Portrait of a Lady

ISBN: 1566196353
ISBN 13: 9781566196352
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

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.

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.

David

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Eleanor

I picked up this book because I have a (personal) interest in the theme of "The American Woman Abroad." This is the quintessential novel that deals with that idea and at first I wasn't dissapointed in the setting, character or drama that was unfolding. I found myself loving the brave, spirited protagonist, Isabel Archer, and imagined that for her challenging 19th century conventions was no small feat. I have to wonder though, what was Henry James thinking when he thought that by "confronting her destiny" she was admitting defeat and going back to if not abusive, a damaging, marriage. It's not that I expected Isabel to break free completely and marry someone more "suitable," but I suppose I had hoped that she was going to the the impossible (perhaps in a novelist such as James' imagination at that time) and break free and live her own life, her own way. Again, maybe I read novels with too much Post-modern, American romanticism, hoping that all can "confront their destiny" and breakaway from the socially imposed orders that oppress them in various ways. But marriage for all the characters just seemed too inevitable in this book. And while I see the glimmer of a feminist consciousness in James, I think I'm too much of one to read this novel with ease.

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'.

Lisa James

This was a very well done book for the time it was written in. Isabel was an engaging character, & the "Lady" of the book. The men in her life all want to marry her, including her cousin Ralph, the master of an English estate named Gardencourt, his neighbor, Lord Warburton, a businessman from her home area, Mr. Goodwood, & an American expat living in Italy, Mr. Osmond. Who she eventually chooses is a surprise even to her, & the female friends of hers, Madame Merle, who's past is a mystery & eventually revealed, Ralph's mother Mrs. Touchett, & the tireless Henrietta Stackpole make for interesting characters as well, even if Mrs. Touchett tends to be a bit stuffy, prim & proper, LOL. All in all, a very enjoyable read!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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