Friday, September 16, 2011

The Portrait of a Lady

A little while ago, I confessed in a blog post that I am not a fan of Jane Austen.  In the comments, Kathy of The Literary Amnesiac suggested that I might like Henry James for all the reasons I do not care for Austen.  I had unfairly avoided reading James, but I picked up The Portrait of a Lady because I was intrigued that comment.  Well, Kathy, you were absolutely right!

To quickly sum up the story, the plot follows Isabel Archer as she ventures to Europe after the death of her parents.  She originally stays with her aunt and uncle in England, but she later spends a considerable amount of her time in Italy.  However, the story does not aim to recount her travels but instead focuses on the relationships she makes along the way.  James brings in an interesting collection of her old friends from America together with her new friends and family in Europe.  About three or four years transpire throughout the story, and Isabel experiences a number of significant changes and events in her life.

Most importantly, The Portrait of a Lady is a fascinating character study.  Isabel is now one of my favorite fictional characters ever, and James offers so many dimensions to her personality that it was nearly impossible to predict what she was going to do.  Nevertheless, all of her actions make sense when considered with the most intimate values she evinces, even though I don't always agree with her.  One of my favorite things about Isabel is that she is always an independent and deeply thoughtful woman, and the men around her admire that immensely.  She is the opposite of the kind of Romantic heroines of the past, such as Cosette of Les Miserables, who drive me crazy.  (Please know that this does not mean I dislike Hugo's masterpiece!)  Isabel's key qualities are strength and intelligence rather than naivety and compliance.  Nevertheless, James still slipped in one of those old-fashioned heroines in the form of Pansy, who reminds me so much of Cosette that I picture them identically in my mind. 

However, I am not annoyed by this character because it adds dimension to the story.  In fact, each of the key women in the story is remarkably different and unique, and I love that.  Henrietta Stackpole takes being opinionated and independent to a far greater extent than Isabel.  She constantly argues what she believes and pushes until she gets what she seeks to achieve.  And although there are times when this makes her irritating, James shows us near the end that she has a good and true heart.  We get to see a compassion that feels so genuine that it's hard to believe it as fiction, and her choice at the end shows that she is able to adjust even her most ardent views.  Madame Merle also has a strong presence in the story, gliding in and out of the chapters with an air of both elegance and mystery. 

But let's not forget the men either.  Ralph Touchett, Isabel's cousin, is my favorite, and their relationship is simply beautiful.  There is something so sweet in their interaction, and its complexity only adds to its quality.  I likewise adored Mr. Touchett, Ralph's father, for similar reasons.  Lord Waterburton is the quintessential English hero, full of honor, loyalty, and romance.  However, nothing about his role in the story is cliche, and I was so glad James was able to carry that through the novel successfully.  For me, the biggest surprise among the characters was Caspar Goodwood, who made me completely change my mind about him at the end.  And I can't get away without mentioning Gilbert Osmond, but I want to carefully avoid spoiling anything.  I will just say that I don't think I've encountered another character like him in literature, and yet it is not because he has any extremes in his personality.  On the contrary, it is his subtly that is most penetrating. 

Finally, the ending of The Portrait of a Lady is one that I will never forget.  It is now engraved in my mind as masterfully ambiguous and intriguing.  I think I frantically reread it three times before I believed that's how it ended, and I have no doubt that there are a number of different opinions about it.  It made me feel somewhat frustrated, confused but alert, and wildly desperate for more.  What more could a writer possibly accomplish with an ending?? 

In short, I was enraptured by The Portrait of a Lady from the very first line until the final punctuation mark.  Nothing happened as I assumed it would, which is a wonderful quality in my opinion.  I admire Isabel, and I feel invested in her as though she were real.  Somehow, I find to her to be incredibly relatable and modern even though her character was created in 1880.  Needless to say, I highly recommend this book and am extremely grateful for Kathy's recommendation.


Allie said...

I am new to James, but I really do love his writing style. I have this one on the pile for fall, so I am hoping I get to it!

Kathy said...

Hey, thanks for the shout-out, and I'm so glad to hear you loved this book as much as I do! By the time I read what you wrote about the ending I literally had goosebumps.

Becky (Page Turners) said...

Sadly I wasn't a big fan of this one. I first read The Turn of the Screw by James which I LOVED. So when a book club I was in did a book based on The Portrait of a Lady, I decided to read it as well. I loved it at the beginning. I usually always enjoy that old-fashioned, meandering old English. But by the end of the story it became too tedious. I lost my interest in Isabel and couldn't push through as much as I would have liked too. I can definitely recommend The Turn of the crew though if you are looking for more Henry James now.