The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

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When the confident orphaned young American woman at the center of The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (published 1881) receives a fortune, it seems she will be able to live her dream life of happiness. Yet, James’ portrait of Isabel Archer’s character, emotional development, and her choices is a complex one. As a relatively independent woman, Isabel is still restricted by the social and cultural restraints of being a woman in the mid-nineteenth century. As with my read of The Mill on the Floss (discussed last week), The Portrait of a Lady annoyed me because of the limited perspective Isabel Archer was able to embrace as a woman, and her story in general frustrated me because of what did and did not happen based on Isabel’s perceived “duty” as a woman.

Although I try to avoid spoilers below, there may be some thematic discussion that could “spoil” the novel for the particular reader.

The Portrait of a Lady was my first Henry James novel, and I must admit that before I began, I was scared of what I’d heard would be James’ “dense” and “wordy” prose. On the contrary, I wasn’t bogged down with James’ text: I rather like his tone, especially that in the dialogue, and while I’d agree the descriptive paragraphs are quite long, I would suggest James simply needed a few more paragraph breaks to make it a bit more readable. In all, reading the novel was not an issue for me. I enjoyed that aspect.

On the other hand, there was nothing that jumped out for me as I read. The setting (Victorian London and Europe), the characters (particularly an independent woman speaking her mind), and the plot (a woman searching for her place amidst various cultural constraints) all suggest I’d love it. But I didn’t. As with my recent readings of Anthony Trollope, I can’t put my finger on why I didn’t adore it. The woman in me was annoyed by Isabel’s limitations, but, as with the woman’s issues in The Mill on the Floss, I believe the author intended the reader to feel a sense of dissatisfaction. James would rather abandon the ridiculous double standards, and he hopes to point out the double standards to the reader by portraying a realistic, albeit frustrating, perspective.

In preparing discussion questions for my book club discussion tonight, I came across one that asked, essentially, how chapter one of the novel provides an overview of the themes of the novel as a whole. Why does James begin with three gentlemen enjoying an English tea when this is a book, supposedly, about a young woman?

I found this an interesting question, so I reread Chapter 1 with the entire novel in mind. A few things stood out to me. First, the gentlemen, in discussing their superficial physical comfort, indicate a truth that James expands on later in more symbolic ways. Lord Warburton says, “Yes, that’s the bore of comfort … We only know when we’re uncomfortable.”

Such becomes Isabel’s predicament as her life progresses. As the social and cultural expectations begin to close her in a cage, she realizes the discomfort that comes from making the decisions she had made. She lost the “boredom” of comfort for the more complete recognition of her trapped stage as a woman.

Further, the men discuss women flippantly in this first chapter. Although all of them are rather likeable characters, they still speak of an “interesting woman” as a rarity. Lord Warburton, of course, is the one who particularly seeks such a woman, and when he later meets Isabel, he is satisfied. This concept of Isabel being a particularly unique woman reveals the social restraints on women in that era. what set her apart was that she spoke her mind and sought freedom for the sake of freedom (she does not want to marry, for example, which was unheard of). Isabel’s developing life story, then, was a disconcerting one to me, especially considering how “interesting” she had began.

The society in which the men flippantly discuss women is one that destroys the interest in a woman’s personality because of the expectations. Expectations that suggest

“If I were afraid of my husband that would be simply my duty. That’s what women are expected to be.” (Volume 2, Chapter 48)

This was frustrating to read. But I think that’s the point.

  • What did you think about The Portrait of a Lady?
  • Did you find Isabel fascinating and interesting?
  • What do you think of her transformation, or do you believe she remained the same to the end?
  • Do you enjoy reading Henry James; which novel should be next for me?
Reviewed on November 16, 2011

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Re: James’s style, Portrait of a Lady is one of his most accessible novels, from fairly early on in his career, so it doesn’t have the insane twisted syntax and mannered dialogue of his later books. Oh oops, I mean, the lush, dense prose and distinctively-styled dialogue. Whatever.

    In any case, it’s been a while since I read this, but I remember sharing your frustration about Isabel and being a bit puzzled by her psychology (in particular, why she chooses the husband she does). It’s almost as if she’s unprepared for the marriage choices that come with her inheritance, so she lets herself be persuaded into the worst choice possible. But my memory of it is very vague; maybe I should re-read.

    • Emily » lol re; the insane twisted syntax versus lush dense prose! I didn’t get the “twisted” feeling at all from this book, but I’ll have to try more James, I guess 🙂

      At my book club last night, it was (granted) a small group but none of us could figure out why she picked the husband she did. I kind of feel I need to reread it with the end in mind and see if I can make more sense of her decisions. But, not any time soon 🙂

  • I loved this book after having struggled with some of James’s shorter novels. I never would have thought to think of it as being in the same vein as Mill on the Floss, but I can definitely see what you’re saying. Like Maggie, Isabel is trying to deal with the tension between what she wants in her heart vs. what society tells her she’s supposed to want. And that tension makes her confused and not even sure what she wants anymore. No wonder her decisions are such a mess! (I could see a lot of myself in Isabel, actually, which is probably why I adored the book so much.)

    • Teresa » I found MIll on the Floss exquisite and this one was not for me, so I can see how they aren’t really the same vein…but then, it’s the women’s acceptance of society’s expectations that just seem to predominate all the women in the books I’m reading lately! I think you said you saw a lot of yourself in Maggie too….sounds like societal expectations bug you a lot as well, even today!

      I’d agree that by the end she really doesn’t seem to know what she wants anymore. She’s not living for herself any more. Yet, she did go to England against her husband’s wishes, so maybe there is still a little of her rebellious independence left in her. At book club, we all wanted to know what the unwritten sequel would reveal: will she remain submissive to her husband in Rome or will she push back a bit more now that she’s had her goodbyes to Ralph? I don’t know. But I do see how a reread would help me understand Isabel far more. (Just not any time soon.)

      • You’re absolutely right–that tension between what I want and what is expected is something I’ve struggled with a lot in my life. It’s not particularly an issue for me now, but for much of my 20s, many in my circle of friends were very religiously conservative and had firm beliefs about gender roles, politics, social issues, and so on, and a lot of it clashed with my own gut beliefs. So it was confusing, and I see that same kind of confusion playing out in Maggie and Isabel.

  • It’s nice to hear that James isn’t as unreadable as I’ve always imagined him to be. 😛 I read a book when I was a kid that talked about this book in flattering terms, and it’s always stuck with me, so I know if I ever did decide to overcome my feelings of intimidation with James and give him a try, it would be with Portrait of a Lady. But that’s still a little bit in the future. I’m still nervous of him…

    • Jenny » well, maybe start small? Having heard of this book in flattering terms sounds like a good start because I began it having heard lots of complaints….and I wonder if that colored my opinion. Although i didn’t hate it in the end…Just a bit frustrated as I read.

  • I loved this one, although I second Emily that it’s v accessible as far as his writing goes!

    That being said, I’m ALWAYS annoyed when (spoiler-ish stuff following) a heroine makes dumb decisions and ruins her life and that’s the end. At a certain point, it draws me a bit out of the book, since it feels like a plot device, you know? But I do love my 19th century/early 20th century authors, many of whom rely on it. When I’m particularly frustrated, I can just go reread an Austen! 🙂

  • I’m a bit funny with Henry James – I find usually I like an author, or I don’t, or I love them, hate them, whatever, but Henry James – it’s all down to the book. I’m not well-read with James, don’t get me wrong, but Turn of the Screw – totally lost on me. Didn’t enjoy it. Then I read Dasiy Miller, and I liked it well enough, but it wouldn’t make me want to read more. Then, by absolute chance a few days ago I read The Aspern Papers and I cannot recommend that book enough! It is fantastic!

    Not read Portrait yet, but it is on my TBR list for 2012, more so having read your review 🙂

    • o » Yes, there are some authors I just simply love. Others it really depends on the book. I do need to read more James, just not sure which to go with. Maybe I’ll try the shorter ones — I have Aspern papers in a collection of shorter works by James.

  • I did my final year of highschool English during a summer program based at Oxford and part of the program required us to write an essay that compared and contrasted two novels… I chose Portrait of a Lady & Sense & Sensibility. I too had heard that PoaL was a really difficult read and I actually had a teacher who recommended I watch the Nicole Kidman version of the film if I found it hard to follow at times… I did watch the film, but not until after I had finished the book, which I seem to recall enjoying! It’s long been on my list of books I should revisit, now that I’m older, wiser, and a better reader, so I’m sorry it didn’t really resonate with you.

  • I read this one earlier this year and I’m actually in the final pages of The House of Mirth. The two books are so similar to me. I have loved both, but in both I was frustrated with the heroines’ tendencies to sabatoge their own lives. I think that’s the brilliance of the books though, you are rooting for someone who can’t seem to make their own life work.

  • I meant to comment on this right when you posted it, but lost track … I liked this book, especially his well-drawn characters (here’s my review). I haven’t read anything else by James (yet), but I was drawn to this book after reading Colm Toibin’s The Master. You might enjoy that, too.

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