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.
i sincerely admire your ability to read James... i get tangled up in his phraseology and lose track of what he's trying to express... Milton was considerably easier... and it sounds like you had no trouble understanding what he was saying as well as the what he was implying... talented fellow you are, for sure...
I reread this book last spring and found I had less patience for James's prose as compared to a couple of decades ago. Still, I can't help but admire the novel.
Shortly afterwards, I read John Banville's Mrs. Osmond. Written in a Jamesian style, he imagines Isabel's life after The Portrait of a Lady. Much more enjoyable than expected.
Hi Mudpuddle- That is very funny what you wrote about Milton being more difficult. I think that the key to James is to take him slowly.
Hi JoAnne - I think thaf one must be in a patient mood to read James.
I had not heard of Banivilke’s novel. I must give it s try.
Yeah I'm in the camp that is not that fond of Henry James. Too dense and usually boring. But I commend you for getting through it. I feel for Isabel, marrying the wrong man during her era would be total misery. Sounds like she had some choices and she picked wrong.
I have read so many things by others about Isabel Archer, I feel I already know her. Some day I will be in the mood for Henry James's "glacial pace" but I have not gotten there yet. Good review though. You almost made me want to pick it up soon.
Hi Susan - It actually seems that a lot of folks do not like James because of his prose style. Isabel’s predicament is made even worse due to the fact that she was happy and free before marriage.
Thanks Judy - Isabel is a great character. James can seem tedious though. I would say that one should be prepared for the pace before one starts.
Sometimes I think I'm the only one who really likes Henry James. I've always loved his writing for the reasons that you mention. His prose so clearly elucidates his characters' psychology. No, there is not a whole lot of plot, usually everything is perceptual, but that is the sort of writing I enjoy.
Thanks for a good review.
Hi Brian, Great commentary as always. I have not read Portrait of A Lady but years ago I read The Bostonians by Henry James and it's a wonderful novel. Always meant to go back to James and read Portrait of A Lady which I think is the book he's most known for.
Thanks Sharon - it does seem that s lot of people do not cars for James. I think that one key to appreciating this book is to realize that it is about enjoying the writing and characters and not expecting a fast moving plot.
Thanks Kathy. I must read The Bostonians. I also want to read Ths Turn of the Screw.
Isabel Archer is such a wonderful character. And what about that ending? I'm a huge James fan, although his prolix style isn't everyone's idea of a good time. He wrote women so well, and really gets inside their heads. The Portrait of a Lady is one of my all-time favourite novels, so I'm glad you found much to admire about it. The Jane Campion film adaptation of the novel is really good, if you ever happen to come across it.
I discovered Henry James when in my mid-20s. I admired his use of the language and how he brought forth the inner man and woman, especially, with such unhurried care. It made me want to be a writer like him. Thanks for the review--I had returned to this one a few years ago and enjoyed/admired it even more, having lived a half-century since the first reading.
Your fine commentary reminds me that I must read this book. Having read most of Henry James major novels, from Washington Square to The Golden Bowl I have studiously avoided this one; many consider it to be his best. While I seldom make New Year's resolutions this might be time to make an exception and put this novel near the top of my list (just as soon as I finish rereading Moby Dick and Middlemarch!).
Thanks for the commentary, Brian, which reminded me of a very good book that I read a while back. In fact, I didn't remember having read it, but when you mentioned Isabel Archer and described the plot, it all came back to me. I do remember that it was frustratingly slow, but on the other hand, all that detail really added up to something quite profound and real. It certainly lived up to its title and gave a very complete portrait of Isabel.
Hi Ron - I think that you described James well. His use of language to dig deep into people’s psyche is unparalleled. This is also a book that I can see going back to.
Hi James - There really is so much to read. In my case, this is my first James novel. I really want to get to more of his books.
Hi Andrew - I can see this book slowly sinking in over time. Isabel is so very memorable and I found that patience paid off here.
I'd like to read this at some point, partly because I recall seeing the film adaptation several years ago. The only James I've read so far is The Turn of the Screw, probably required reading for every Halloween!
Hi Jacqui - Thus Far this is the only James that I have read. I want to at least read The Golden Bowl and the Turn of the Screw. I also want to see the film version of this book.
"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."
"James’s writing style is dense with description and analysis of his subjects."
These two sentences totally sum my experience with The Bostonians and The Turn of the Screw. I sometimes found myself mentally editing.
However, I know now to be prepared for the "glacial" pace of his narratives and find his work worthwhile to pursue, because I like the stories he tells. At least I can never say I don't understand a character or their motives :)
Either this or The Ambassadors will be next for me. If you do read another James, I would love to get your take on The Bostonians.
Hi Laurie - It is interesting thaf you found that James’s other works to be similar in these ways. I result want to read The Bosrinians, The Turn of the Screw as well as The Golden Bowl. I think being prepared for the glacial pace is the way to read James.
This is one my all time favourite books. I loved it so much. Compared to other novels by Henry James the style is almost breezy here. Many of his novels analyze the difference between Americans and a Europeans. Quite fascinating. I highly recommend Washington Square. And The Europeans. I did not care for The Turn of the Screw.
Hi Caroline - I want to read more James. It is interesting to know that this one was more relaxed then the other ones. The subject of the difference between Europeans and Americans always seems to fascinate.
This is the only James' novel that I have come to love - I tried to read two others after this, but disliked both. His tedious writing style must have been the cause. But this book is different - James wrought the characters so perfectly, that I could ignore the long tedious paragraphs.
Do you know John Banville's new book: Mrs. Osmond? It's the imaginary story of Isabel after marrying Osmond. I have not read it yet, but it looks interesting.
Hi Fanda - Interesting that you only liked this book. The characters are so well done. I have just heard of Banville’s book. I have mixed feelings about sequels to classics but it does sound intriguing.
I have been a bit remiss lately, because I've had two weeks of almost back to back Xmas events. I now have a couple of days before the next onslaught, with family arriving, starts.
I enjoyed this post, but would love you to write a post on the Americans attitudes to Europeans (and vice versa). I vaguely remember this part of the book but not in detail now. Edith Wharton's unfinished novel, The buccaneers, is good for this topic too.
I like James but have only read a couple of his novels. I keep planning to read more ... particularly those well regarded novellas.
Hi WP - I am all too busy too. But there is never any rush to post comments. I think it is fine if they come my months or years after the original post.
I also want to read more James. I will also likely write another post on the American/European thing.
Glad you enjoyed this book--whenever I read a review like yours I think that I will give James another chance. On the surface, this seems like a book I would adore--richly layered, fluid, realistic characters. All the stuff of great literature.
Hi Jane - This book is great literature. With that, it a lot of great literature moves faster then this book did. Richly layered is a good way to describe this book.
I found this novel of great interest through your beautiful review dear Brain!
Either I take more interest in characterization than plot .
I absolutely loved the Isabel,s character and story sounds really fascinating.
Thank you so much for sharing this incredible read my friend!
Wishing you a blessed happy Christmas season:)
I LOVED this book when I was a teenager. It is so well-written. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I remember my bf at the time (oh, so many years ago) hated it - probably for the reasons you mention. Also, he thought she just made so many really stupid mistakes. But you know what? She was human. It made her real.
Hi Rachel - I would have hated this book. Isabel certainly makes mistakes here, but I agree. she is human. Her mistakes are no worse then the mistake that people I know personally have made.
Thanks Baili - These character studies can be great if one is prepared for a book that goes slow on plot.
I hope that you and your family are having a nice holiday season.
I haven't read much of James (only a little short fiction), but I love this style of novel, if it's well-written and full of good character development. I'd also like to read Washington Square at some point.
BRILLIANT POST, BRIAN!
I greatly enjoyed reading your analysis of this novel!! (Although of coure, as you've mentioned, you could devote several posts to it.)
This novel was a high school reading assignment, and I have to admit that I found it rather tedious. In fact, I was as bored with it as I was when I first read "Pride and Prejudice". Lol. The funny thing is that I read "Jane Eyre" shortly before I started on "Pride and Prejudice", which I never finished. (I did return to this novel years later, and reviewed it on my other blog, MindSpirit Book Journeys.)
Around this same time, I also read "A Tale of Two Cities" and "Crime and Punishement". Neither bored me at all. So I guess this means that I thrived on passion and drama at the time! Lol.
I think I would definitely be better able to appreciate "The Portrait of a Lady" at this point in my life. I would have more patience now! Lol. Interestingly, however, I first read "Magister Ludi" ("The Glass Bead Game") while I was in college, and was able to get through it. I reread it in 2011, so I could review it on my blog. The plot of this novel is slow-moving, too, yet, I was able to finish the book both times.
That paragraph you quoted definitely resonates with me. I have been in a similar mood before. (I also tried to read Kafka and Camus in college, and never finished those books. I was flirting with existentialism. Lol.) This quote is indeed beautifully written, and is very poignant.
It's wonderful that a male writer of that time was able to plumb the depths of the female psyche as brilliantly as James did. It seems he was ahead of his time in doing so. However, when I looked up this novel on Wikipedia, I read the following:
"Critic Alfred Habegger has written that the main character of Portrait was inspired by Christie Archer, the protagonist from Anne Moncure Crane's novel, 'Reginald Archer' (1871). Crane (1838–1872) may have influenced James, who Habegger considers was interested in Crane's female characters.
In the preface to the 1908 New York Edition of the novel, James referred to several of George Eliot's female protagonists as possible influences on the Portrait. Habegger questions this and quotes others as doing the same. "
Here's the link to this article:
Reading further, I discovered that this novel has had several TV and film adaptations. Methinks I need to read it again, and completely this time, in spite of its slowness!
Thanks for another great, insightful review!! <3 :)
Thanks Maria - I would have hated this book when I was younger. It is just too slow and wordy. It is much more so then Jane Austen, or Charles Dickens or Fyodor Dostoevsky or most other Classic Literature authors. I am even thinking that The Glass Bead Game moved faster!
James really created a great female character here. I think that there is a list somewhere that someone created of male authors that wrote women characters particularly well. I presume that James is on it.
I had heard about the Reginald Archer connection. I should read that novel. There are also similarities with Dorothea Brooke’s marriage from George Eliot’s Middlemarch.
I have not seen any of the film versions of this book either, but I really would like to.
I haven’t read this novel, but I believe there was a film version, with a big name cast. Sometimes a film can take all the story elements of something otherwise too literary and make it watchable even for those who prefer story to “beautiful writing”. The only James I have read so far was The Turn Of The Screw, which was a wonderful piece of scary fiction in which you didn’t know whether the heroine was really seeing ghosts or whether it was all in her head. But it was a novella, so not too hard to get through.
Hi Violet - Based on this book, James really did do a great job writing women. I must catch the film version.
Hi Sue - I must give the film version of this a try. Film is such different art forms from writing so your point makes a lot of sense..
I have heard such good things about it. I must also read Turrn of the Screw soon.
Hi Hila - The character development is so strong in fbis book I also want to read Washington Square. Probably sometime after I get to The Golden Bowl.
I haven't read The Portrait of a Lady but I like that you describe it as being 'low-key brilliant'. I think so many classics are best read and digested slowly. The pace and writing are different than today's works, it's nice to be challenged that way.
I like the passage you shared here, especially "she dropped her secret sadness into the silence of lonely places.." that is beautiful.
Enjoy your week!
Hi Naida - I would say that this one is even slower paced then most classics. That is really a great quotation. Have a Happy New Year's!
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