The Portrait of a Lady

ISBN: 0192100386
ISBN 13: 9780192100382
By: Henry James John Updike

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About this book

Described by F. R. Leavis as one of the two most brilliant novels in the language, The Portrait of a Lady tells the story of Isabel Archer, young, American, and eager to embrace life, as she makes her choice from the suitors who court her. She is true to her principles, but at what cost?

Reader's Thoughts


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: and then Margaret (here: 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.

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


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.


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.

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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.

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.


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.


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.

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.

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