Review: The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

WJAN5232[1]Fairly recently I read my second novel by the classic author Henry James. I’d already read The Turn of the Screw whilst in University, so was very happy when I discovered that I also enjoyed Washington Square, one of his other short novels. Feeling spurred on I decided to bite the bullet and delve into the final Henry James book that I currently owned, and the book that is arguably viewed as his most impressive work; The Portrait of a Lady.

Coming in at a pretty hefty 600 pages, this chunky novel focuses upon the young character of Isabel Archer. Beautiful and spirited, Isabel travels to England to begin her tour of the world with her Aunt and her ailing cousin, Ralph, but when she comes into a wealthy fortune the rules have suddenly changed for her. Now she can afford the freedom that money brings, something an unmarried woman would not normally have, but when suitors begin to stake their claim upon Isabel’s feelings, will she be able to see their true motives?

One of the things which I enjoyed analysing in this novel, and a theme which James also explores in Washington Square is this idea of wealth and how it impacts on an individual’s social status and desirability. Across the novel we see Isabel move from a young, rather innocent woman who must rely on her aunt to learn the ways of society, to a slightly more experienced woman with the means to securing her own freedom. Isabel is a determined young lady and she does not want to settle for what would be seen as a good match; she wants to experience things and take her time in doing so. What this wealth does is empower Isabel in a way not many women would have had the advantages of in this period. Her wealth means she does not have to feel the pressure to secure an advantageous marriage and that she can sustain her own life through her own independent means.

Of course, just as we see in Washington Sqaure, wealth can also be a poisoned well, and in her myriad of suitors we are given a vast majority of people who desire Isabel’s hand for different reasons. I really enjoyed exploring the different male personalities we are given, and the chances that James’s gives us to draw out own conclusions towards different characters and their motives. Likewise, another aspect I enjoyed in this novel was the spectrum of married woman we are also able to see. They all have different personal situations, yet none of the other women seem particularly happy in their own marriages, perhaps  giving an underlying critique to the whole affair of marriage and the strategic game it has become.

Although there is a plot of sorts in this novel, albeit a rather slow one, it’s easy to feel that the real purpose here is the characterisation. The novel as a whole can be read as a rather extended character study, in which we the readers are able to observe and draw our own conclusions. After all, the novel is entitled The Portrait of a Lady, and this is what we are given. Having said that, I do feel that this was a very long novel and I do feel that I might have got more out of it if I’d been studying it in an academic setting rather than reading purely for enjoyment.

I think part of this is down to the narrative technique of third person. This is taken to quite an extreme, with an omniscient narrator not only giving us the thoughts and feelings of the main character, but also of the many others we see. This unidentified narrator often gives us pages and pages which are devoted to giving us these inner thoughts, or sometimes even passage of speech in an almost stream of consciousness like feel, without any actual dialogue. This often felt a bit overwhelming and slightly boring when you read on, whereas I feel if they had been perhaps a bit briefer it would have held my attention for longer. In contrast I do think this technique works well to give the readers maximum access to the characters feelings, and again if I had been reading this book in more of an academic setting as opposed to reading purely for enjoyment I undoubtedly would have had a field day with these passages.

Another part of this book which I did enjoy, and which I actually found quite humorous and effective at breaking up the lengthy passages was this idea of the contrasts between America and England, specifically with regards to outward demeanour and personality. Miss Stackpole, I’m sure most readers would agree, is a great spearhead for this and is actually a character I would have loved to have gotten to see more, especially with regards to her conclusion in the novel! I also think James looks at very interesting points concerning emigrants of America that have settled in England and the social and also personal position this puts them in. They have this sense of the in-between, a determination to retain their American pride but also the reality of not having seen their homeland for many years. There are many interesting ideas surrounding nationality and pride, and I think that’s definitely something which stands out as a focal point in this novel.

Overall I still feel quite mixed about my reading experience of this book. I can definitely understand and appreciate that it is a literary classic and that it contains a wealth of contextual and literary themes which would be great to sink your teeth into. On the other hand, analysis aside, I did find this a pretty mixed bag in terms of actual reading enjoyment. Some parts I loved and flew through, but I did struggle with some of the more narrator heavy chunks which felt very internalised and held me at somewhat of a distance.  Even so, it’s clear to see that Henry James is a fantastic and very astute writer, and I would still like to tick off the rest of his back catalogue in the future.

Publisher: Penguin English Library

Rating: 3*/5*

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