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The Portrait of a Lady (1881)

by Henry James

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
9,265107561 (3.9)9 / 704
Follows the story of American heiress Isabel as she visits Europe to find her own destiny, is pursued by suitors, and ultimately must make a tragic choice.
  1. 70
    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.
  2. 60
    The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (carlym)
  3. 71
    Howards End by E. M. Forster (carlym)
  4. 71
    Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (roby72)
  5. 31
    Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (Nickelini)
  6. 20
    Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece by Michael Gorra (Cecrow)
    Cecrow: Non-fiction work detailing the story behind the novel's writing.
  7. 10
    The Reef by Edith Wharton (noveltea)
  8. 00
    The Way We Live Now (Wordsworth Classics) by Anthony Trollope (Crypto-Willobie)
  9. 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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English (97)  Dutch (1)  French (1)  Spanish (1)  German (1)  Italian (1)  Portuguese (1)  Hebrew (1)  All languages (104)
Showing 1-5 of 97 (next | show all)
I don't feel I'm being uncharitable in calling this book a tedious slog. We spend a great deal of time deep inside the heads of various characters, but somehow this doesn't provide us with any particular insight into any sort of motivations that make sense. Isabel Archer rejects a couple of marriage proposals from decent but dulls sorts of men, then marries the laziest, most snobbish man to appear in the book, with the courtship, engagement, and wedding taking place almost entirely off stage, so we never get to see them falling in love in a way that it would make sense. Gilbert Osmond is loathsome when we meet him, and loathsome during the marriage.

The novel is redeemed somewhat in it's supporting cast. Pretty much any scene with Isabel's friend Henrietta is a hoot. In fact, most of the scenes involving dialogue are great. Unfortunately, there's just too much time spent in Isabel's head as she struggles with her regrets, and as she seems to find excuse after excuse to remain in a miserable marriage. ( )
  James_Maxey | Jun 29, 2020 |
The Portrait of a Lady is a brilliant book about human manipulation, love, and marriage that shows just how important real-life experience is to making the right choices in life. While the focus of the novel is on the pitfalls of a young woman, making the dilemmas she faces somewhat particular to her gender, nonetheless there is plenty to be learned by all readers of this book, regardless of gender. I, for instance, first read this book right after I got married and firmly resolved that, as a reader of literature, I would never become a "sterile dilettante" like Gilbert Osmond. It is only now, three years divorced and much wiser about life, that I recognize that Osmond had never been my danger - like Isabel (and to an extent, like her cousin Ralph Touchett) my true pitfall lay in my romantic naivete. The deeper point is that this is a novel about wisdom, a clearheaded and penetrating look at the ways in which human beings lay the groundwork for their own misery.

The plot revolves around Isabel Archer, a young American who wishes to assert her independence and experience the world, an ambition that leads her to turn down excellent marriage proposals from the English aristocrat Lord Warburton and the rich American industrialist Caspar Goodwood. She is befriended in her sojourn by Mme Merle, a widow who in many ways is the woman that Isabel aspires to become. Mme Merle, in turn, introduces Isabel to Gilbert Osmond, an ambitious but relatively poor American living in Florence with his daughter Pansy, whose interest in Isabel as a person is difficult to disentangle from his interest in the fortune she inherited from her rich uncle near the book's beginning. The Portrait of a Lady is a long novel, but it never sags because of the way James divides up the story into different narrative arcs: Isabel's initial impressions of Europe, for instance, the encounters with her suitors, and so on.

Isabel's problems emerge from the contradictions of her own romantic nature. Her ideas about life are drawn largely from the novels she has read, and she uncritically equates emotional stimulation with experience. She is also, as her friend Henrietta Stackpole observes, someone who is too eager to please, willing to sacrifice herself to avoid the displeasure of others. James examines how this kind of quixotic character, while immensely charming in some ways, is turned into a puppet by those with a more clear-eyed view of the world. Indeed, the entire plot is built on an intricately woven web of lies and deceit that is somehow simple and yet, because of the genius for ambiguity with which James infuses both his characters and his prose, remains psychologically complex. My favorite example is when Isabel asks Mme Merle, "What have you to do with me?" and the latter replies: "Everything." Thus, Mme Merle confesses her deceitfulness (which the reader, but not Isabel, knows about all along), and yet does so in a manner that is so void of details, so utterly opaque that it tells us nothing more.

The Victorian era was a time of stifling conformity, and often this atmosphere can force novels from that period into having an unhappily forced conventional ending (see my review of Lady Audley's Secret, for instance). In this book, though, James turns that premise on its head, so that it is not the strange and subversive that the readers finds threatening, but rather the return to normality and the enforcement of the marriage contract. James pays lip service to the conventional Victorian ending, but it is a conclusion that is so chilling, so upsetting, that readers can only look upon it as a tragedy. The Portrait of a Lady does require some patience, but it is without doubt one of the greatest novels of all time. ( )
  vernaye | May 23, 2020 |
Read, favourite. ( )
  sasameyuki | May 15, 2020 |
I probably do not do the book or the author justice when I say that I didn't like the book. I found it not a compelling read, not very interesting and while reading my mind kept wandering to other things (tasks to do, conversations I had etc. etc.). That's no good sign at all.

I think it is the book itself. I'm through reading about women, men, their relationships, marriages that are (un)happy and how in a particular circumstance things worked out for both parts of the pair. I think I need to stop reading books with this subject and find other, more compelling ones on the 1001-list. ( )
  BoekenTrol71 | Nov 22, 2019 |
A bit of an abrupt ending, but it was, after all a portrait of a lady and not the life of one. Beautiful and complex without being too downcast. ( )
  slmr4242 | Oct 16, 2019 |
Showing 1-5 of 97 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (97 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Henry Jamesprimary authorall editionscalculated
Aiken, JoanIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Anderson, Charles RobertsIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Cargill, OscarAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Cohn, JanEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Edel, LeonEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Heer, Inge deTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jonkers, JohannesTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Krüger, LoreTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Luckhurst, RogerEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
McGovern, ElizabethNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Millett, Fred B.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Millett, Fred B.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Moore, GeoffreyEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Neilson, William AllanEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stallman, R. W.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Toibin, ColmAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Updike, JohnIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Van Hageland, A.Translatorsecondary 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.
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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.
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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Average: (3.9)
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1 32
1.5 5
2 73
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3 254
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Penguin Australia

2 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0141441267, 0141199121

Tantor Media

An edition of this book was published by Tantor Media.

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