is a story about a young woman, Isabel Archer, who is taken under the wing of her Aunt Lydia after her father's death. She's brought to Europe, meets family she has never met before and becomes an item of fascination for young men around her. There's Ralph, her invalid cousin, there's Lord Warburton, a dashing young English lord. She's left behind Casper Goodwood in America, despite, I believe having rather strong feelings toward him. As the story progresses we are introduced to Madame Merle, Gilbert Osmond and his daughter, Pansy. With the exception of a few other characters I've neglected to mention, this book is, really, about every one of these characters.What I loved about the book is also what I disliked most about the book. The level of detail describing the emotions, the backgrounds and the expressions/thoughts of each character was so perfect and lengthy that it seriously put me in some agony to read. It wasn't an easy book to plow through (taking me a full five days of serious reading). But what made everything worthwhile to me was the ending - which surprised me. I'd read reviews where others stated that they hated the ending but for me.. it was perfect. I'm not a fan of Isabel. I found her self-centered, careless and immature. That's not to say I'm not without sympathy for her, I am. I felt sympathy for her as she experienced the consequences of her decisions. And I recognize that she was manipulated on all sides. But for such an "intelligent" woman, she was not as independent as I would have liked.Which takes me to Miss Henrietta Stackpole (one of those characters I neglected above) - I loved this character. I couldn't make up my mind on her until I finished the book, being both frustrated and fascinated by her. She was opinionated, independent and the woman I would hope I would have been during those times. Isabel's weaknesses showcased Henrietta Stackpole's strengths. I wanted to read more about her and was disappointed at how relatively little there was in the book (all things considering).I'm glad I chose this novel for my first. I do wish the first 90% of the book had held as much angst, passion and heartbreak as the last 10% of the book did, simply because I finally felt as if I was getting emotionally involved then. I'm proud of myself for sticking with it, and.. it goes to show again, that sometimes even if you are having difficulty getting yourself to sit down and focus on that book you just can't get into .. the ending may just surprise you and make it all worth while.

Paul

Ugh, ech, the elitism that breeds in readers! We think we're such nicey cosy bookworms and wouldn't harm a fly but we seethe, we do. Of course, readers of books just naturally look down on those who don't read at all. In fact they try not to think of those people (nine tenths of the human race I suppose, but a tenth of the human race is still a big number) because it makes them shudder. (How lovely it would be to go riding in a carriage through some dreadful council estate flinging free copies of Ulysses and Mrs Dalloway right and left (although Ulysses might catch some of those urchins a hefty blow on the temple (which might cause a shift in their brain landscape and evoke a sudden craving for modernist novels, like when people are struck by a bus and wake up talking in a French accent, that can happen))). So that's one obvious kind of reader elitism. But then, some readers think that what the majority of readers actually read is appalling (Hungervinciboneskitehelpslappery Twilit Shades of Pottery doo dah). It's not that you read, it's what you read. Of course. And then, amongst those elevated readers, some literary authors are considered greater than some others (why are you wasting your time with William Gaddis when you could be knee-deep in Proust, dwarling? I simply don't understand it). And then, even when you scale the heights and find yourself munching down some Henry James like he was the last well-done steak (with Chateau Lafleur) you were going to get before your solo trek (no huskies) to the south pole, you still get it - oh dwarling, why are you still dillydallying in the Middle Period when you still haven't read The Golden Bowl you naughty Jamesian you!Thus it is that I say - oh no, not The Portrait of a Lady. Too too obvious. Try The Awkward Age or The Ambassadors. Much better.

Natalia

Ugh.If I could describe this book in one word it would be "Laborious." If I were allowed more space, which apparently I am, I would go on to say that in addition to being deathly slow and horrifically boring it is also a little brilliant, a little impressive, and, if you have the patience to look for it, more than a little interesting. There's a LOT in here. James wanted this novel to be the antidote to the Jane Austen romance. He wanted to show life as it is- money as a burden, marriage as a trap, and people as egotistic, petty, manipulative, and kind.If I told you how disappointing the ending is, though, you wouldn't want to read it, so I won't mention that. If you have the patience, it's worth reading, but not unless you read it closely. I recommend a Norton Critical Edition.

Kelly

There isn't much I can say that hasn't already been said, but here's my 2 cents. James has a vast vocabulary and clearly went to extreme lengths to thoughtfully construct each sentence. As for the events of the novel, there are few highlights for the reader. Many of the major events are implied through narrative after the fact. Its my opinion that these methods are exactly what make "Portrait" so difficult to read. I can see why many reviews call this a novel for English majors and writers. If I had the ambition I would pick apart the narration in small pieces, like a daily devotional. For me, the dialogue moved the story along rather quickly and provided me with as much insight as the narrative. However, it was the tangled up bits of complex narration that got me caught up in the book. It wasn't that I was mesmerized by the story. Rather, it felt like I was in a fight with the verbosity of Henry James and I would be damned if I wasn't going to see it through to the end!I only recommend this for linguistic masochists.

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