120 of 125 people found the following review helpful
When Isabel Archer, a bright and independent young American, makes her first trip to Europe in the company of her aunt, Mrs. Touchett, who lives outside of London in a 400-year-old estate, she discovers a totally different world, one which does not encourage her independent thinking or behavior and which is governed by rigid social codes. This contrast between American and European values, vividly dramatized here, is a consistent theme in James's novels, one based on his own experiences living in the US and England. In prose that is filled with rich observations about places, customs, and attitudes, James portrays Isabel's European coming-of-age, as she discovers that she must curb her intellect and independence if she is to fit into the social scheme in which she now finds herself.
Isabel Archer, one of James's most fully drawn characters, has postponed a marriage in America for a year of travel abroad, only to discover upon her precipitate and ill-considered marriage to an American living in Florence, that it is her need to be independent that makes her marriage a disaster. Gilbert Osmond, an American art collector living in Florence, marries Isabel for the fortune she has inherited from her uncle, treating her like an object d'art which he expects to remain "on the shelf." Madame Serena Merle, his long-time lover, is, like Osmond, an American whose venality and lack of scruples have been encouraged, if not developed, by the European milieu in which they live.
James packs more information into one paragraph than many writers do in an entire chapter. Distanced and formal, he presents psychologically realistic characters whose behavior is a direct outgrowth of their upbringing, with their conflicts resulting from the differences between their expectations and the reality of their changed settings. The subordinate characters, Ralph Touchett, Pansy Osmond, her suitor Edward Rosier, American journalist Henrietta Stackpole, Isabel's former suitor Caspar Stackpole, and Lord Warburton, whose love of Isabel leads him to court Pansy, are as fascinating psychologically and as much a product of their own upbringing as is Isabel.
As the setting moves from America to England, Paris, Florence, and Rome, James develops his themes, and as Isabel's life becomes more complex, her increasingly difficult and emotionally affecting choices about her life make her increasingly fascinating to the reader. James's trenchant observations about the relationship between individuals and society and about the effects of one's setting on one's behavior are enhanced by the elegance and density of his prose, making this a novel one must read slowly--and savor. Mary Whipple
54 of 57 people found the following review helpful
on April 26, 2000
Henry James has truly outdone himself with this book. While it is no longer my favorite James' novel, I still think it among the best novels written in the English language. The character of Isabel Archer is an indelible part of literature. The story begins with an American woman, left parentless and penniless, being discovered by an expatriate Aunt. The Aunt convinces her to go England with her so that she might meet her cousin, Ralph. Isabel eagerly agrees. She is idealistic and has always wanted to see Europe. Her aunt agrees to pay for the expenditures. Once there, Isabel falls in love with their house, Gardencourt, and grows to enjoy her frail, sweet, ironic, and funny cousin. Before Isabel knows it, she has become ensnared in a one-sided love affair with a handsome English nobleman, Lord Warburton, little knowing what to do. Despite the urgings of her aunt, Isabel rejects his proposal in the desire to wait for something better. Soon, her elderly uncle dies, but not before she charms him with her intelligence and subtle beauty. Ralph insists that his father leave Isabel a substantial fortune, so that she might be able to live as she wishes. When the uncle dies, Isabel is left with 70,000 pounds, or about 200,000 dollars. From here is where the true story begins. I will not reveal more of the plot, which unwinds slowly and with assurance. James, being a master of prose, knows how to manipulate a sentence in a multitude of ways. His lilting, ironic, verbose writing style lends class and charm to Isabel's ultimately tragic tale. Some modern readers aren't able to handle James' subtle style. Unfortunately, many of us have had to fight the effects of shortened attention spans. Reading a slow-paced and brilliantly conceived tale like this will surely help cure short attention spans. Once you begin the story, it grows on you and affects you greatly. James is difficult getting used to, but he grabs you with his excellent descriptions of passionate people. Finally, the brilliance of this book lies in its tragedy. Even though many readers can predict early on where Isabel's confidence and naivete will lead her, James makes the journey bumpy and fascinating. He also slowly injects the story with dread, as we begin to sense the true malevolence of Madame Merle's and Osmond's vicious plans. Their acts are pure Machiavellian glee. Only in the final third of the book does it become clear of the true nature of the scheming M. Merle's plans. James also leaves several important plot points until near the end of the novel. All of this leads to a long, engrossing, and sad story of a young woman "affronting her destiny", as James puts it. Rarely has so romantic or so devastating a book been written. The ending is the final kicker. Unlike the happy ending we suspect, James leaves readers with open interpretations and many possible questions regarding Isabel's TRUE feelings about men. It also most vividly presents her sexual repression and fear that dominate the entire book. James knew the reserves of the time dictated that such topics not be discussed, and he cleverly uses this theme discreetly. However, he also uses it as a sort of indictment on the times, with their lack of passion and sensuality. Many readers expect a conclusion to the story, but, as with real life, stories simply go on. The ending is perhaps the most modern thing about the book. It also makes certain readers know that Isabel's life will never be one of happiness. This is an exquisitely haunting masterpiece.
30 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on May 1, 2005
Isabel Archer --the unforgettable protagonist of Henry James' "The Portrait of a Lady" -- says at some point that she doesn't want to begin life by marrying, and she attests there other things a woman can do. This declaration is the heart of the matter of this amazingly well executed and brilliant book. Naïve as she is, Isabel believes that in the 19th Century she would be able to enjoy her life and meet the world before getting married -- and not marrying is still a possibility.
With Isabel's dilemma American writer Henry James deals with the conflict between society and individual longings. Many writers have dealt this issue -- but only a few succeeded with such grace and competence as this author. The point is that Isabel is not the only one dealing with this problem. As a matter of fact, all characters of this novel, at some point in their life have to face the society against their personal wishes.
James was a master of psychological development. Not a single character in this novel is unrealistic. The cast of supporting characters is as deep as Isabel. With his talent, the writer explores the psychological conflict is a result of the society pressures against the characters beliefs -- and not a gratuitous philosophy like many writers usually do. The depth brings another pleasure in the reading of the novel.
Language is usually the main barrier for contemporary readers, when it comes to classic novels. With James it is a problem that can be easily overcome. His use of language however sophisticated is not difficult. His choice of words and structures are conscious and beautiful. The first chapters tend to be read slowly, but once the readers get the hang of James' prose, reading becomes an undeniable pleasure.
At the same time the writer explore the psychological side of his characters; he never neglects their social conflict. In the last part of the novel, for instance, James explores the results of Isabel choices relating them to her identity -- and how one affected another. At the same time, James makes a curious choice: we never see the main events in Isabel's life, they are told to the reader after they happen. This use of ellipses happen usually when the heroine chooses to value social costume over her independence.
As in most Henry James novels, he doesn't neglect the major conflict of this period of his work: Americans and Europeans. This time round the novel explore many American people living in Europe -- most characters are US born. If on the one hand, they represent the innocence, individualism and capability; the Europeans, on the other, are the sophistication, social convention and the decadence. But with so many Americans living in Europe how can one set the limits?
Isabel moves from America to England and, then, to continental Europe. At each stage she loses her independency, and she realizes she cannot control her life the way she thought she could. And she realizes that there aren't many things a woman of her time could do before marrying.
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on September 28, 2012
I decided to read Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James, after listening to a discussion of this novel on NPR. It was described as a masterpiece of literature. So I went to my Kindle and downloaded the "masterpiece" for 99 cents. I reluctantly prepared myself to work my way through one of James' dense and hard to read novels. I was in for a surprise. Except for James' preface, which indeed is a challenge, Portrait of a Lady was a great read. Written in the early 1880s, a time in when it was virtually unheard of to have a woman, let along a strong woman, as the main character in a novel. Nevertheless, James rejected this minimization of women, and took the leap. He describes our main character, Isabel Archer, an intelligent free spirit, with great creditability--showing both her bumps and bruises-- as well as the array of fascinating men and women whom influenced, or at least tried to influence her decisions. Throughout the novel the reader experiences an ever growing tension as to the degree Isabel will be able to preserve her independence. Will she succumb? What price is she willing or not willing to pay?
Henry James was well ahead of his times when he created Isabel Archer. Way to go Henry! I don't know if you would call yourself a frontier feminist, but I will.
Having said that, I hope male readers don't shy away from Portrait of a Lady. This is not a male basher. There are a number of strong and admirable men in Isabel's life. This is a novel about freedom of thought and action.
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on November 15, 2000
The best thing about 19th century novels is that they take so long to unwind, you know that you are guaranteed a long and satisfying trip into a story. I initially bought this book after seeing the Jane Campion film, (which I actually wasn't too crazy about)but I always think it's a good idea to read the source material. After a few false starts (warning: one needs to devote all their attention to James in order to enjoy him)I finally got into this book, and couldn't put it down. From the great settings of the novel, to the variety of fascinating characters (the liberated Henrietta Stackpole, the sinister Madame Merle, the beloved Ralph Touchett, Ralph's eccentric mother, the flighty Countess Gemini, the deadly Gilbert Osmond, and of course, Isabel Archer herself... James gives characters great names as well) "Portrait" is a great novel not only of self discovery, but self deception. How many of us in this world have liked to have thought ourselevs as free to make our own chocies, and were excited by a future full of "possibility" only to allow something (or usually someone) to get in our way and make us realize just how quickly we can lose our freedom and be in a cage that we need to get out of. (Pardon my bad grammar.) Those of you looking fora Jane Austen type ending, this may not be the book for you, but I think this book is more of a spiritual cousin to Austen than we may think. It all comes down to making choices, and teh effects of those decisions. Throw off any reservations that you may have because this book was written over a century ago, it's as fresh, funny, tragic and riveting today as it was then. (And hey, buy the film soundtrack which perfectly captures the mood of the story for accompaniment..that was a plug!)
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on May 20, 2001
Henry James is one of my favorite authors and The Portrait of a Lady is one of his greatest works. In it, he creates a unique and unforgettable heroine, Isabel Archer, and then proceeds to let her make all the mistakes the young are capable of making. In fact, Isabel is so sure of herself that, at times, I found it difficult to have much sympathy for her poor choices. But one thing I never felt for Isabel Archer was indifference, all to James' credit.
The Portrait of a Lady is truly 19th Century literature at its finest, but that means it also contains elements that might be distracting for the modern reader. There are lengthy descriptions, the pace is rather slow and James never lets us forget we are reading a book. He makes liberal use of phrases such as "our heroine," and "Dear Reader." While all of this was expected in the 19th Century, some readers today might find it annoying.
Those who don't however, will find themselves entranced by a beautiful story of love and loss, unforgettable characters (there are many more besides Isabel, most notably the enigmatic Madame Merle) and gorgeous description, all rendered in James' flawless prose.
Anyone who loves classics or who wants a truly well-rounded background in literature cannot afford to pass this up.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on August 14, 2006
In THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY, Henry James continues his fascination with taking Americans out of their vulgar and moneyed new world environment and placing them in a stuffy but cultured old world, a comparison of which sometimes leads the reader to think that James himself sometimes could not prefer one over the other. In this novel, the transplanted American is wealthy heiress Isabel Archer, a woman who early on is depicted as determined to see the world and experience its myriad flavors. The problem with this is that Isabel is both attracted to and repelled by those exotic flavors. She is described in terms that emphasize her virginity and general innocence of soul. When Isabel arrives in England she encounters three suitors, with each one representing one aspect of that which either entices her or annoys her.
The first suitor is Caspar Goodwood, an American who is described as wealthy, handsome, virile, and decent. He would indeed be a fine husband for Isabel, but for one factor. James often depicts Goodwood's appearance in terms that accentuate his virility. Whenever they embrace, James (perhaps leeringly) narrates that Isabel felt his male hardness press in. Goodwood simply cannot touch Isabel without that concommitant reaction which drives Isabel away.
The second suitor is Lord Warburton, a wealthy and titled Englishman who also proposes to Isabel. He is simply full of positive qualities that most women would find flattering, but for one which is hardly his fault. Isabel assumes that if they marry, she would simply merge into the unnoticed background that forms the ongoing basis of the life of the wife of a titled lord. So she rejects him as well.
The third suitor is Gilbert Osmond, an older American expatriate who charms Isabel into accepting his proposal, despite the many objections of every one of her social circle who complained that in every way Osmond was all the wrong man. So why did she choose him? To begin with, her acceptance was no hasty affair. She had known Osmond for years before marrying him. Since he was considerably older than she, she blithely assumed that he would not make the sexual demands that a younger Goodwood might make nor would he be likely to infringe on her personal freedoms of choice when it comes to travel, friends, or life style considerations. Further, Isabel's good friend, Madam Merle, is the only one who praises Osmond and is thus instrumental in assuring her acceptance.
After Isabel's marriage predictably begins to unravel, James uses irony to point out that even well-considered choices may go sour if one ignores the hard facts of reality. We find out that Madam Merle had had a child with Osmond and a match with a wealthy woman would ensure the support of that child. Further, when Isabel rejects the first two suitors she correctly had sized up her initial rejections but in hindsight, those qualities that she saw as fearful were only mildly so, and easily corrected. When Isabel accepts Osmond using her rationale that he would not restrict her life choices, she is woefully wrong. The climax of the novel occurs when, after a few years of marriage, she discovers that her ill cousin Ralph Touchett is dying and wishes to see her. Touchett earlier had given Isabel a vast fortune to make an already wealthy woman even more so, and now when she tells Osmond that she wishes to travel to be by Ralph's side at the end, Osmond proves to be the very quintessence of a Jamesian villain, one who asks for all but gives nothing in return. He refuses her permission by stating: "I think we should accept the consequences of our actions."
The ending of THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY is ambiguous. We do not know if Isabel will remain with Osmond. All that we know for sure is the ironic veracity of Osmond's closing words. Isabel has made her choices; now is the time to decide whether to honor their eminently foreseeable consequences. In PORTRAIT OF A LADY, Henry James says this as well as anyone else has.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on February 9, 2000
Henry James is not known for his swift pace in world literature; instead, along w/ his psychiatrist brother, Henry James never fails to frame the fragility of human spirit with an elegant touch, weaving the psyche into one continuous stream of thoughts. In this stunning achievement of his, James portrays a young, ingenuous American heiress, Isabel Archer, who comes to Europe looking for ways to escape commonality of her old life. Intelligent and rebellious, Isabel soon finds herself entrapped in a society where one might not soar as high even with an impressive fortune as the one she has inherited. It is her wish to avoid the common lot that leads her astray: first refusing a good nobleman, then bestowing herself on a mysterious stranger for the sake of "tasting reality". Not knowing the consequence of such a fateful entanglement, Isabel refuses advice from her earnest but sickly cousin and eccentric but wise aunt to consent to a devious dilettante, seducer who hunts her down with the appeal of a poor man in want of sympathy.
This is where James so skillfully masters the art of psychology--in one aspect the readers are drawn to share in Isabel's subtle fall into an abyss of shapeless pain, in another apsect, we as readers cannot help but denounce Isabel's pompous intelligence that leads her further away from the truth which her pride prevents her from seeing. The moral of her tragedy (which includes further entanglement with an American beau, her cousin, her step-daughter, an all-American girl-friend, and a dark motherly figure whose relationship w/ Isabel's husband remains a mystery for you to discover), is that in a process of seeking happiness through pain, through seeking out suffering to justify her wealth, Isabel loses sight of a reality that may be ruled by one thing and one thing only--fate.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on November 9, 2005
Just finished this masterpiece. Must admit that I feel like I have performed the literary equivalent of running a half-marathon (Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, in French Original, will be the full marathon). Was it worth my time? Absolutely. First, let it be said that one need not feel too bad about not reading all classics all the time (after all, what is modern literature there for?). Large parts of the non-contemporary plot are simply not applicable to our present-day situations, needs and moods, and however beautifully nineteenth-century mannerism may be depicted, the protagonists' issues often do not remotely reflect our own, which, at least for this reviewer, is one of the main attractions of "Lady"- titled books. Throughout the good first half of this oeuvre I could not unreservedly ascribe to the affectionate portrait Henry James was painting of this young lady Isabel Archer, in spite of some physical description and more dialogue. Apart from the (sad? lucky? progressive?) fact that most people I know have trouble grasping the day-to-day grind of the leisure class, with their seemingly life-filling partying and globetrotting backed by an armada of servants, it was exactly the repeated emphasis of "our heroine's" independence, her infallible quick-wittedness, and her holier-than-thou attitude that placed her in further distance, because I found her social graces hard to relate to. Whirlwind romances, quickie-marriages and lovesick suitors are certainly no foreign subjects today, particularly in southern California, it is just the way those perfect gentlemen fall head-over-heels for girls they just barely met (and never unaccompanied, mind you), how they woo them, the absoluteness of it all, that elicits more sympathetic smiles than affirmative nods when read now. It is sad that Isabel's refusal of two excellent marriage proposals - in terms of financial security - seems so unrealistically romantic in our money-crazed world, just like her cousin's otherworldy altruistic motives for persuading his father to bequest to Isabel and immense amount of money just because she is a good girl.
But this is, after all, romance in the sense of a novel, and it is where the genius of great novelists like James comes in. From this not-quite-yet happy ending on things begin to take a slow but steady darker yet more identifiable turn, until plot twists and the open-ended conclusion of the book lend sense to many events, including the ones described above.
The painstaking description of Isabel's marital discords, her husband's eloquent cynicism juxtaposed to her pointed brevity, her growing melancholy and sensation of suffocation in the midst of preserving appearances for society's sake is nothing short of brilliant. The vanishing of Isabel's independence is present on the reader's mind as much as on Isabel's, and I found myself rooting for her to regain it. On a reconciliatory note to the previously expressed criticism about the too-perfect dialogue-Isabel's friends' and particularly her grumpy aunt's aphorisms were a delight to read, even if they sound more like a script for "what I should have said but didn't think of in time". But, again, this is why they are called classics: You don't necessarily have to live in the time to appreciate the meaning; the message lives on. Isabel's loyal friend Henrietta personifies the quintessential modern American girl, as James sees her, more bluntly than Isabel. It is presumably through Henrietta's gainful employment, her long-lasting singlehood and her criticism of many things traditional, like servitude, that James expresses an expatriate's affection for the USA (though this country had its own fair share of "domestics" issues). All in all an occasionally chewy but rewarding read!
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James sketches the account of life and times of most memorable heroine Isabel Archer. Isabel leaves US and arrives in England with her Aunt. Her cousin, Ralph, who ails from tuberculosis takes active interest in her, and Henry James creates highly realistic and entertaining conversations, which shed light into the character and thoughts of both these characters and the uncle and the aunt. The story gets interesting with presence of two suitors, each highly successful in their respective country (US and UK). The dying uncle leaves his neice a fortune, and she finds herself independent enough to pursue her whims and life.
Her marriage to Gilbert Osmond, the events that lead to it and how Isabel comes of age is the reason why Portrait of a Lady is a must read novel for every person. After denying two apt and deserving suitors, Isabel ventures to make a tragic choice and the intricate interplay of her perception or rather lack of it with the circumstances and events makes novel a masterpiece. The strains between the Old Europe and New America, the idiosyncracies associated with each come to fore, both through Isabel's life and through that of her journalist friend's, Henrietta Stackpole's.
Be it plain Pansy, the perfectionist Madame Merle, the cold and practical Aunt, the socialite Countess Gemini, each woman, like Isabel, is portrayed in sufficent detail. The two suitors engage as character studies, while the cousin Ralph is the character that shall stay with me forever. Admirable even in adverse circumstances, he is for me besides Isabel, the greatest creation of Henry James.
The story could have become melodramatic, but that is highly understated. The dialogues could have filled it to make it like screenplay, but James supplies nice descriptions of both the physical world and that of what goes in Isabel's heart to make it substantial. The commentaries on love and marriage that are subtly built into the novel, and the picture of both US and Europe seem quite contemporary. For a novel written in 1881, it shows how acute the observations of the author were, as well as the fact that we, humans, live life with similar choices, mistakes and feelings irrespective of the age. The novel has enough element of suspense, and events unfold in unexpected ways, making each discovery a pleasant or unpleasant surprise.
Having read many bleak American novels, this Henry James novel allows one to see how a Jane Austen type entertainer can be generated with sufficient origanility by a masterful writer. I am spellbound by the analogies in many of the most memorable actresses, espicially in how they make their choices between men.
Four excerpts from novel shows one the essence of the book:
"Justice to a lovely being is after all a florid sort of sentiment."
"She had had a more wondrous vision of him, fed though charmed senses and oh such stirred fancy!- she had not read him right. A certain combination of features had touched her, and in them she had seen most striking of figures. That he was poor and lonely and yet that somehow he was noble- that was what had interested her and seemed to give her her opportunity. There had been an undefinable beauty about him - in his situation, in his mind, in his face. She had felt the same time that he was helpless and ineffectual, but the feeling had taken a form of tenderness which was very flower of respect."
"It was not till the first year of their life together, so admirably intimate at first, had closed she had taken the alarm. Then the shadows had begun to gather; it was as if Osmond delibrately, almost malignantly, had put the lights out one by one."
"How could anything be a pleasure to a woman who knew that she had thrown away her life?"