Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Portrait of a Lady

I read Daisy Miller in college, but despite liking it and owning four of his novels, it remained the only work by Henry James I had read until now. I finally finished The Portrait of a Lady, about a woman (obviously) who is teetering on that line between Victorian and modern. An intelligent woman interested in the world around her, she inherits a large sum of money and can do as she wish. What will she do?

The overall story and ideas James raises make this novel worth reading and made me enjoy it once finished. However, I did not always enjoy it as I read. I felt like the beginning and the end were extremely strong, but it sagged heavily in the middle. This is an early attempt at a psychological novel, and his style works well in some places but drags in others. In the middle, he often writes in passive voice, uses odd, unnatural sentence structures and creates paragraphs that run for pages. I think he needed to use Stephen King's editing rule about removing 10 percent of the copy in the second draft. I felt like James tried to write like an Englishman, in the style of Dickens or Thackeray, but ends up sounding stilted. Daisy Miller felt much more natural to me, less like James was trying to prove he could write as an Englishman instead of an American. I rarely like American authors as much as English ones, and he felt like a fake Englishman to me here, which I suppose is what he was.

Please know that I'm not saying he's a bad writer - he's quite good at hooking you in the beginning and keeping you interested in Isabel and the other characters. I also think his dialogue read much more naturally to me than some of the other language, which surprised me. And the last 150 pages flew by, with more tightly written copy.

It surprised me how modern the story felt, with Isabel able to choose if she wanted to marry and whom to marry if she chose to do so. That's not exactly common in most Victorian novels. I think it suffers though from still being Victorian - the language conflicted with the story. I suppose that's part of what James was showing though - Isabel is American and her story feels more American, yet she's in England and most of the writing feels like it's trying to be British.

And now for the spoilers....

Isabel reminded me a lot of Bathsheba from Far from the Madding Crowd. Both give up their independence and marry unworthy men who just want their money, after turning down two good men. Madame Merle manipulates Isabel throughout the novel without Isabel even realizing it. If only Isabel had listened to Henrietta instead! I wish we saw more of Henrietta - I loved her character. Despite not having the amount of wealth Isabel did, Henrietta managed to stay independent and make her own way, falling in love when she chose to do so and clearly not giving up herself in the process. I can't picture her thinking as Isabel does when Isabel considers confronting her husband: "She had not as yet undertaken to act in direct opposition to his wishes; he was her appointed and inscribed master." Why? Why did she marry that man? Then, just when we think her spine grew back and she disobeys and goes to see Ralph, she still goes back to him, or at least that's the implication.

I know it sounds like I didn't like it, and I didn't always as I was reading, but I did like it overall. I enjoyed reading a work so progressive in women's issues for it's time, even though I grew frustrated with Isabel. I also learning about Isabel, since Edith Wharton purposefully used the name "Archer" as the last name of Newland and May in The Age of Innocence. I see many of the same ideas of tradition and women's roles playing out in both. I'd like to reread The Age of Innocence now that I've read The Portrait of a Lady, but my read soon stack is already overflowing so I'm not sure that will happen.


  1. Another one I want to read. I've read Daisy Miller...

    1. Hopefully I didn't discourage you. I did like it in the end. Allie raved about it, so maybe you'll enjoy it even more than I did.

  2. Sometimes I'm like that with classics - I find the reading experience difficult to get through but am always glad to have persevered. I have this and Daisy Miller on my classics club list, along with Turn of the Screw.

    1. I own Turn of the Screw as well. I apparently felt compelled to buy James' complete works without meaning to or actually reading any of them until now. :)