The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James was first published in 1881 and revised by the author in 1908. I read the later version. It is the story of Isabel Archer, a young American woman who travels through and eventually settles in Europe. James’s book is a deep character study exemplified by a unique prose style that is heavy on words but that often soars to great artistic heights.
Isabel is young and vivacious. Above all, she values her freedom as well as the benefits of exploring the world and of people. She is surrounded by male admirers, several of whom propose marriage. Lord Warburton is a rich nobleman who seems to respect Isabel’s freedom and is willing to accept that she be given a wide berth to explore; Caspar Goodwood is an intense and willful American who exhibits his intense love for the book’s heroine. Ralph Touchett is Isabel’s sensitive and wise cousin who is hobbled by serious physical illness.
Isabel has other interesting friends and family members. Mrs. Touchett is her independent aunt and Ralph’s mother. Though she is often abrasive, Mrs. Touchett is also honest and a good judge of character. Henrietta Stackpole is likewise overbearing and judgmental but shows herself to be a loyal friend. Madame Merle is controlled and proper but is later shown to be a manipulative schemer.
Isabel eventually marries Gilbert Osmond, an American living in Italy. Isabel sees Osmond as a man of great taste who is portrayed as appreciating beauty in a unique way. She believes the fortune that she recently inherited will be put to good use by him. After a year or so of marriage, Isabell realizes that she has made a terrible mistake. Osmond turns out to be cold and stiffening. He has an image of beauty, perfection and propriety that he insists Isabel live up to. He eventually comes to hate Isabel. Isabel realizes that she has traded a happy life for one of misery. Isabel’s true complexity is revealed. She is much more than just a woman who values freedom and now finds herself trapped. At this stage of the story, she chooses to act in a very specific, ethical way that even some readers might question as being detrimental to her own self-interest.
The strength of this book is in characterization and prose. Isabel is a brilliantly wrought character as are her male admirers and friends. Evan Osmond, a very unsympathetic character, is portrayed in interesting detail. I could devote an entire blog post to any one of these personas. James’s writing style is dense with description and analysis of his subjects. The plot moves slowly, however. The reader gets the impression that James is in no hurry to move things along. I often say that I appreciate novels that are light in plot and heavy on characterization, strong prose, etc. However, I found myself wishing that this novel would move a little faster at times. Perhaps this is because James is good at setting up interesting situations that whet the curiosity. I wanted to know what was going to happen faster than the novel was furnishing answers. Thus, the glacial pace of the plot became a little frustrating at times.
At other times, the dense and descriptive prose becomes sublime. At one-point, Isabel realizes that her marriage was essentially a scheme between Madame Merle and Osmond with a primary intention to get at Isabel’s money. Isabel is plunged into a kind of philosophical despair,
“Isabel took a drive alone that afternoon; she wished to be far away, under the sky, where she could descend from her carriage and tread upon the daisies. She had long before this taken old Rome into her confidence, for in a world of ruins the ruin of her happiness seemed a less unnatural catastrophe. She rested her weariness upon things that had crumbled for centuries and yet still were upright; she dropped her secret sadness into the silence of lonely places, where its very modern quality detached itself and grew objective, so that as she sat in a sun-warmed angle on a winter’s day, or stood in a mouldy church to which no one came, she could almost smile at it and think of its smallness. Small it was, in the large Roman record, and her haunting sense of the continuity of the human lot easily carried her from the less to the greater.”
I find the above passage to be both terribly sad and wonderfully written. It is also full of meaning that is presented in a literate and moving way. First, the desire to tread upon daisies, a symbol of true love and purity, seems perfect given Isabel’s mood. Next, I find that the way in which Isabel’s personal catastrophe is compared and contrasted with the ruin of Ancient Rome is so well written. Her realization that, in the grand scheme of things, her personal tragedy is small is very much in line with her humble character traits. In a way, this turns a very personal story into something much bigger. It also magnifies the despair that Isabel experiences.
Another important current flowing through this book is that, to some extent, it looks at the relationship between Americans and Europeans from a somewhat unusual direction. All of the major characters, with the exception of Lord Warburton, are Americans living in Europe. How they interact and talk about the Europeans, and vice versa, is worth a blog post in and of itself.
I would not recommend this book to someone who was looking for a novel with a lot of plot developments or a fast-paced story. It is best read patiently, as it is mostly about characters and writing style. As such, it often moves into the areas of greatness. I recommend this book for those prepared to appreciate its low-keyed brilliance.