The Portrait of a Lady

Lydia Touchett is a wealthy American who divides her year between homes in Italy and England and every now and then visits her old family home in Albany; which is where she finds her orphaned niece, sitting reading a book amongst a jumble of old furniture, and asks her if she would like to accompany her to Europe.

So, in 1870, Isabel Archer arrives at Gardencourt, the Tudor house set some 40 miles outside of London, with lawns sloping down to the River Thames at ‘the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon’. There she meets her uncle, cousin Ralph and his friend Lord Warburton.

Isabel is sensible and kind, full of enthusiasm and fun – all in all she’s a hit. Young men fall in love with her and their sisters adore her, her erstwhile suitor Caspar Greenwood follows her over from America in hope, but Isabel values her independence and has no time for marriage, at least not until she’s travelled and seen some of the world. Gentle Ralph is one of those who love her and before his father dies persuades him to leave a part of his fortune to Isabel. He wants to see what such a spirited character will do given financial security and that action provides the catalyst. Now a wealthy young women Isabel is able to make her own choices.

The action moves from the tranquility of a summer garden to the antiquity of Florence and Rome and Isabel meets her aunts friend Madame Serena Merle who in turn introduces her to Gilbert Osmond, a man described as ‘authoritative’ and ‘civilised’ and is 17 years Isabel’s senior. These two characters, so subtle in their cunning and so malicious in their plotting, work together to ensnare Isabel engulfing her in a black veil of despair.

Married to Osmond and living in the heart of Rome in the Palazzo Roccanera, a ‘dark and massive structure. . . which smelt of historic deeds, of crime and craft and violence. . . visited by tourists who looked, on a vague survey, disappointed and depressed, and which had frescoes by Caravaggio in the piano nobile and a row of mutilated statues and dusty urns in the wide, nobly-arched loggia’ Isabel feels suffocated. He watches and mocks her, ‘his egotism lay hidden like a serpent in a bank of flowers’, he likes and admires her intelligence but only so long as it follows his lead

‘The real offence, as she ultimately perceived, was her having a mind of her own at all. Her mind was to be his – attached to his own like a small garden-plot to a deer-park.’

Isabel is described as ‘human-hearted’ what then does this make her husband? There’s a definite whiff of the gothic, vampires and bats and the old country encircling the modern, young, American heroine. And when Ralph sees her again after a few years absence he acknowledges perhaps the saddest thing about her when he recognises that ‘of old she had been curious, and now she was indifferent . . . it was as if Osmond deliberately, almost malignantly, had begun to put the lights out one by one.

For a young women who set out with so much self belief and such a sense of enthusiasm, Isabel’s fate is tragic. The scenes between her and her friend Harriet Stackpole (a lady journalist), at the beginning of the book, are really fun, they have the fresh vibrancy of youth living it up away from home and I do wonder why there isn’t a series of “Harriet Stackpole Investigates” novels!

But. Would Isabel Archer ever really have married Gilbert Osmond? I’m afraid I was never really convinced. James tells us over and over how sensible she is and how she values her independence, and then almost as soon as she is given the settlement that allows her her freedom, and against the advice of all her friends (including Osmond’s sister and her aunt) she gives it up.

When we’re first introduced to her the narrator says that she’s ‘very liable to the sin of self-esteem;’ that ‘she often surveyed with complacency the field of her own nature; and that ‘she was in the habit of taking for granted, on scanty evidence, that she was right’‘ So is that it, pride comes before a fall and this hateful life is her punishment? Seems a bit harsh.

Which brings me to the narrator. The language was so visual, painting scenes in great detail that was often humorous, at times really creepy and sometimes cruel, but it could also at times feel pompous and horribly moralising, which is why I think it took me so long to read, I could never really settle into it. I would have preferred to spend more time with the characters than being told about them.

This was my first attempt at reading Henry James and whilst I’m not rushing to another one, I think he is a writer I’ll try again.

25 thoughts on “The Portrait of a Lady

  1. Interesting review of a book I have been meaning to read for a long time! I have read ” The Turn of the Screw” and ” What Maisie Knew”. I enjoyed both the books for their deep psychological insights but like Kaggsy I found the language to be very long winded and dense that it sometimes took away from the joy of reading. Your review makes me want to attempt this book. It is after all the work he is most famous for.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Why use 5 words when 15 will do – the over writing did take the joy out of it! But maybe knowing that and being prepared will make future reading of his easier – is it on your classics list?


      1. One of my favourites perhaps; I posted about it in 2014, but on revisiting it just now find that I gave away much of the plot, so I wouldn’t recommend reading that until you’ve read the story. It’s one of his classic ‘innocent American v decadent Europeans’ stories – but more complicated than that crude summary would suggest. I was engaged back then in a periodic task of writing about HJ’s short stories – but this fizzled out a while back. Maybe I’ll resume the project some time soon. I think The Aspern Papers is one of my favourites. Or The Author of Beltraffio. But they’re all worth reading.

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  2. I’ve never read any Henry James and I am not sure you have convinced me. Isabel sounds like a wonderful character, though. From what you write, it sounds questionable whether she would really have married such a man.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, I suppose technically his heroine can marry whoever he likes. 😉 For me it may ruin the credibility of the story a bit, but perhaps it makes for a more interesting plot, that the happily ever after version?

        Liked by 2 people

    1. On your classics list?! I felt at the beginning it was like an Oscar Wilde play – all those chaps in the garden drinking tea and talking aimlessly about pretty girls but without any of the sparkle. Could you give it another go please because I’d love to hear what you think?!

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      1. Like an Oscar Wilde play without the sparkle is hilarious!
        I will read it sometime… I kept starting it during lockdowns but couldn’t concentrate enough to continue. If I read it when things are more normal and I’m on annual leave, I should do better…hopefully!

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  3. Jane, this is such a good review. Add all the comments too, and I am left with a clear path when it comes to tackling James, which I’d like to do one day. I’ll start with short stories or novellas! I frequently enjoy wordy books and frequently enjoy books with deep psychological insights. BUt put the two together and it may be too much like wading through treacle!

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    1. I was trying to think of an equivalent author and I came up with Trollope, I’ve only read one of his as well but that zipped along. Now that it’s been a few weeks since I finished Portrait of a Lady, it’s the story that’s stuck with me and it was very good, I have to remind myself that I found the actual reading rather tedious!

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  4. Hmm… doesn’t sound too enticing. I haven’t hated what little James I’ve read, but I haven’t loved it either. I think he’s probably stronger on society than on individual characters maybe. If you want to know what happens next John Banville wrote a follow-up novel a couple of years ago called Mrs Osmond. I got it at the time not knowing it was a sequel, so quickly abandoned it as it was full of spoilers for this one, but he’s a good writer and I think it was fairly well received by fans of the original.

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  5. Not much into classics because I always spend an extensive amount of time (and i mean *extensive*…) reading them. I loved hearing about your take on this book though, and how you described the book and the characters.


    1. No, I wanted to give Henry James a try and so put him on my classics challenge list, I’m not sure I’ll get around to another one though!


  6. If I’m not in love or strong like with a character in a book, even if the writing is beautiful, I can’t get into it. I just didn’t feel connected to anyone at all. I feel like I noticed the writing more than cared about the story.

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