"The Portrait of a Lady"

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

This is only my third Henry James, the two previous ones being Washington Square and The Turn of the Screw. I enjoyed both of those novels but had seen a number of reviews saying this one was long and boring. Well, it is long, and at times it got boring, but I have to admit I loved it.

To begin with, it has a wonderful opening. I collect first lines - a hobby odd even to me - and this one is lovely: "Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea." It almost sounds like Jane Austen, but once you get a bit farther along it becomes painfully apparent that Mr. James is not a happily-ever-after kind of guy.

James does go on and on at times, but I like the language he goes on and on in, so I thoroughly enjoyed the reading experience. I didn't get much invested in the characters until about half way through. At that point I began to care what happened to them and though I know it's at that point that many throw this book across the room, you couldn't have ripped it from my hands.

If you need action in a book, you'll have to look elsewhere. This is more of a psychological book, one where you spend a lot of time in people's heads. Once or twice I found myself thinking please, please get on with it, but only once or twice. Most of the time I liked knowing what the characters were thinking and following them through their decision-making processes.

The story, as most of you will already know, is about a young American woman called Isabel Archer. She is taken to England by her aunt where she meets a number of men who fall in love with her. One is her consumptive cousin, Ralph, who hides his feelings because he knows he is dying. Another is Lord Warburton, who is more or less perfect. Isabel is bored by perfection so she marries Gilbert Osmond instead, convinced he is brighter, nobler and more beautiful in every way than any man she has met before. We, of course, know she is badly mistaken but no amount of shouting "No, Isabel!" on the reader's part will make her change her mind. She marries him and the outcome is, inevitably, disastrous.

I knew something of this story before I read the book - I had deliberately avoided the movie till I could get the book read - but I didn't know how it ended. It was not happy and neither was I. I don't really need happy endings; I don't find them terribly realistic most of the time, but this was far worse than just un-happy. This one was so realistic it was horrifying. I realize more women than can be counted live like this, but still it chilled me to the bone. There was a choice to be made and it was made based on what were supposed to be Isabel's principles but I don't know if I'd call it a principled decision. I think it was a tragic mistake made on the appearance of principle but ignoring reality. And the most horrifying part is that I think Isabel made the decision fully aware of how awful it was, and would henceforth be. There's a morbid saying that goes "There are things worse than being dead, and one of them is living with the wish that you were." This is the first time the ending of a book has ever left me wondering if that might, in fact, be true.


Portia Porter said...

I always think that Portrait of a Lady is not so much a story about a bad choice as a story of a girl who refused to make her choice because she kept thinking that there is something even better if she just waits. Of course, opportunity cost of making no choice at all are often higher than just taking a risk and picking a bachelor.

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