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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
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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 into 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
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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!)
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on September 19, 2003
I've come back to this novel after reading it in graduate school thirty years ago, and I remain awed by James's genius. His ability to depict the nuance of social interaction is unparalleled. His psychological understanding of his characters is almost uncanny. Add to that perhaps the most complex, devious, sociopathic villains in literature -- Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond -- and you have a gripping story of greed, deception, and innocence lost. "The Portrait of a Lady" represents the true epitome of the 19th-century English novel.
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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.
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on August 17, 2014
If you have had your heart broken by friends and loves who lie, keep secrets and deliberately try to hurt you, "Portrait of a Lady" will touch the deepest recesses of your heart and mind. If you are young and romantic (as I was the first two times I read it), you will probably hate it.
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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.
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