The Portrait of a Lady is a Victorian (or perhaps modern) novel that chronicles a few years of the life of a young American woman, at the end of the nineteenth century. The book follows the heroine from her departure from America as a promising young girl with a great desire to see and experience the world, up to the moment when the marriage she has since contracted reaches a sharp crisis. The ending doesn't touch on how she intends to address this crisis and remains open. Her story spans half of Europe and is entangled with those of her family members (Ralph, Mrs. Touchett), her suitors (Warbuton, Goodwood) and her American and European friends (Henrietta Stackpole, Madame Merle). During the five years covered in the book, she inherits a fortune, turns down marriage proposals, gets married, loses friends and uncovers dark secrets.
This is the first James novel I've ever read, and my expectations were pretty high, obviously, since I hang out with a coblogger who is this committed to James. Luckily, The Portrait turned out to be an even better reading experience than I had hoped, and now I love it (well, maybe unluckily for the readers of this blog, because how much more entertaining would this place be if there were a flame war about James going on among the contributors?).
The Portrait is one of those books that strike the perfect combination of width and depth. Henry James manages to balance an extended cast of characters (and the logistics of their travels and financial situations) without losing sight of their inner life. While reading, the eagle-eye view of characters and their movements is secondary to the intense experience of intimacy with them, and it isn't until you try to retell the story for someone else's benefit that you realize how attentively they are coreographed, and how a large picture of the world is formed from the glimpses the characters offer.
The picture is indeed large: two continents and the British Islands enter into it, as well as the relationships between the Old World and the New, as illustrated by the wonderful Henrietta Stackpole and by most minor characters, plus the social reforms brewing in Britain, of which Warburton is a promoter. Added to that, Italy's architecture, whose beauty, importance, and history are illuminated by Isabel's melancholic identification with it, by the Countess's indifference to it, by Ralph's scholastic interest in it. The more intimate, unhistoric, scenery is also masterfully described: Gardencourt comes to life in a few short pages and it remains a vivid image throughout the book.
But all these elements, while important for James and well treated, are exterior to the subject, which seems to consist in the characters, their motivations, their relationships. And, most importantly, their relationship to Isabel, who is the pivot of the story. The book is adamant about this fact; the title draws attention to it and underlines it, but it would be clear even if the title were more ambiguous that this is a story about an individual confronting an individual fate, and that all places and characters are interesting to the reader inasmuch as they affect the heroine. In the preface, James has this to say about the novel:
It came to be a square and spacious house—or has at least seemed so to me in this going over it again; but, such as it is, it had to be put up round my young woman while she stood there in perfect isolation.
and also (and this is now one of my favorite things in the world):
Therefore, consciously, that was what one was in for—for positively organising an ado about Isabel Archer.
The fact that he organizes all this ado around a woman makes me love James even more. It shouldn't be impressive, but it is. And the reason why that is the case is that ado about women should be half of literature and it's not. In that same preface, James acknowledges this and also lays some thick delicious snark on those writers who find it difficult to write female characters that matter. Really, go read that thing, you won't be sorry.
One more thing that deserves a mention (last, but definitely not least) is James's command of words: his sentences are long and rich and grammatically complex, but neither clarity, nor flow suffer because of it. Quite the contrary, the book reads easily and swiftly, and the words and phrases and syntax seem to be an intrinsic part of the story. James achieves one of the things I treasure the most in books: the reader is hardly aware of the language, it seems an emanation of the subject itself.
But I always want to know the things one shouldn't do.
"So as to do them?" asked her aunt.
"So as to choose," said Isabel.
Whatever life you lead you must put your soul in it--to make any sort of success in it; and from the moment you do that it ceases to be romance, I assure you: it becomes grim reality! And you can't always please yourself; you must sometimes please other people. That, I admit, you're very ready to do; but there's another thing that's still more important--you must often displease others. You must always be ready for that--you must never shrink from it. That doesn't suit you at all--you're too fond of admiration, you like to be thought well of. You think we can escape disagreeable duties by taking romantic views--that's your great illusion, my dear. But we can't. You must be prepared on many occasions in life to please no one at all--not even yourself.
Her chief dread in life, at this period of her development, was that she would appear narrow minded; what she feared next afterwards was that she should be so.
The Bottom Line
The Portrait of a Lady is a great book, and I've thoroughly enjoyed it. I give it 5 stars.