The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

This was my first Henry James novel. I like many novelists of this era including Edith Wharton and have read most of her major works so it stands to reason that I would like James as well. I don’t like James as much as I like Wharton yet, but I will need to read another novel of his to judge.

This novel was slow moving both in plot and in the manner I read it. It took me a week to read this book and that is not long for some people especially for a novel of over 500 pages, but it is long to me. I was very busy this past week and there were days when I didn’t read more than a page or two. The plot was not particularly addictive either.

While I am a tad unsatisfied with the ending, I did like the writing of the book. James is witty and observant and he is very good at getting the tone of emigrants, travelers, and those who live abroad. The following exchange about being an emigrant/immigrant was relatable to me:

“Well, I advise you to cultivate one. You’ll need it the next time you go to America.”

“I shall probably never go again.”

“Are you ashamed to show yourself?”

Ralph meditated with a mild smile. “I suppose that if one has no conscience one has no shame.”

“Well, you’ve got plenty of assurance,” Henrietta declared. “Do you consider it right to give up your country?”

“Ah, one doesn’t give up one’s country any more than one gives UP one’s grandmother. They’re both antecedent to choice—elements of one’s composition that are not to be eliminated.”

“I suppose that means that you’ve tried and been worsted. What do they think of you over here?”

“They delight in me.”

Like Ralph, I’ve lived most of my life away from my ‘birth’ country and grow in another continent. While I will go back, it’s true you can never really give it up and it makes you who you are. Furthermore, I think I amuse people when I went back to..

Early on, I identified with Isabel. I am rather frank and sometimes even blunt. I related to her in her desire to have experiences and new ideas. I also related to her in her dealing with people especially of the opposite sex. It’s not often I identify with a character like Isabel. I felt some deja-vu when reading about her. On the other hand, there were moments when I found her unlike me and this happened as she progressed long in her book.

Since I have taken two gender studies courses both at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels, I tend to read and analyse works from that point of view often. It’s rather natural now and it happened even before because I find the role of women in novels especially in classics interesting as they are often a deep reflection of history, time, culture, and a score of other things. I enjoy male writers who are able to really understand women and their place in society or how oppressed they are.

For example, James writes of Isabel refusing an offer of marriage:

But what disturbed her, in the sense that it struck her with wonderment, was this very fact that it cost her so little to refuse a magnificent “chance.” With whatever qualifications one would, [he] had offered her a great opportunity; the situation might have discomforts, might contain oppressive, might contain narrowing elements, might prove really but a stupefying anodyne; but she did her sex no injustice in believing that nineteen women out of twenty would have accommodated themselves to it without a pang. Why then upon her also should it not irresistibly impose itself? Who was she, what was she, that she should hold herself superior? What view of life, what design upon fate, what conception of happiness, had she that pretended to be larger than these large these fabulous occasions? If she wouldn’t do such a thing as that then she must do great things, she must do something greater. Poor Isabel found ground to remind herself from time to time that she must not be too proud, and nothing could be more sincere than her prayer to be delivered from such a danger: the isolation and loneliness of pride had for her mind the horror of a desert place… She liked him too much to marry him, that was the truth; something assured her there was a fallacy somewhere in the glowing logic of the proposition—as he saw it—even though she mightn’t put her very finest finger-point on it; and to inflict upon a man who offered so much a wife with a tendency to criticise would be a peculiarly discreditable act… But this was not the case; she was wondering if she were not a cold, hard, priggish person, and, on her at last getting up and going rather quickly back to the house, felt, as she had said to her friend, really frightened at herself.

Isabel doesn’t like disappointing people in the beginning, but it is right for her to question marriage and what it really means to her. Women must have questioned it back then, but it’s so natural for them to marry as well. It’s why I was disappointed in Isabel when she did give up her freedom.

As for the other characters, I did not care for Madame Merle. As with Ralph, I did not like her much; I found she had too much going on. All in the face and want of propriety. I also didn’t like Henrietta Stackpole for most of it as she had slight shades of ugly American abroad. She had no sense of privacy for her friend Isabel, but at least, she knows Isabel enough to guess when she is unhappy and try to help. She also showed a lot of growth through the novel, perhaps the most of all the characters.

I didn’t like Casper Goodwood either. I just think his only trait and point was to be passionately in love with Isabel. He was overly persistent and sometimes possessive about it.

Right away, I didn’t like Mr Osmond. I found him boring, prosaic, self-important, and as Ralph says in the book, he took himself too seriously. He was detached and then he became cold. It was creepy how he was introduced too; how Madame Merle told him about Isabel.

Of all her suitors, I liked Lord Warburton the best. He seemed direct without being overly stalkerish and creepy about his feelings for Isabel. He also didn’t chase her very far. He also seemed to be a kind and good man.

Most of all, I liked all of the Touchetts. Both Mr and Mrs Touchett; they both had good head on their shoulders. I adored Ralph. I would have been happy if Ralph and Isabel had fallen in love. He knew her so well and took care of her more dearly than anyone else in her life. But it’s best they didn’t in the end.

For the first parts of this novel, I really had no idea how it would end. That’s not actually usual for me since I usually get the idea of how most classic novels end. I didn’t know anything about this novel before hand. I wasn’t sure who Isabel would end up with because in the first half of the novel, she has three potential suitors (included Ralph). The real drama starts at the halfway point. There is slow build up. When Isabel chose her man, I question why she had made that choice. It mystified me to think she was in love with him. Therefore, I was disappointed to see Isabel did marry and I was disappointed just as much as Ralph was in the book. Once that happened, I knew it would not end well.

The ending is one that which gives you hope, but leaves you hanging wondering what happens next. I did enjoy some of the characters. Knowing Nicole Kidman plays Isabel Archer in the movie, I can see Kidman in the role if only because Isabel is described as having great beauty and charm. I also really did adore some of the other characters and passages. I don’t really like how the plot progressed though.

I think James is a good writer of characters, dialogue and human interactions. There is definitely something very perceptive about him that shows through his writing. Even though I was not completely satisfied with the book, I really look forward to my next James novel.

Read July 7-14th 2012.

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