The Portrait of a Lady

ISBN: 0140864512
ISBN 13: 9780140864519
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

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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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