The Portrait of a Lady

ISBN: 0618107355
ISBN 13: 9780618107353
By: Henry James Paul Lauter Jan Cohn

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About this book

By using the 1882 edition of The Portrait of a Lady, the text reflects more clearly the culture from and to which it was written. A significant number of fairly contemporary materials deal with etiquette/behavior, conceptions of the American girl and the American woman, discussions of Americans (especially girls/women) living abroad, and international marriages. Magazine and newspapers articles of the period also help to place Isabel Archer in a historical context. The volume includes reprints of contemporary reviews, emphasizing those that found the ending of the novel perplexing.

Reader's Thoughts

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Ann

I sometimes worry that my Goodreads page will, if I’m not careful, turn into my personal Society for the Appreciation of Totally Mainstream, Not-At-All-Obscure, Dead European Man-Writers And Their Already-Leatherbound-and-Modern-Library-Canonized Works…but if my (mostly) chaste and (completely) non-ironic passion for Henry James is wrong, then I don’t want to be right. You don't need me to tell you about the finely distilled genius of this book - how the characters link and uncouple from scene to scene in something between a chess game and a dance; how it is the most perfect evocation of the different ways Americans take themselves through the world; the final paragraph - and I don't know if you could take my word for it anyway, because I think I'm a little obsessed. Oh Mr James - Henry? Hank? No. - we share so much! You loved writing books, I love the books you wrote. You were the consummate expatriate, and I am an expatriate right now! Henry James, I AM YOU.

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'.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Beth

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

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!

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