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

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.

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'.

Trin

I both love and hate The Portrait of a Lady. It's so incredibly frustrating that I find rereads quite painful—Isabel, why are you such an idiot? But when you consider how sexually repressed poor James reportedly was, the repression that underlies this novel becomes almost delicious in its intensity. You can't help feel for poor Ralph Touchett, walking around with his hands in his pockets, or even for idiot Isabel, finding nothing but terror in the climactic "white lightning" kiss. I appreciate this book more and more every time I go back to it, but afterwards I always need to read a lot of porn.

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.

els

Insanely good; a book I wish everyone would read. Incredibly heartbreaking. Worth the six months it took me to read the damn thing in the middle of my own personal marriage drama. It is very crazy to me that I chose to read this book when I did and finished it when I did. The end almost killed me. I relate to and pity and feel angry toward Isabel Archer almost more than any other literary character I can think of. She is going to be in my heart for a long time. I loved Anna Karenina as a novel, and I know Anna and Isabel are both regarded as early feminist heroines, though both tragic, but I think I ultimately relate more to Isabel and therefore find her choices and conclusions about life far more heart wrenching. Highly recommend to anyone with an interest in Victorian heroines or feminist female characters. Isabel is richly drawn and deeply sad. I loved this book.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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