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The Portrait of a Lady - Collector's Library…

The Portrait of a Lady - Collector's Library (original 1881; edition 2004)

by Henry James

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7,36679477 (3.91)9 / 611
Title:The Portrait of a Lady - Collector's Library
Authors:Henry James (Author)
Info:Barnes & Noble - CRW Publishin (2004), Hardcover, 799 pages
Collections:Your library, Childrens
Tags:Collectors Library

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The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (1881)

  1. 71
    Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (roby72)
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    Howards End by E. M. Forster (carlym)
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    The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (carlym)
  4. 40
    Daniel Deronda by George Eliot (ncgraham)
    ncgraham: Surprised this recommendation hasn't already been made ... scholars throughout the years have noted Gwendolen Harleth's influence upon James in creating Isabel Archer.
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    The Reef by Edith Wharton (noveltea)
  6. 21
    Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (Nickelini)
  7. 01
    Indian Summer by William Dean Howells (Bjace)
    Bjace: Howells ventures into Henry James territory with this tale of an American expatriate in Florence who is caught between two women. Howells teases the reader by starting to write a Henry James ending and then doing something quite different.

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American Henry James thought long and hard before putting pen to paper to write The Portrait of a Lady. He was determined to answer his critics by producing a literary masterpiece. He likened his process of writing this novel to the erection of a particularly fine building: a classical building of course. In his preface to the novel James was at pains to point out this process:

“So far I reasoned, and it took nothing less than that technical rigour. I now easily see, to inspire me with the right confidence for erecting on a plot of ground the neat and careful and proportioned pile of bricks that arches over it and that was thus to form, constructionally speaking a literary monument…………That solicitude was to be accordingly expressed in the artful patience with which as I have said I piled brick upon brick. The bricks for the whole counting over - putting for bricks little touches and inventions and enhancements by the way - affect me in truths well nigh innumerable and as ever so scrupulously fitted together and packed in.”

This extraordinary preface prepares the reader for the long haul, but it also confidently claims that the reader will be in the safe hands of a master craftsman and storyteller, one who is blessed with a gift that can reveal aspects of the human condition to the patient reader. Patience is perhaps the supreme virtue for Henry James as the last sentence of this monument of a novel is:

“She walked him away with her, however, as if she had given him now the key to patience.”

Patience is what a modern reader will need for the first three quarters of this novel, but as Henry James says it will have it’s rewards. He moves his readers crablike through the first chapters where he introduces some of the main characters and sets them in a beautiful old Country House in England. His writing is delicate and fine and when we meet his central character: Miss Isabel Archer we are soon lost in admiration for her independence and wit, expressed in some splendid conversation exchanges with her hosts at Gardencourt. Miss Archer is a young American lady of exceptional talent who values her independence above all things and one can’t help feeling that Henry James imbued much of his own character in the portrait of this lady. Fine, splendid, delicate are words that we could use to describe the society that James is portraying here. These are people with independent incomes living in mid nineteenth century England, who have impeccable manners and who can call on titled individuals as their friends. Miss Archer from America can fit into this society through her intelligence and wit and because of her good American breeding. This book is about upstairs people, nobody from downstairs gets a look in.

The story line of the novel follows the career of Miss Archer. She dazzles almost everybody she meets. She has offers of marriage from Lord Warburton a fine Englishman with radical ideas who is forging a career as a diplomat and also from Casper Goodwood a leading American industrialist. She rejects them both in pursuit of something finer for herself. When her protector old Mr Touchett dies, on the advice of his invalid son Ralph he leaves Miss Archer a fortune and so suddenly she is even more attractive on the marriage market. She travels to the Italian home of Mrs Touchett, where under guidance from Madame Merle she meets Gilbert Osmond, the embodiment of fine taste and culture. After a courtship she decides to accept Gilbert Osmond waiving away Lord Warburton and Casper Goodwood who have followed her to Italy. Osmond has been married before and has a young daughter Pansy who has just left the convent to live with him and his new wife. It doesn't work well for Isabel Archer, who after the first year of marriage becomes estranged from her traditionalist husband, but she soon grows to love his young daughter. It is Pansy’s prospects on the marriage market that bring Isabel Archer’s big mistake to a head and the novel’s main theme then becomes how Isabel can come to terms with her future.

The novel was originally serialised in Atlantic Monthly and Macmillan’s magazine before being released as a novel a year later in 1881. The novel gains both power and depth as you read through; the almost painstaking preparatory work in the first sections of the novel reap rewards once the story starts to unfold. It is the quality of James’s writing that kept me reading; his descriptions, conversations and character building are first class and once the story gets rolling the groundwork provides an excellent reference for the characters and their actions. Henry James valued his own independence and so one feels he is speaking from the heart when he is describing Isabel Archers point of view. He never married himself and it is therefore no surprise to learn of Isabel Archer’s mistake once she falls into that trap. There may be some evidence for thinking that the author of The portrait of a lady was a misogynist. For example his heroine for all her intelligence, manners and charm has an inherent character fault: it is her pride that in the end leads her into a miserable existence. Most of the other female characters are shown as manipulative and uncaring or dull and it is only the young virginal Pansy that can claim to be good. By contrast there are plenty of good and upstanding male characters; Lord Warburton, Casper Goodwood, Ralph and old Mr Touchett, although the most evil characterisation is reserved for Gilbert Osmond.

This is a slow moving novel whose storyline can be pretty well predicted, but this is not why we read Henry James. We read him for his characterisation, his brilliant descriptions and his observations on the human condition as well as his skill as a novel writer. There is no evidence of his rather mannered and tortured sentence structures that he favoured in his later novels. An added bonus for readers today is the depiction of life in mid nineteenth century England, even if it is reserved for the top tier of society. Yes James can sound snobbish and a little prissy at times and this in the end makes me think that his excellent novel is not a great novel. 4.5 stars ( )
8 vote baswood | Oct 17, 2015 |
Charming and elegant. ( )
  smiley0905 | Sep 3, 2015 |
I have just finished reading Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. I had read it about 8 years back, and in this my second reading, I am as much affected by the beauty of the writing and the charm of the protagonist, as I was then.

This novel is about a young and attractive American whose life takes an unexpected turn when her Aunt decides to' bring her out'' in England. Isabel is young and idealistic, with all the exuberance and vitality of youth. She bubbles with optimism, and lays stake to a higher moral ground. At the same time, she has that sense of infallibility and invulnerability that only youth enjoys.

The novel shows her growth from youth to adulthood. On this road of life, Isabel's ideals and ideas collide with the reality of life. A higher moral consciousness is not enough to stop one from making wrong decisions because of poor judgement.Though she hangs on to her ideals, the world is not what she expected it to be, and she suffers" the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune".. She suffers the pain of realising that God is not in His heaven, and all is not right with the world. Early in the book, with all the nonchalance and insouscance of the young, she has blithely declared that people suffer too easily. She has to eat her words in the course of the story.

Well, that is what growing up is about. When we realise that we too are of the common mould, and not special enough to be protected from suffering or martyrdom.

I read somewhere that Isabel is one of the great fictional heroines of classical literature, belonging to the category of Elizebeth Bennett and Jane Eyre. But whereas their romances end with a happy ever after touch, Isabel's is ambiguous. She is not of the Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary variety, those bored housewives who seek excitement in extra marital affairs that eventually lead to their downfall. Isabel is made of sterner metal, and she lives up to the homily that with great freedom comes great responsibility.

I recommend this book to every reader. ( )
  dragon178 | Aug 24, 2015 |
Give the book its deserved five stars, but Isabel is boring. In fact, everybody in the book is boring except Ralph. Isabel and Ralph are the yin and yang of good and truth; Merle and Osmond the yin and yang of evil and deception. And who cares about little Pansy? She is simply the vapid cement bonding together the evil duo, as the blood tie bonds together the hero and heroine.

James mercifully kills off the narrative ten pages after Ralph's demise, as if he knows who the main character really is. The best part of the whole book is when Ralph calls Osmond a "sterile dillettante." You go, Ralph.

James rewards the reader's perserverance with plenty of depth. The novel is a psychological gold mine. It's only flaws are:

1. a superfluity of suitors. There is a veritable swarm of them. They come out of the woodwork; lurk in every bush. The women in the book can't sit down in the park without lighting on a hopeless suitor. It gets really old.

2. a gross, unforgiveable scarcity of Ralph. ( )
  JMlibrarian | Mar 3, 2015 |
I haven't read much Henry James before (I might possible have read The Europeans previously but I couldn't swear to it, and to be honest if The Portrait of a Lady is representative then I'm not sure if I'm going to be reading much in the future. I had great difficulty maintaining any interest at all in any of the characters, even in the heroine Isabel Archer (who is supposedly a remarkable woman) and I couldn't get a sense that the characters could ever have been real people.

Isabel Archer is a young American woman who is invited by her aunt to spend some time with her in Europe. Mrs Touchett has her permanent home in Florence, only visiting her husband at his house of Gardencourt, overlooking the Thames Valley in England, for a month or so each year. But it is to Gardencourt that she initially takes Isabel, to meet her husband and her invalid son Ralph. Appreciating Isabel's determination that she must do something with her life, which has caused her to reject two offers of marriage during her stay in England, he is instrumental in obtaining for her the legacy which allows her to pursue the true freedom that she craves. But Isabel's new independence takes her to Paris, Florence and Rome the freedom which she craves remains elusive...

To be honest I've never come across an account of the grand European tour that has just come across as so boring! The lives that are being led just seem so stultifyingly dull. I had hoped that when the novel reached Florence it would catch my attention as I've spent a lot of time there in the past, but no! According to the blurb on the back this is 'one of the finest novels in the English language' but do fine novels have to be so dull? It's not just that nothing seems to happen for long stretches, that I can cope with, but I can't cope with the artificiality of the characters.

I'm giving this three stars because it seems too well written to give it less but I can't say that I enjoyed it. ( )
1 vote SandDune | Jan 29, 2015 |
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» Add other authors (184 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Henry Jamesprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Anderson, Charles R.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Cohn, JanEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Edel, LeonEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Luckhurst, RogerEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
McGovern, ElizabethNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Millett, Fred B.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Moore, GeoffreyEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Neilson, William AllanEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Toibin, ColmAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Updike, JohnIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. There are circumstances in which, whether you partake of the tea or not—some people of course never do,—the situation is in itself delightful. Those that I have in mind in beginning to unfold this simple history offered an admirable setting to an innocent pastime. The implements of the little feast had been disposed upon the lawn of an old English country-house, in what I should call the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon. Part of the afternoon had waned, but much of it was left, and what was left was of the finest and rarest quality. Real dusk would not arrive for many hours; but the flood of summer light had begun to ebb, the air had grown mellow, the shadows were long upon the smooth, dense turf. They lengthened slowly, however, and the scene expressed that sense of leisure still to come which is perhaps the chief source of one’s enjoyment of such a scene at such an hour. From five o’clock to eight is on certain occasions a little eternity; but on such an occasion as this the interval could be only an eternity of pleasure. The persons concerned in it were taking their pleasure quietly, and they were not of the sex which is supposed to furnish the regular votaries of the ceremony I have mentioned. The shadows on the perfect lawn were straight and angular; they were the shadows of an old man sitting in a deep wicker-chair near the low table on which the tea had been served, and of two younger men strolling to and fro, in desultory talk, in front of him. The old man had his cup in his hand; it was an unusually large cup, of a different pattern from the rest of the set and painted in brilliant colours. He disposed of its contents with much circumspection, holding it for a long time close to his chin, with his face turned to the house. His companions had either finished their tea or were indifferent to their privilege; they smoked cigarettes as they continued to stroll. One of them, from time to time, as he passed, looked with a certain attention at the elder man, who, unconscious of observation, rested his eyes upon the rich red front of his dwelling. The house that rose beyond the lawn was a structure to repay such consideration and was the most characteristic object in the peculiarly English picture I have attempted to sketch.
Her reputation of reading a great deal hung about her like the cloudy envelope of a goddess in an epic.
It may be affirmed without delay that Isabel was probably very liable to the sin of self-esteem....
You are rich when you can meet the demands of your imagination.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0141439637, Paperback)

When Isabel Archer, a beautiful, spirited American, is brought to Europe by her wealthy Aunt Touchett, it is expected that she will soon marry. But Isabel, resolved to determine her own fate, does not hesitate to turn down two eligible suitors. She then finds herself irresistibly drawn to Gilbert Osmond, who, beneath his veneer of charm and cultivation, is cruelty itself. A story of intense poignancy, Isabel's tale of love and betrayal still resonates with modern audiences.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:27 -0400)

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Tells of the psychological impact of European culture upon a spirited young American girl named Isabel Archer when she becomes torn between three very different men and falls prey to the schemes of a sophisticated older woman.

(summary from another edition)

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13 editions of this book were published by Audible.com.

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Penguin Australia

2 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0141441267, 0141199121

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