Portrait of a Lady by Henry James


General Fiction

The portrait of a lady The Portrait of a LadyHenry James, Jr.; Penguin Books 2003WorldCat

Isabel Archer is an American young woman brought to Europe by her aunt, Mrs. Touchette. She meets her uncle, Mr. Touchette, and cousin, Ralph, and lives with the Touchette family in their home at Gardencourt.

As she stays with the Touchettes, a neighbor, Lord Warburton, falls in love with her and proposes. She turns him down. Her friend from America, Henrietta Stackpole, also comes to England and spends some time with Isabel. Henrietta is more outspoken and opinionated than Isabel and tries to guide her friend before she leaves Isabel at Gardencourt. Ralph Touchette stands back and watches all of them with a bit of cynicism.

Mrs. Touchette is planning to take Isabel to her residence in Europe. First she must stay in England while family matters conclude. While Ralph and his parents are tied up, another visitor comes to Gardencourt. Madame Merle is the most fascinating person Isabel has ever met. She seems to be her own person and very accomplished.

This synopsis barely gets the story started. Isabel comes into a great deal of money and is now independent. She goes to Europe with Mrs. Touchette and meets yet another suitor, Gilbert Osmond, and his daughter, Pansy. Lord Warburton meets her in Rome. An American suitor comes over to see her in Europe. Isabel makes choices that affect the rest of her life, and then has to deal with the consequences.

The Portrait of a Lady is a classic, first published in England in 1881 and in the United States in 1901. James takes us through Isabel’s life, never apologizing for her actions. James also is not known for happy endings. Unfortunately, he also is known for being wordy. I found him very wordy. And boring by the middle of the book. By the time Isabel was is Florence and meeting Gilbert Osmond I was tired of reading the droning paragraphs. I liked his characters’ interactions and development. But those were not enough to keep me awake. Too often I found this book to be a good sleeping tool. While there are others who agree with me, this book is still considered a masterpiece. Many a student will have to study it in school. Thank goodness for those people with my temperament there are Cliff notes.

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One Comment

  1. Comment by Pat:

    The simple story here is of a brilliant, sensitive young woman who is given a fortune by a cousin’s intervention with the goal of helping her find her destiny. The story is beautifully designed to lead inexorably to a tragic ending, affirming at the same time an unbreakable adherence to moral codes between individuals, and only incidentally the product of church or state.

    The plot is developed solely upon the heroine’s character. All others are tools of her fulfillment or destruction. Her lofty intellect, in the end, gives her an awareness of the inevitable conclusion to her own decisions and the need to accept them, and to hopefully await a better situation. All the characters are deeply drawn and faulted, and even the heroine has the self esteem to warn her of the trap that has been set against her.

    There are slow spots, as in any 700 page novel, but I am greatly looking forward to my book club discussion of this next month. It will be followed by high tea at the Ritz Carlton. A month later this discussion will lead to luncheon and a movie excursion to see the perfect Nicole Kidman in the role of Isabel Archer. There is a great deal of wonderful information on line to enhance understanding and enrich pleasure. It is, in spite of its length, a book to read at least once again. It is not dirtied by frog princes. If you require this, I recommend Hans Christian Anderson!


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