“The Portrait of a Lady” by Henry James

PORTRAIT-OF-A-LADYWikipedia tells us that this is one of James’s most popular long novels and that it is regarded by critics as one of his finest. It was first published as a magazine serial over 1880–81, before being published as a book in 1881.

The story concerns a spirited young American woman, Isabel Archer, who inherits a large amount of money and subsequently becomes the victim of scheming by two American expatriates. Like many of James’s novels, the story is set in Europe (mostly England and Italy) and the novel reflects differences between the New World and the Old, often to the detriment of the former. Other themes are personal freedom, responsibility, and betrayal.

We read this in January 2015, when seven of us joined the meeting.

Barbara had put this novel forward on the basis that she had tried to read it long ago before giving up. Despite not enjoying it at the time, she thought our group should help her to give it another go!

Most of us enjoyed the quality of the writing, the descriptions of places and the metaphors. We all appreciated the author’s depiction of women as this book is packed with fascinating female characters.  Only Pansy seemed to have strayed in from a Dickens’ novel, with her simple white cotton dress and her ‘Yes, Father’.

We did wonder about the absence of action.  Despite the fact that the characters made long and arduous journeys across oceans and seas, all we see them doing is sitting in gardens and drawing rooms, talking. Presumably, James omits the action on purpose, to encourage the reader to concentrate on the characters’ inner turbulence.

We also took up the thread of discussion about the importance or otherwise of that rather particular title. Maddy’s preference would have been A portrait of A Lady, since Isabel Archer is surely just one of many, and this was only one view of her. However, despite reading the rather highbrow notes at the end of the Penguin Classics Library edition, we didn’t come up with a clear answer.

There were some criticisms, with Evan getting irritated by the long paragraphs and Barbara feeling that the main character hadn’t rung true – would a 22 year old girl really be that obstinate and unchanging through all those events? Annette also thought that the shorter Washington Square that we’d read a few years back was a better book.

Nonetheless, the novel got a good average score of 8, (though based only on four of our readers). In summary, a much enjoyed book and we are happy to have the bragging rights. The group is now looking forward to another Classic work of fiction in which no-one has to deal with a marriage proposal, unless it’s on the last page.

PS: a surprisingly risque spoiler! Annette drew our attention to the fact that there are at least two editions in general circulation and the surprising existence of a “sex scene” in the later of the two – the New York Edition of 1908. Those of a nervous disposition should look away now, because here are the sordid details…

Towards the very end of the book, Caspar Goodwood tries once again for Isabel’s hand and for a moment they are close together in an embrace. She feels his hardness and springs away from him, as if burnt.  This is what caused her to leave him so abruptly, perhaps for ever!

At least one of our readers claims to have felt cheated by only reading the 1881 edition.

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1 Comment

  1. malcolmbbc

     /  January 22, 2015

    Bill couldn’t make the meeting but sent the following thoughts by email.
    WARNING: may contain plot spoilers!

    I had much to say about this wonderful novel, one of the finest I have ever read. Even the title perplexed me: why not ‘A Portrait of the Lady’, or ‘A Portrait of a Lady’, or ‘The Portrait of the Lady’. For Henry James, a man who crafts his words so carefully, I’m sure that the title says something, but the enigma eludes me.

    Though the novel begins light-heartedly, with much humour; for example:

    ‘Ralph Touchett was a philosopher, but nevertheless he knocked at his mother’s door with a good deal of eagerness.’

    it soon becomes a complex psychological study, full of hints and allusions, but never clear, always opaque. There is much depth of meaning; and movement of plot, and revelations of character, are achieved very subtly, often with ellipses of time and action. We are never, for instance, involved in people’s travels; or Isabel’s wedding. There are lapses in time.

    ‘There’s something the matter with you all’ says Henrietta Stackpole, as she comes up against English indifference and insouciance. There’s a difference in this novel between the old ways (European) and the new (American). Such is Isabel’s dilemma. It is one of the saddest moments in the novel when she realises, in chapter 42, that ‘she had not read him right’. Those six monosyllabic words toll like a bell. Osmond, the ‘sterile dilettante’, as Ralph calls him, is the supreme egotist, steeped in tradition. Isabel, the free-spirited American, has chosen wrongly.

    But there is hope: I thought that the ending could have been interpreted in different ways, and that perhaps Isabel would return to Rome, rescue Pansy, leave her husband, and return to Caspar Goodwood. Perhaps not; in which case the novel may be about forbearance, just like Stoner.

    There were two extra things that I gained from the book: the saying ‘Je viens de loin’ – I belong to the old, old world; and:
    ‘…..decided that the crescendo of mirth should be the flower of his declining days.’ That’ll do for me.

    If you enjoyed the book as much as me, you’ll give it a ten, which is my, easily considered, score.


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