Dan Sandman

42: The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

In Books, Fiction, Romance on 18/10/2013 at 12:00 pm

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry JamesFirst published as a book in 1881, this classic novel by Henry James revolves around an intelligent, privileged and beautiful young lady from America called Isabel Archer. Following the death of her father, Isabel is taken by her aunt to Europe where she inherits a fortune and encounters a number of marriage proposals. Our heroine begins her story as a high-spirited feminist choosing independence over marriage but she is eventually corrupted by Machiavellian scheming. The novel deals with the thematic transition from innocence to experience.

Henry James’ wit, particularly towards the beginning of the long novel, is reminiscent of Oscar Wilde – whose work shared a similar historical context – perhaps with a touch less of Wilde’s biting satire. Wilde was an Irish outsider observing the hypocrisy of the British elite, James an American equally as fascinated by the British, class obsessed society he was integrating with. But, whereas for example, The Importance of Bering Earnest by Oscar Wilde is heavily critical of the ruling class, exposing hypocrisy using exaggerated humourous circumstances, the problems of Isabel Archer are presented in a more realistic light. However, one can’t help feeling that Isabel’s problems are somewhat superficial when compared to the problems of the barely visible working classes.

When she walked in Kensington Gardens she stopped the children (mainly of the poor sort) whom she saw playing on the grass; she asked them their names and gave them sixpence and, when they were pretty, kissed them. Ralph noticed these quaint charities; he noticed everything she did. [pg. 195]

Notice how the use of brackets diminishes the “poor” children and patronises their poverty. Charity is seen as something “quaint” by the privileged class and observed as a curiosity. This is a novel that fails to even pretend to be interested in the inner world of those struck down by poverty in the late nineteenth century. James’ sole interests throughout the novel, concern the thoughts, feelings and private worlds of the American and European upper classes. Unlike Charles Dickens, who is often guilty of sentimentalising the plights of the poor, Henry James chooses to completely ignore them therefore creating an escapist landscape from rich people’s romantic entanglements.

However, that being said, he is a brilliant writer with a great eye for detail and a great ear for amusing dialogue. Within this majestic work are wonderful naturalistic descriptions of historical sites and the kind of sparky dialogue present in an Oscar Wilde play. James has the hands of Michelangelo and the mind of Franz Schubert. Technically, this book is a masterpiece that stands alongside the great works referred to within it. His remarkable writing style, where the narrator uses the first person but is not actually present within the story as such, was an ingenious way to engage in an almost psychoanalytic approach to his characters. Freud was still in his twenties when this book was first published.

To conclude, I found this Victorian, Anglo-American novel to be a touchingly sad account of a lucky woman who is unlucky in love. She has beauty, intelligence and money but she still chooses to marry the wrong man. Isabel Archer is an innocent victim of her own fortune, manipulated into a bad marriage. As I got into this book, I couldn’t help noticing the tragic quote, said by our heroine at the start of the novel, written in orange on the back of my 2003 reprinted edition: –

“I don’t want to begin life by marrying. There are other things a woman can do.”

Really? Women in Britain didn’t get the vote until 1918.

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  1. I have not read this one but the concept of a tragic heroine and the satire on European society is so central to James’ novels!! Reading the review cant help but be overcome by the feeling of dejavu!!

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