Martine's Reviews > The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
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Mar 01, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: favourites, film, nineteenth-century, north-american, psychological-drama
Recommended for: lovers of good nineteenth-century drama
Read in January, 1995

The Portrait of a Lady has to be my favourite of the fifteen or so Henry James books I've read. The crowning achievement of James' middle period, when he had honed his powers of observation to perfection but had not yet slipped into the long-winded obscurity that makes his later novels so hard to read, it is in my opinion one of the most perfect novels of the nineteenth century. Very little actually happens in it, but what little does happen is described so exquisitely that you hardly notice it's a whole lot of nothing spread out over 600+ pages. That's masterful story-telling for you.

The Portrait of a Lady centres on Isabel Archer, a young, lively and intelligent American who is taken to Europe by her eccentric expatriate aunt. In Europe, she is courted by eligible bachelors who appreciate her independent-mindedness and wish to see where it will lead her, but for all their attentions, she ends up marrying a cold-hearted bastard who treats her like an ornament and all but breaks her spirit. The rest of the book revolves around the question whether Isabel will stay with her husband out of a sense of duty or live up to her old ideals of independence.

As I said, there's not an awful lot of story here (the above paragraph is a near-complete summary of the plot), but James makes the most of it. With his powerful observations and descriptions and superb characterisation, he paints a vivid portrait of nineteenth-century womanhood and the institution of marriage, of love, loyalty and longing, of purity versus artificiality, of betrayal, of the differences between Americans and Europeans (a recurring theme in his oeuvre) and of major themes in life: duty, honour, commitment, freedom. Isabel Archer is a likeable heroine whose dreams are quite recognisable to the modern reader, so while James keeps his distance from her, analysing her as a case study rather than as a flesh-and-blood human being, the reader feels for her; it's quite torturous watching her go and make the mistakes which will ruin her life. Both Isabel's struggles and the other characters' are described in elegant but sharp and incisive prose. The result is a big book that is subtle yet dramatic, understated yet powerful, and that ranks among the best things James ever wrote.

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Martine Thank you, Ginnie. It's nice to go away for a while only to find that one's reviews are still being read and appreciated. As I always appreciate yours. :-)


Rebecca Martine, have you read The Tragic Muse? And, if so, do you recommend it?


Martine Rebecca, The Tragic Muse is one of very few James novels I haven't read yet. (The others are Watch and Ward, The Awkward Age, The Spoils of Poynton and The Sacred Fount.) It's on my pile of books to be read over the next few months. I've heard it's OK -- definitely not his best, but not as terrifyingly obscure as The Spoils of Poynton or The Sacred Fount. If you read it before I do, I'll be interested to hear your opinion on it!


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