The Portrait of a Lady

“The real offence, as she ultimately perceived, was having a mind of her own at all.”

In The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, Isabel Archer, a young American woman, is taken by her aunt to explore Europe. Isabel, proud of her independence, eagerly seizes the opportunity to learn and travel. From the moment she arrives in England she receives one marriage proposal after another, but is uninterested. She wants to retain her youth and independence for as long as possible, which makes maintaining her personal ideals and friendships simultaneously extremely difficult.

The characters bring this story to life. Isabel, witty and independent, pulls the story in whichever direction she chooses (and many of her choices are unconventional). Her cousin Ralph and her uncle Mr. Touchett are sickly, but also clever and amiable. I was most fascinated by Isabel’s friend, Henrietta Stackpole, and her aunt, Mrs. Touchett. Henrietta is an outspoken journalist from America who is determined to hate Europe, and constantly confuses the more polite Ralph and Mr. Touchett. Mrs. Touchett, also outspoken, defies societal expectations in other ways. For example, she left her husband to live in Florence yet is entirely unconcerned about their unusual relationship. She can very easily live without him and sees no reason not to. (As Mr. Touchett remarks, “She thinks me of no more use than a postage stamp without gum.”) These characters’ lively wit make the novel a constantly enjoyable and occasionally surprising read.

Yet despite James’ apparently feminist portrayals of the women in this book, he ends by reestablishing societal convention. Isabel’s determination to be independent falters. She becomes entangled in an unhappy relationship and loses all the freedom and friendship she once had. James seems to be saying that no matter how different, independent, or intelligent a woman is, she will be crushed by male society. Although many people at the time the novel was written (1881) might see Isabel as an improper young woman who gets what she deserves, James’s realistic and lovable female characters make this intrusion of normality intensely depressing.

This book is a beautiful classic; the characters and writing are spectacular. I would recommend this book to anyone. I am simply sad that Isabel, who was so in control that I was sure she would would get her own way, did not live up to my expectations, however unrealistic they might have been.

As a quick note for people who have experience reading classics, this book begins in a very similar manner to Jane Austen’s works. The marital prospects and situation are quite similar, but while Austen tends to end the book at marriage, James extends the frame a few more years to show the tragic aftermath. The Portrait of a Lady also reminded me of George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss, due to the similar characteristics of the female protagonists and the unfortunate outcomes of each.


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