It strikes me that one's experience of reading "Portrait of a Lady", which in my edition clocks in at 630 pages, is likely to be colored by one's previous experience with James, and the resulting predisposition. Since my unlikely conversion upon reading "The Ambassadors", I am quite favorably predisposed. Thus, when instead of telling us that "the three people enjoying tea on the lawn were all men", Henry instead delivers himself of this sentence:"The persons concerned in it (the tea party) were taking their pleasures quietly, and they were not of the sex which is supposed to furnish the regular votaries of the ceremony I have mentioned",I just smile to myself and think, "O, Henry!" (no, not that one, you know perfectly well what I mean).But this sentence, right there on the first page, is a good indication of what's to come. So you should either give yourself over and let Henry's orotund phrasing wash over you in all its florid glory, or if you don't have the patience for such verbosity, you should quit at once, because it's not going to be any different for the upcoming 600 pages.Me - right now, I've got the time, and I am happy to discover that I find James's style in this book (which, the cover informs me, is a masterpiece of his middle period ) much easier reading than that in "The Ambassadors". As he's still got the same fascination with the psychological nuances of his characters' interactions that got me hooked in "The Ambassadors", I think that I'm going to enjoy Isabel Archer's story. We'll see how it goes.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.Christopher H.
One of the most enthralling and enchanting novels that I've read in a long, long time. The Portrait of a Lady is early Henry James (written in 1881), and as cliche as it may sound, it is a veritable masterpiece. There is simply so much going on within the covers of this elegantly crafted and sophisticated novel that it will take me a while to sort out my swirling thoughts and emotions upon finishing it. Simply put though, this is the story of the young American woman, Isabel Archer, and her voyage of self-discovery among the staid and traditional landscape of British and European society. Isabel's ability to 'choose', and the 'choices' she makes are the thread that is carefully woven throughout the novel, and it raises her stature as a fictional heroine, in my opinion, to the level of that of an Anna Karenina or Dorothea Brooke. The novel's Chapter Forty-Two--with Isabel, by herself, sitting in the darkened room thinking for most of the night--is perhaps the greatest psychological tour-de-force I've encountered in fiction. I reread that chapter probably four times in a row, and simply marveled at the creative genius that is Henry James in writing this novel and creating the character of Isabel Archer. Stunning stuff!This is an immensely powerful and profound novel that I am going to reread again very soon. I want to reread it in conjunction with a reading of Michael Gorra's recent book, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, a runner-up for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for biography and autobiography. Give me a couple of weeks to reread The Portrait of a Lady and Gorra's book, and I'll be back in an effort to provide a more comprehensive review that will do justice to what just may be the 'Great American Novel'.Chrissie
I listened to the audiobook version narrated by actor John Wood. This is the 1881 edition, not the later one from 1906, which is known as the "New York Edition". Unfortunately, the later edition, which many claim has a better ending, was not available anywhere as an audiobook. While reading this I have been discussing it with first Simran (here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...) and then Margaret (here: https://www.goodreads.com/user_status...) Review: I enjoyed this book because of the author’s writing style and his humor. The humor is often sarcastic, but not nasty. The humor is based on knowledge of different cultures, life styles and human behavior. It is this that made my reading of the book enjoyable. And I believe Henry James was laughing with me at the antics of Victorian mannerisms.So what is the theme of the book? It is set in Europe, predominantly, Italy and England, during the 1870s. The author is comparing Americans and Europeans. Having spent the first 18 years of my life in the US and thereafter having moved to Europe, of course this is the theme that drew me to the book. Henry James has beautifully captured Victorian manners and how they differed, how Americans bent them. Americans are shown to be more independent, freer, less constricted by set norms....but also amusingly naive. The characters are all well-to-do, educated and aspiring. How to succeed, how to be happy, how to get what you are striving for - those are the questions posed. Each character has followed different paths, had different goals and widely varying scruples. For the main character, Isabelle, the prime question is marriage - to marry or not to marry, who to marry and how do you balance independence and against the constraints imposed in those times by propriety. This is a question that we still grapple with today. Every couple will find a different solution; some marriages succeed and other fail and even how you define failure and success is up for grabs.The writing is elaborate, even wordy, but Henry James has a superb vocabulary. Over and over I was amazed at his ability to grab just the right word. Yeah, this really impressed me. It is for his writing ability and his humor that I will be reading more by the author. What I didn't like: there isn't one single successful marriage in this book, and by the way Henry James never did marry. Also, the ending is extremely abrupt. I was so shocked by the conclusion that I figured I had missed something and so I listened to the last chapters again. No, I missed nothing. You, the reader, have to stop and figure out what you think will happen. Everyone can draw their own conclusion. I know what I think. For me this is clear, and I do not want things spelled out for me, but the ending is just too abrupt! Remember I read the author's original version, not the revised 1906 version.I will tell you this. You will get a big surprise near the end, for which, when you think about it, you realize you have been given clues.The audiobook narration by actor John Wood was good! It is so easy to listen to classics on audiobooks; they don't mix time-lines or jump around as so many contemporary novels do. You just get the story in a straightforward manner. Nice.Loren
It was of utmost importance that Isabelle Archer, with all of her singular intellectual and ethical gifts as well as her unpolluted virginal sweetness, marry the right man. She doesn't. She picks the wrong, wrong, wrongest one imaginable, and you know she's doing it while she's doing it, and why she's doing it, and it's painstakingly horrible to witness. To the point where you can feel the author's sadistic glee at orchestrating this painful denouement oozing off the pages. Bad Touch, Henry James, Bad Touch! But it's also impossible not to appreciate the level of craft involved in pulling it off with exactly the right combination of pathos and cruelty.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 SmorgasbookMaureen
The beginning of this book was very interesting. When the characters were introduced, I found them sympathetic and really wanted to know what would happen to everyone. What was Isabel Archer going to do with her life? Somewhere around page 200 though, there was some kind of change where it just got really, really, slow and boring. Nothing seemed to happen, and I didn't understand why I was supposed to think poorly of Madame Merle and Osmond. This may be because James is too subtle for me, or a time period thing. Everyone was accusing him of "doing nothing with his life", but it seemed like the same could be said of any of the characters, except for Henrietta and the American suitor. I was so confused about the lifestyle of all the characters. Why didn't anybody go to work? How did Osmond support his lifestyle in Florence without a job or investments to manage? Didn't everyone get bored, just walking around "the grounds" all day or looking at paintings when it rained? Anyways, the book picked up some near the end but I never quite got over the frustration of the middle two-thirds.Ebookwormy
Henry James is, admittedly, long winded. At times, one does feel like you want him to move along already. However, he is always worth the read to me. In this book, I love the character of Isabel Archer. She is young, full of ideas, wants to travel and see the world and have experiences (i remember being that way!). One must also remember that society for young women at this time was much more restrictive and Isabel's ideas less likely to be satisfied. Her greatest quality, however, is her desire to do what is right. This is really what holds her captive to her destiny, whether it is refusing suitors or remaining loyal to difficult decisions. I think this characteristic makes the book particularly valuable/ relateable for Christian women. In the secular context, Isabel's deliberations would be viewed as annoying and even juvenille. In addition, a secularist would berate her "sacrificing" her freedom to remain steadfast to a decision she regrets. It is only in the refinement of a desire for right living, and freedom from impurity, that one can truly appreciate Isabel's struggles and resolutions. Other great things about this book are the wonderful characters of Ralph Touchett and Henrietta Stackpole, and the compelling mystery of Madame Merle. Of course, a book set in England, Florence and Rome is also good for a European escape!Juliana
When I finished this book, I threw it down on the table in anger and walked away muttering. I guess we all want books to end like.. well, books! Not like real life. We have enough real life around us. Aren't books for escaping all that?Maybe. This book is probably a classic because it is complex enough to actually resemble the real world. People make mistakes. Small mistakes. Big mistakes. Life-changing mistakes. They also show a lot of spirit and charisma, which is also real. None of the characters are simplified into "good" or "evil" exactly. They're ... REAL. They have good points. They have bad points. They make you angry while you're reading so you want to slap them and tell them to "cut it out!!" But then you learn for them to find love and fulfillment and happiness. That's real life. It's not simple and easy to read like most books, with a happy or predictable ending. I HATED the ending because it left so many things unresolved.But, despite all that... I have to admit it was an amazing read.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.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.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.Jamie
Oh, jeez, I never freaking reviewed this?So confession. I "read" this behemoth in 10th grade, because my English teacher thought my precociousness likewise equipped me to not only understand but enjoy Henry James, neither of which was, in fact, the case. Hell, reading "What Maisie Knew" at 21, I still just couldn't deal. Where most people I knew liked to disparage Wharton as the lesser James, I thought-having "read" three of his novels-believed him to be the unfunny, overrated, bloated Wharton.An unexpected return to "Portrait of a Lady" v fortunately proved that my continued precociousness also disables me at times from respecting a thing for what it is, rather than what I thought I thought about what it was, is, or could be in some weird mind chronology of my own invention. This book remains the most astonishing thing I've read in maybe the past three years, and that includes other life-changers, like "Swann's Way" and "Almanac of the Dead" (not to mention the best re-read ever, of "The Golden Notebook"). Isabel Archer is the most perfect, crystalline example of being trapped between having the means to do what one wants, and having the experience and knowledge to use those means as best as one can--and the consequences, thereafter. This is no novel thing for me to say. It simply bears repeating, as I couldn't have possible recognized this when I was 16 & had no means & no knowledge--still little means, but more experience--and a lot of intellectual arrogance that, thankfully or not, the past couple of years have stripped me of. I couldn't see how perfectly James had captured such a simple conflict, reframed it, awarded it to an incredibly complicated character, and given the whole thing the greatest element of tragedy without elevating the narrative beyond familiarity.I've rarely felt more close to a fictional character. Again, Anna Wulf comes to mind, Esther Greenwood (oh, my choices do not speak to my stability), and perhaps some in Lorrie Moore's work, or Alice Munro's. Not that this matters, because who gives a rat's ass whether Isabel rings a chord with me? The important thing is that I've rarely encountered a character who operates on so many different registers of feeling and thought that it seemed like she could truly be a real human that I knew, in whatever limited sense of "knowing" someone that we are capable of.Read it in the summer--the Italian vistas feel textured then; I read 90% of the novel lying on my slanted, kind of dangerous apt roof with cigs and vodka tonics. Be sure, specifically, not to read the famous chapter--where Isabel contemplates her decisions and her life and her limitations, sitting silently in front of a fireplace--in a place where people can see you. You will cry. And not because it's "sad" but because it's emotionally vibrant and full of wisdom and beauty, and yes, a great deal of melancholy. It's one of the single best chapters of fiction I've ever encountered--perhaps the best. I don't want to make these outlandish sorts of statements again with this novel, though, and regret them later.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.Suzanne
I so enjoyed this reading experience: the extraordinary portrayal of the characters, their relationships and psychology; the themes (too numerous and nuanced to go into here); and, not least, the prose. James’ long, luxurious sentences carried me along in such a headlong rush, I felt like I was on a runaway train. But a very elegantly appointed train.