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?