The Portrait of a Lady
by Henry James
The Portrait of a Lady is one of those classics I always meant to read but never got around to it. It came up at last as essential reading on a lecture course on the English novel, so I felt obliged to tackle it. Though it has some merit in its depiction of the (mostly) idle rich and in its introspective handling of character, I found it over-long and rather tedious.
Isabel Archer, the ‘lady’ of the title, is a young American who arrives in England to stay with the family of her aunt, Mrs Touchett. Isabel is befriended by her cousin Ralph, who is an invalid. She also attracts suitors, the wealthy English peer Lord Warburton and the rich American businessman Caspar Goodwood. Both propose. Isabel declines, not only on the grounds that she does not love either but because ‘…[she] was fortunate in being independent, and that she ought to make some very enlightened use of that state.’
Ralph persuades his banker father to amend his will in Isabel’s favour and she inherits seventy thousand pounds. [This is 1881, so £70,000 goes a long way!] When the old man dies, Isabel embarks on a tour of Europe. Through the intrigues of Mme Merle, another friend of the Touchetts, she meets Gilbert Osmond, an American who lives in Rome, and is persuaded to marry him and be stepmother to his daughter Pansy. Isabel’s reasons for accepting are rather obscure and, it seems to me, anything but enlightened. Osmond is a cold fortune hunter, a collector of people and things, and before long Isabel realises her mistake. She becomes desperately unhappy. Her husband hates her. However, despite being made aware of the deception practised on her – which she might have recognised for herself had she been less independent and more intelligent, Isabel appears to take the view that marriage vows are marriage vows. She is genuinely fond of Pansy and plays the role of the loyal wife. When the opportunity presents itself, she refuses to leave her husband for good. The ending of the novel is open yet we are left wondering whether that decision is irrevocable.
Although he finds a place among English writers like Trollope, Dickens and Hardy, Henry James was an American by birth and became a British citizen only in 1915, about a year before his death. His brother William, an eminent psychologist and philosopher, is credited with the invention of the term stream of consciousness and Henry was one of the first novelists to make use of it in his character studies.
Readers demand two things from a novel, that it should be a damn good story, and that they can identify with well-drawn protagonists. The first has to be very good indeed if it is to offset a failing in the second – and vice versa. Despite Henry James’s innovative stream of consciousness approach, for me the story of The Portrait of a Lady was not quite good enough. It wasn’t so much that James forsook the traditional happy ending of earlier English fiction but that he failed to grab my interest in the first few chapters. The pages are peopled with useless, idle or devious (or a combination of all three) characters who seem to do nothing except wander around Europe hatching mischief. Even Isabel, the heroine, when not frustrating, is unappealing. Only Ralph engaged my sympathy. It doesn’t help that James’s work is full of tightly-packed prose, weighty paragraphs and much simile, metaphor and circumlocution.
The final third of the book is much more interesting than the rest. James finally gets inside Isabel’s mind to give us an understanding of her decisions and actions but it is too late. To be fair, there is some excellent prose and a few vivid scenes, such as the one at the end when Isabel realises it is the dying Ralph she should have listened to all along: ‘ “Oh Ralph, I’m very happy now,” she cried through her tears. “And remember this,” he continued, “that if you’ve been hated, you’ve also been loved. Ah but, Isabel -adored!” he just audibly and lingeringly breathed.’
There are some fine speeches yet much of the dialogue lacks clarity. I found myself wondering whether people ever spoke like this, even in 1881. And again, I found it difficult to believe in Isabel Archer as in any way representative of American womanhood of her day. It may be my ultra-modern literary perception but I wanted to tell her to ‘get a life’.
The Portrait of a Lady, for all its literary acclaim, is just not my sort of novel at all. I find myself rather at odds with my course lecturer regarding its merits. My one consolation is the beautiful edition, with marbled endpapers, that I bought for one pound at a charity sale.