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Customer Review

17 of 52 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A poor puppet show, March 10, 2006
This review is from: The Portrait of a Lady (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
This is not a novel at all; but a poor puppet show displayed by a clumsy puppeteer, a man who has an impressive grasp of English language but unfortunately is not in touch with reality.

The novel is about Elizabeth Archer, a young, attractive and intelligent American Miss, who happens to have her own mind: nothing wrong with this portrait, so far so good. However, Henry James makes the fatal mistake of writing about things which he does not know. Right at the beginning of the story an English lord is introduced, handsome, athletic, cultivated and very rich, the arch type of ideal Victorian masculinity, the type every woman has a vague picture of in her fantasies, but unable to paint in full. He falls in love with the penniless Miss Archer and proposes to her. He is rejected. Our heroine cannot find any faults, but cannot imagine him as her husband. This is not unusual; women have their own minds, tastes and idiosyncrasies. Men have no logical explanation for the feminine taste. The English lord disappears, only to return later in the novel: this time ready to propose to another poor American girl, Miss Osmond, who, like our heroine, cannot picture herself married to this Victorian ideal. Then there is countess Gimini, Mr. Osmond's sister, another penniless American woman married to an Italian count. And last, but not least, one has to mention Mr. Osmond, who wins the heart of our heroine, but ends up disappointing her. There are several other characters, but three are worth mentionening: Miss Stackpole (here James is in his own element, depicting an independent, yet traditionally sentimental American woman), Mr. Goodwood, the ardent lover of Elizabeth Archer, who seems to have no other purpose in life than run after a woman who has decidedly rejected him and beg for her hand. Mr. Goodwood is portrayed as the athletic type with a large square jaw, a visible sign of a determined, firm character (back then the pseudo-science of physiognomy was in vogue, and a firm sqaure jaw was a shore indication of a firm character).

Has anyone ever heard of a handsome rich English lord going around and proposing to penniless American girls? Has anyone heard of an Italian count marrying a poor American woman? Now Mr. Osmond and Madam Merle: Has anyone ever heard of an American father threatening his daughter with penury and imprisonment in an Italian convent? Has anyone ever heard of an American woman calling herself Madam Merle... Madam?

Henry James is the final product of mediocrity supported by everything money can buy. He has no originality; he is sophomoric at his best. In his eagerness to become an English gentleman he has forgotten what it means to be an American. "The Portrait of a Lady," acclaimed as a classic and a masterpiece, is nothing but an empty puppet show. Despite all my efforts, constantly repressing every impulse not to throw the book in the garbage, I could not go beyond page 484...And I am an ardent reader of Victorian novels.

Two stars for the excellent prose.

Read George Gissing instead!
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Showing 1-6 of 6 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jul 22, 2007 1:28:57 PM PDT
Kelp Murmur says:
I'm almost certain that anyone who can't even get the name of the protagonist right has nothing of worth to say about a novel -- or, probably, about any subject whatever. It's just mind-boggling to think that a person would devote time to saying inane things about a great novel, while all the while he has only the barest familiarity with its particulars. It's not difficult to learn the actual name of the woman the novel's about. Here's what you do: get a copy of the novel (you evidently don't have one); you don't even need to read it (and you evidently haven't): just look at the back cover. Ah, there's her name! It's Isabel, not Elizabeth. Who knew?

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 8, 2007 5:31:18 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 9, 2007 3:27:26 PM PDT
OK, Adrian should get the name right, and (s)he may be well advised to use more temperate language. But I don't think Adrian is as far off-base as the irate Vroonifer suggests. These review sites tend to attract superfans who get offended if their favorite novel is criticised, and it takes a little courage to be a Cassandra. I very much enjoy Victorian literature (e.g. Trollope, Thackery, Dickens, Eliot, etc.); I'm also halfway into James' POAL. Well, even though the novel is getting better since they arrived in Italy, I'm more sympathetic with Adrian than the Amen chorus that liberally passes out five star ratings. I may have more to say later, but thus far, the novel has its moments, but is not up to the standards of the earlier cited authors. If it's to be American, I'll take Twain over James. The Innocents Abroad is a hoot relative to POAL, and I'm beginning to appreciate Twain's comment on a James book, "Once you put it down, you simply cannot pick it up." OK, I actually still can pick up POAL, but as of today, I'd rather pick up Twain.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 26, 2008 5:52:31 PM PST
Blue Eagle says:
Hear hear.

There are so many factual errors in the above review, apart from 'Elizabeth' Archer that it is laughable. To help the reviewer... 'Madame' Merle married a Frenchman, hence the title. The rejection of Lord Warburton by Pansy Osmond has nothing to do with his rejection by Isabel Archer. It is possible to write about Europeans as well as Americans. The last word I would use to describe Henrietta Stackpole is 'sentimental'. I am not sure why the reviewer dwells so much on Warburton's and Goodwood's respective appearance. As for whether the reviewer has 'heard' of these situations... the novel was written in the 19th century. Presumably Henry James had some idea of what life was like then. As for it being insufficiently 'American' this entirely misses the point about James.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 23, 2010 4:06:45 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 23, 2010 4:11:24 AM PDT
The thing is, if you're not a "superfan," you're very likely to dislike any book that's new to you. You're just not in the mood. Then if a story is a classic or a bestseller, you feel as if you're getting pushed to read it, and that makes your not being in the mood for it a reason to get angry -- maybe even to suspect a conspiracy of college professors.

When books have been assigned by high school teachers, the number of one-star reviews mounts astronomically and the rage goes off the charts. When the book just has a good reputation, like PORTRAIT OF A LADY, people who aren't ready for it drop by to say it's overrated. Sometimes they explain how many OTHER classics they like, as if that meant they could never dislike a good book and everybody who does like the book is a lying escapee from an insane asylum that doubles as a graduate school.

Result? Even the craziest five-star reviews are more trustworthy, and the one-star reviews end up in newspaper columns making fun of how dumb Americans have become.

Posted on Jun 27, 2011 6:13:02 PM PDT
Has anyone ever heard of a "review" that is more devoid of merit than Adrian's? I could care less whether or not you liked the book, Adrian, but it seems that the main reason for your dislike was that it strained your credulity. (Has anyone ever heard of a ghost that comes back from the dead to tell his son to avenge his 'murder most foul'?) Adrian: Have you ever heard of willing suspension of disbelief?

Posted on Jul 21, 2011 5:39:11 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 21, 2011 5:44:38 PM PDT
Lazar says:
Adrian strikes me as being either unable or unwilling to suspend disbelief. If one understands Osmond's character, I believe it would be difficult to disbelieve his intentions. He's one of the few characters in literature who can be described as satanic without hyperbole. As for Warburton, he has enough money to do what he likes, and was utterly captivated by Isabel. His proposal to Pansy is explained later and concerns Isabel as well. I found neither of these scenarios incredible. I wonder if Adrian also scoffs at Mr. Darcy's double proposal to Elizabeth Bennet, or of Dorothea's marriage to Casaubon? Because, I mean, really, who has ever HEARD of this kind of stuff happening?

In response to the comment by Joseph M. Powers, I think his favoring of "Innocents Abroad" over "Portrait of a Lady" is a bit ridiculous; IA is one of Twain's hack-jobs, a travel narrative of unremarkable thoughts or prose, and not even in the same league as PoaL. I honestly don't even find it that funny. Furthermore, if all one is searching for in a book is a "hoot," then indeed, Henry James is the wrong author.
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