Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
The Modern Library, 2001
Originally Published 1881
565 pages
4/5 stars

Source: Library

I started this in order to add some more classics to my knowledge.  It was my first James and I chose it because it was one of his first masterpieces, according to canon.  I was thinking it would be something like Edith Wharton's writing.  That is somewhat true as the minutiae of upper-class people and the dictates of society are the focus. Let's start with a summary, which kind of has spoilers but this book is over 100 years old so I don't feel bad about that or anything.

Isabel is a young American who inherits wealth from her uncle.  She rejects proposals from the wealthy polite Lord Warburton and the energetic American businessman Caspar Goodwood.  Isabel eventually marries Count Osmond, a poor American in Italy, despite the objections from her cousin Ralph, her aunt Mrs. Touchett, and her friend Henrietta.  After several years of marriage, she finally realizes what they recognized from the start: Osmond is not a romantic exciting man.  He is narrow-minded and controlling; he raised his daughter to bend entirely to his will and he expected his wife to conform to his dictates as well, acting as an ornament to his pride rather than as an independent person.  He also wanted her money.  The first part of the novel covers her interactions with people and her decision to marry.  The pulls of her own spirit versus her perceived duty to her husband define the second part, ending with her decision to remain with her husband.

I chose this as the book considered one of James's earliest masterpieces.  I was hoping that it would be fairly accessible, which I found it to be and that the style wouldn't be too radical.  I think I've read that James went very extreme in later books but maybe not yet? I will need to read more of him before I can decide. Any recommendations?

I feel completely unable to embark on a full analysis of James's style but I can mention some things I noticed.  There were many instances where a single paragraph would take up a page or even two; there would just be pages and pages of lingering descriptions of Isabel and those around her.  As the story progressed though, there was more dialogue and less of a focus on Isabel.  Instead there were (seemingly) peripheral events described.  Important events are skipped over such as the actual marriage of Isabel and Osmond and the birth and death of their child while seemingly insignificant conversations are recorded.  The book is narrated by an omniscient narrator, who occasionally inserts himself into the book using "I."  While the narrator knows more than the reader, he doles out that bit of knowledge sparingly.

I am glad that I am already familiar with some of the old-fashioned mores and standards or I would have found them even more bewildering.  For example, Isabel is determined to not share her unhappiness in marriage with anyone.  She will not consider leaving her husband despite his brutality and the encouragement of friends. This could seem bizarre under current standards but this book is from the late nineteenth century with upper-class continental Europeans, a vastly different society.  Even so, there were some frustrating moments.

There were still several upsetting moments for me. First that Isabel threw away possible happiness with Goodwood in favor of her ill-advised attachment to Osmond.  She denied the idea that the slightly sinister Madame Merle influenced her marriage before finally realizing that it was so.  The other upsetting instant revolved around Pansy Osmond, the daughter of Osmond who he has trained to obey, kind of like a dog.  She represses her independent thoughts and gives up her love because it does not please her father's pride. While Isabel returns to her husband, it seems to stem partly from her promise to love and watch over Pansy.  However I fear that both women will continue to suffer under Osmond's thumb, leaving a tragic pall over the conclusion.

There's so much more to discuss but I'm going to stop now with my Overall: A surprisingly accessible example of Henry James's prose; I am eager to read more of his work.

Read for FITG Challenge


  1. This was the first James novel I read and I loved it. I loved the way the language rambled along - the long pragraphs and sentences.

    I would suggest that you try The Turn of the Screw. Its amazing.

  2. Great review! I'm glad your first experience with James was a positive one. He does become difficult in later novels. I read The Golden Bowl, the culmination of his fiction, and it was quite a daunting read, but strangely enjoyable. I recommend The Bostonians and The Wings of the Dove.


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