|Title: The Portrait of a Lady|
Author: Henry James
Published: 1880-81 in Atlantic Monthly and Macmillan Magazine
Synopsis: In this portrait of a "young woman affronting her destiny," Henry James created one of his most magnificent heroines, and a story of intense poignancy. When Isabel Archer, a beautiful, spirited American, is brought to Europe by her wealthy aunt, it is expected that she will soon marry. But Isabel, resolved to enjoy her freedom, does not hesitate to turn down two eligible suitors. Then she finds herself irresistibly drawn to the charming and cultivated Gilbert Osmond. Isabel, however, soon discovers the cruelty and stifling darkness beneath Gilbert's civilized veneer.
If you are looking for a classic romance in the vein of Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Bronte, and George Eliot you have come to the wrong place. Be warned, there are no happy couples here. This book is for the cold-hearted cynic inside of you. Henry James is not a romantic and The Portrait of a Lady is more of a Victorian satire, a romantic parody, if you will.
First we have our main character Isabel Archer, a young woman from Albany, New York who moves in with her expatriate relatives living in England. Her male relatives take an instant liking to her, both of them being ill, and when her uncle dies he leaves the bulk of his fortune to Isabel because of her cousin Ralph’s urging. She is beautiful, charming, and now wealthy; everything a girl of the time would want to be. She has a trail of suitors all of whom she rejects believing she wants to see the world and maintain her independence. Then a friend of the family, Madame Merle, introduces her to the charming but poor Gilbert Osmond and his adorable daughter Pansy. She falls head-over-heels and agrees to marry him. But unlike most women in these classic romances things take a turn for the worse as soon as she gets married.
One thing you have to know about this book is that the writing style that Henry James uses to craft this story is incredibly unique. It is told in third-person omniscient and many times this narrator chooses to speak directly to the reader, informing them of what the characters are doing and why they are doing them. And we not only learn of Isabel and her goings on but also Osmond, Madame Merle, and many other characters. Because of this extra knowledge we get a lot of dramatic irony and our opinions of many characters are different than those of Isabel based on our privileged information. It adds a completely new dimension to the story and we spend a lot of the book seeing Isabel work out the information we learned 300 pages previously. And like most classics, James writing is incredibly poetic and his prose is incredible.
The book is very character-driven as much of the plot is devoted to the seemingly mundane social visits that the characters make to one another. Many moments that you would think are important to the story are glossed over, or not mentioned at all. For example we never see Isabel’s wedding. She accepts Osmond’s proposal and then we skip ahead a year. But the complicatedness of the characters and their lives makes the book interesting. There is a lot of scheming and plotting, and I was incredibly surprised by a crazy plot twist at the end of the book.
I give The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James an 8 out of 10
Now don’t get me wrong. I love classic romances where love overcomes all obstacles. I’m not saying those are bad novels in any but The Portrait of a Lady was incredibly refreshing. This book was a tremendous social commentary and really enjoyable. It completely changed the way I view literary couples and I will never look at classics the same way. It was the perfect anti-love story for February. If you are looking for a new spin on classics or a cynical take on romance then I definitely recommend this book.
If you’ve read it and have thoughts leave me a comment and of course HAPPY READING!