20 classics in 2011 #2: The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

I’m reading 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books in 2011. Read more about this project here.

‘A great many people give me the impression of never having for a moment felt anything’ – Isabel Archer, The Portrait of a Lady.

Why did I want to read it?

Well, first of all, Henry James is one of the ‘great’ novelists and I have never read anything by him. I was also interested in reading it as Kirsten Tranter’s The Legacy is based on Portrait. Kirsten and I have another panel together at Perth Writers Festival in March.

When was it published?

It was first published (as a serial) in 1881, and a revised edition was published in 1908. My edition is from the Vintage Classics range. All Vintage Classics (with their gorgeous covers) are now only $12.95. Overseas readers, check out Amazon and Kindle editions (+ UK).

What’s it about?

Isabel Archer comes from America to England to stay with her aunt, uncle and cousin. From the outset she is painted as someone with a hunger for knowledge and experience, who would be unwilling to sacrifice her independence for marriage or anything else. She has a preference for solitude, is very self-aware and in many ways ‘modern’ and she has a complex nature which admires both those who are outspoken and vivid, and those who are respectful, ‘decent’ and quiet. Two-hundred pages into the novel, there is a large shift in her situation. It seems as though she will be much freer to pursue her ‘ideas’, but other hands come into play, other influences…

Tell us more about the author.

Like many of his characters, Henry James moved from America to England, and spent the last 40 years of his life there. He was a key figure of 19th Century realism, and apparently his novels were some of the first to go into such depths of consciousness and perception (through the musings of the characters). He wrote many respected novels, but also short stories, reviews, biographies, plays and travel books. He was born to a wealthy, intellectual family on 15 April 1843 and lived to 28 February 1916.

So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?

‘Do you know where you’re drifting?’ Henrietta pursued, holding out her bonnet delicately.

‘No, I haven’t the least idea, and I find it very pleasant not to know. A swift carriage, of a dark night, rattling with four horses over roads that one can’t see – that’s my idea of happiness.’

I found this a very absorbing read. James creates a complete world – from the details of afternoon tea in the opening pages, to the way he dips in and out of settings and the thoughts of the characters. In some chapters you wonder – ‘why am I with this character now and how is it relevant?’ But everything ties back in with, and has an effect on, our protagonist, Isabel.

It is so interesting to read this now, in a feminist sense – we cannot help but cheer Isabel on in her hunger, in her desire to be true to herself. And James allows her decisions to appear complex and murky. Her feelings change – she changes – through the course of the novel, and it is so sad. I read it and thought of all the women reading it over the years – young women at the turn of the century, travellers to Europe, women who’ve come into money, married women in all different eras. Sure, everything in society has changed. We no longer have to pretend that we’re okay for the sake of decency, when we’re unhappy. Or do we? We no longer have to choose between travel and self-development, and the ties of marriage. Or do we? The book still has the ability to make you think about your position.

The other characters in Portrait – Isabel’s cousin, Ralph; Lord Warburton; Madame Merle; Osmond – display a range of multilayered (though self-serving) motivations, and Isabel is caught up in their web. Isabel’s opinionated and outspoken writer friend Henrietta Stackpole may be the only character who gets what she desires, in the end.

I could say a lot more – particularly about desire and gender roles – but I don’t want to spoil it for you. I went in knowing nothing and it takes some time for events to unfold (but how rich the set-up is) and it was better not knowing.

What I will say, is how much I enjoyed the descriptions, not just of the characters, who are so well-sustained, but of the house at Gardencourt, of Florence and Rome, of items of clothing. The novel is detailed but not florid, sentences are lengthy yet elegant. A few times reading on hot days I found myself lost and had to go back a few paragraphs, but on the whole it’s extremely readable.

What’s next?

I have a great deal of preparation to do for Perth Writers Festival, but I think the next books will be Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Have you read Henry James? What are your thoughts? Let’s allow spoilers in the comments…

8 thoughts on “20 classics in 2011 #2: The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention 20 classics in 2011 #2: The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James – LiteraryMinded -- Topsy.com

  2. Portrait of a Lady is an epic story – if consciousness and its vicissitudes can be epic. What I can’t shake is Isabel’s strange combination of restlessness and fear. She wants to be at liberty, unfettered, independent, and she’s given the wherewithal for all of this. But at bottom she’s terrified of intimacy, and perversely prefers enslavement to love.

    I’ve always taken this as a warning (which James himself heeded later in life).

  3. Sounds fascinating. I’ve read Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Washington Square, and was particularly taken with what seem to be James’ sense of morality as it comes through in WS in the main character of Catherine. She has no social graces, no talent and no beauty, and yet James, far from patronising her or passing over her as a character, makes her his protagonist and gives her a gently tragic trajectory, encouraging the reader to sympathise with her for no other reason than her general goodness and sensitivity. That fact has long intrigued me — fancy anyone of that age, and a man at that, being so sympathetic?

  4. I read this book almost 40 years ago and to this day it remains my favourite novel. As Angela suggests, it has a depth and range in its analyses of the protagonists so that it constantly comes up with surprises in action, decision and thought processes. At the same time all of these surprises are entirely rational and consistent when reconsidered. It is a very clever book. There is a superb BBC serialisation from the 1960s featuring Richard Chamberlain as Ralph Touchett which is remarkably true to the book and makes rewarding viewing. It is far superior to the Nicole Kidman movie from the late 90s. The ABC Shop has the TV series in a Henry James box set of DVDs.

  5. Damon – she does seem terrified by intimacy. The scene at the end *definite spoiler* with Caspar is very powerful. You put it so eloquently: ‘prefers enslavement to love’. I felt sorry for Warburton. I really liked him and wished she had loved him.

    Elizabeth – That sounds lovely and I can see why Colm Toibin likes him. Toibin’s character in Brooklyn is very similar.

    Michael – I would love to sit down and watch the serialisation one day. You’re right that it’s a very clever book, and beautiful too.

  6. I first read Portrait of a Lady when I was 16, and hated it. I think it’s partly because I’d just fallen madly in love with Jane Austen (and still am) and read Henry James hoping for the same happy and neat ending. What I got was something much more complex, and looking back I don’t think I was in a position to fully understand the intricacies of this story, particularly the compromises life demands from us and the choices we later come to question and regret, especially as a woman. Reading all these comments though, it’s definitely going back on my re-read list and I hope I get more out of it this time. I do remember that I loved Ralph and found the prose beautiful. I’ve just finished reading Tess of the D’ubervilles though, which absolutely broke my heart, so I might give it a few months first!

  7. I too have just finished Portrait – took me about 3 weeks as I had to finish off a couple of other books for my book club in the interim. So it felt like I was reading it for ages and I almost churned through the last 100 pages in order to finish it. It is beautifully written, although some of those long sentences contain enough double negatives that I had to re-read them several times to understand the point James was making.

    Agree with everything you say above, it is certainly absorbing. But I was also aware of my frustration over why Isabel didn’t separate from Gilbert once the full realisation of the man she married came to her (the famous chapter 42). I completely understand that my 21st century perspective colours my opinion; but my hope that Isabel would shrug off the hypocritical snob she married once she gleaned the full measure of him was dashed at the end, leaving me dissatisfied. Agree with one of the earlier posters about preferring a neat happy ending a la Austen – James is much more intriguing and complicated than that which I can appreciate on a literary level but personally left me disappointed.

    The other thing I found disquieting was the lack of attention paid to the death of Isabel’s baby with Gilbert at six months – again perhaps that is a measure of our modern sensibility where it is so much rarer for babies to die. But I still thought this was glossed over, to the point of irrelevance – the event added nothing to the plot or the train of Isabel’s thinking.

    But overall a rich, enjoyable read.

  8. Some great points there, Anna. Yes, I kept waiting to hear the story of the baby’s death, too. Perhaps it was there to indicate they’d been more physical early on in their relationship? But yes, in that time it was much more common for babies and infants to die than it is now.

    I think she chose not to separate from Gilbert out of some sort of pride. She’d made her choice, and it was a mistake, but she felt duty-bound to it. She doesn’t see any alternative, and I think she did want to return to Pansy. What do you think?

    Personally I liked the tragic, complicated ending and I think I would have been less satisfied if it were all wrapped-up nicely à la Austen. I guess that comes down to personal taste!

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