The Portrait of a Lady

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10 Things I Love About Henry James's The Portrait Of A Lady

1. Isabel Archer
The "lady" in the title. Beautiful, young, headstrong and spirited, the American woman visits her wealthy relatives in England, rejects marriage proposals by two worthy suitors, inherits a fortune and then is manipulated into marrying one of the most odious creatures on the planet, Gilbert Osmond. She's utterly fascinating, and if I were back in university, I imagine having long conversations and arguments about her character. What does she want: Freedom The ability to choose, even if it's a bad choice Is she a projection of James's latent homosexuality Is she a feminist or not There are no simple answers.

2. The Prose and Psychological Complexity
Damn, James knew how to write long, luxuriant sentences that dig deep into his characters' minds. Sometimes the effect can be claustrophobic - get me out of this person's head! - but more often it's utterly compelling and convincing. We partly read fiction to learn about other people's lives, right Well, James does that. (The exceptions: Isabel's two wealthy, handsome suitors, Warburton and Goodwood, are less than believable, and remind me of eager (or horny) dogs, their tails wagging whenever they're around their love/lust object.)

3. The Story
Okay, not much really happens. But as the book progressed, even though I sort of knew the outcome (it's hard to avoid spoilers from a 135-year-old classic), I was increasingly curious to see how Isabel would act. In fact, I raced through the final chapters, breathlessly. Who knew: Henry James, page-turner! And have a theory about that ending Take your turn...

4. The Humour
It's not a comedy, but there are lots of amusing bits. James's narrator is genial and funny. Henrietta Stackpole, her gentleman friend, Mr. Bantling, and even Gilbert Osmond's sister, the Countess Gemini, are all very colourful characters who elicit a chuckle or two. And Isabel's aunt can be terribly cutting as well. I love Ralph (Isabel's cousin) and the dignified British Lord Warburton's reactions to the enterprising, no-fuss American "lady journalist" Henrietta.

5. The Settings
Each one is significant: from the stately Gardencourt, home of Isabel's relatives the Touchetts, to the bustle and anonymity of London, to the ruins of Rome, where Isabel finds herself stuck in a dead, fossilized marriage. James is a master at finding the right place to stage a scene. I could write an essay about interiors and exteriors in the book, but I'll spare you.

6. The Villains
Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond: individually they're sinister, but together they're positively Machiavellian. In fact, in one scene, it's revealed that they both like Machiavelli, and Isabel doesn't get the clue! They totally play her. And yet they're believable, too. Osmond's scene in which he professes his love is brilliant in its manipulation; and the final turn of the screw (asking her to do him a favour!) is very clever. Madame Merle's motivations always keep you guessing. Does she see herself in Isabel Is she jealous Does she just want to exert her power over her The scene in which Isabel sees both in her home, conspiring (evident from their attitudes) is so powerful James refers to it a couple of times. And of course, it's missing from the Jane Campion film (see below).

7. The Themes
Does money corrupt What do you really know about someone before you marry What is the true nature of freedom What happens when New World (American) "innocence" meets Old World (European) "experience" All these themes - and many others - come across naturally, and never feel shoe-horned into the story.

8. The Technique
I remember hearing people go on about the architecture of Henry James's novels, and this one is sturdily, handsomely built. The book begins and ends in the same setting. And there are some ingenious sections in the middle, where time has passed and the reader discovers major information through conversations. Like any great writer, James knows what to leave out. He makes you do work to fill in the pieces, but the novel becomes more memorable because of that. And he bridges the Victorian and Modern eras, in the same way that Beethoven bridges the Classical and Romantic eras.

9. Chapter 42
After a huge blowup with Osmond, Isabel stays up all night, staring into the fireplace, and ponders her life, thinking: "How did I get here" James considered it one of the best things he'd ever written, and although I haven't read a lot of his work (which I will soon remedy), I'd have to agree. It's right up there with Hamlet's soliloquies.

10. The Fact that the Book Doesn't Lend Itself Well To Adaptation
A couple days after finishing the book, I watched the Campion film starring Nicole Kidman. Besides an evocative score and a brilliant performance by Barbara Hershey as Madame Merle and a suitably slimy one by John Malkovich (basically changing costumes from his Dangerous Liaisons character), it was dreadfully dull. There have been other James adaptations - The Wings Of The Dove, The Golden Bowl, The Bostonians - but none of these films has achieved the critical or popular success of an Age Of Innocence, Howards End or Room With A View. Maybe it's hard to get that psychological complexity onscreen Read the books.

***
Conclusion: James is The Master. Up til now, I'd only read his shorter works, like the novellas "The Turn Of The Screw," "Daisy Miller" (I still don't quite know what killed her - sorry if that's a spoiler) and "The Beast In The Jungle." Now I'm eyeing his other major novels; perhaps I'll even get through the notoriously difficult late period James. Can't wait to try!


When Isabel Archer, a beautiful, spirited American, is brought to Europe by her wealthy Aunt Touchett, it is expected that she will soon marry. But Isabel, resolved to determine her own fate, does not hesitate to turn down two eligible suitors. She then finds herself irresistibly drawn to Gilbert Osmond, who, beneath his veneer of charm and cultivation, is cruelty itself. A story of intense poignancy, Isabel’s tale of love and betrayal still resonates with modern audiences. #classic_audiobooks

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