Saturday, May 8, 2010

Girl on Book Action: The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
ISBN: 978-0-553-21127-6


Capturing the grandeur of a gracious, splendid Europe of wealth and Old World sensibilities, this glorious, complex novel has become a touchstone for a great writer’s entire literary achievement. From the opening pages, when the high-spirited American girl Isabel Archer arrives at the English manor Gardencourt, James’ luminous, superbly crafted prose creates an atmosphere of intensity, expectations, and incomparable beauty.

Isabel, who has been taken abroad by an eccentric aunt to fulfill her potential, attracts the passions of a British aristocrat and a brash American, as well as the secret adoration of her invalid cousin, Ralph Touchett. But her vulnerability and innocence lead her not to love but to a fatal entrapment in intrigue, deception and betrayal. This brilliant interior drama of the forming of a woman’s consciousness makes The Portrait of a Lady a masterpiece of James’ middle years.


My Thoughts:

Some introductory notes. As you will hopefully remember, The Portrait of a Lady was the most recent Reader’s Choice Poll winner and as such I now provide you with my review of this little gem.

For once I rather agree with the back cover, although I must admit to having some serious moments of doubt about how much I was ultimately going to enjoy this novel. My fear was that the 600 or so pages were going to be too much to contain what at first felt like a Jane Austen novel about finding the most agreeable (read wealthy) husband. However, those trepidations were unfounded. The book could possibly have been a little shorter, I think there were some things that could have been left out, but nothing glaring comes to mind. Overall, I appreciated the slightly varied perspectives and the interactions of all the different characters and I can’t think of a way to accomplish that while cutting back on the length.

I have to admit that when I first set it down, I was a little disappointed with the ending, but after thinking about it for a while I like the ending. It’s not neat and doesn’t just make you feel better, it makes you think. Or at least it made me think, which is a sign of a good conclusion.

Something that struck me and also impressed me was James’ ability to write from the point of view of a young woman, which seems like a pretty big accomplishment for a male writer in the 19th century. The inner life of Isabel Archer is rich and intelligent, intriguing and frustrating, and ultimately well done. There is a depth of feeling that James brought across, not only with Isabel Archer, but with the majority of the characters and events. The only one where I question the execution a little is Mrs. Touchett, Isabel’s aunt; she didn’t seem quite as solid as the rest of the cast.

Let’s spend a few moments discussing the language, which I thought was superb. It made me want to write and talk in that elevated 19th-century way, without contractions and using all sorts of strange phrases that no one these days would use without fear of ridicule. I wouldn’t say it was lush language, or overly symbolic, but it was nonetheless effective and portrayed not only images but also moods and feelings.

As I said, when I first started reading it I felt as though I was reading a Jane Austen novel which usually end with happy marriages for all and a great amount of gained wealth through marriage that at first seems improbable. And yet, The Portrait of a Lady did not go that route and I really appreciated that departure. I wanted to see what Isabel Archer would do with her life and I got to see that in all its brilliance and anguish. I felt as though I could put myself in her shoes regardless of the fact that her world is very much a fictional one. I have a feeling I’ll be reading this novel again sometime in the future and I may also read other Henry James books. So consider my continued interest to be a recommendation.

As an aside: I think it's interesting that most of the covers have very similar images of "ladies."

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