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.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.Maureen
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.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.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.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.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.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.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'.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.Lisa James
This was a very well done book for the time it was written in. Isabel was an engaging character, & the "Lady" of the book. The men in her life all want to marry her, including her cousin Ralph, the master of an English estate named Gardencourt, his neighbor, Lord Warburton, a businessman from her home area, Mr. Goodwood, & an American expat living in Italy, Mr. Osmond. Who she eventually chooses is a surprise even to her, & the female friends of hers, Madame Merle, who's past is a mystery & eventually revealed, Ralph's mother Mrs. Touchett, & the tireless Henrietta Stackpole make for interesting characters as well, even if Mrs. Touchett tends to be a bit stuffy, prim & proper, LOL. All in all, a very enjoyable read!Kelly
There isn't much I can say that hasn't already been said, but here's my 2 cents. James has a vast vocabulary and clearly went to extreme lengths to thoughtfully construct each sentence. As for the events of the novel, there are few highlights for the reader. Many of the major events are implied through narrative after the fact. Its my opinion that these methods are exactly what make "Portrait" so difficult to read. I can see why many reviews call this a novel for English majors and writers. If I had the ambition I would pick apart the narration in small pieces, like a daily devotional. For me, the dialogue moved the story along rather quickly and provided me with as much insight as the narrative. However, it was the tangled up bits of complex narration that got me caught up in the book. It wasn't that I was mesmerized by the story. Rather, it felt like I was in a fight with the verbosity of Henry James and I would be damned if I wasn't going to see it through to the end!I only recommend this for linguistic masochists.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.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.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.