182. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

Welcome to the first book review of 2021.

I recently finished The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, and I thought it would be apt to post a review about it, even though I have an ever growing back log of book reviews to post. However, I want to start off the new year with the classic because it really pulled at my heart strings.

Henry James is an author I haven’t actively seek  out to read. On the contrary, I have been pretty wary of him because many white authors of the 19/20th century have a reputation of “otherising” or vilifying women.

And I’m not about that life. There is only so much sexism, misogynistic ideas you can ignore, and while Classics have the wisdom of a bygone era, I read them for pleasure and I don’t want to taint it with books that will leave a bad aftertaste.

However, and (here is the Capital However), I was truly surprised by The Portrait of a Lady.

The way Henry James portrayed the main heroine Isabel, her aspirations, her opinions, her ideas of life, freedom, and experiencing the world, they were really… modern for a novel published in the last 19th century. I mean I echoed some of Isabel’s conflicting ideas of being open to new experiences but not judging too harshly the ways of the past.

“She had an immense curiosity about life, and was constantly staring and wondering.”

It was a most enthralling experience reading The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. I couldn’t help feel some familiarity and similarity with books like Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

All these books have different plots, but a similar theme of having a free spirited, independent, and principled heroine, who often falls prey to the machinations of society or wrongly judging people. And in the case of The Portrait of a Lady, the book starts with a strong arc with our heroine Isabel, but eventually falls down once she meets the people who become her undoing.

But what is the story about, you may ask. Well let me tell you.

The Portrait of a Lady is about a young American girl, Isabel who after her father dies (her mother passed away when she was a child), is sort of adopted and embraced by an aunt who lives in England. She takes Isabel to her home in Garden court where her husband and son: Ralph instantly takes a liking towards her.

“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”

Her uncle and Isabel form a sweet bond, and while Ralph may feel more than a brotherly affection for her, his illness doesn’t let him permit further but grants him a unique frankness and candor, that allows for a open and deep friendship. Before Isabel’s uncle passes away, he leaves her a fortune that will give her all the means to become the free spirited and independent women she dreams of.

“… she had a theory that it was only on this condition that life was worth living; that one should be one of the best, should be conscious of a fine organization, should move in the realm of light, of natural wisdom, of happy impulse, of inspiration gracefully chronic.”

However, with that money comes eyes upon our pure and unintentionally naïve heroine who takes a liking towards a fashionable, artistic, cultured Madam Merle and her intelligence. But Madam Merle has other intentions. She ends up contriving a plan to get Isabel married to a friend of hers Gilbert Osmond, and while Isabel believes she comes to accept him of her own accord, he eventually becomes her downfall.

“Wasn’t all history full of the destruction of precious things? Wasn’t it much more probable that if one were fine one would suffer?”

From then on we see how Isabel strives to come to terms with a marriage where she is forced to submit to a husband who isn’t abusive but emotionally toxic and derives pleasure from putting her down.

“You wanted to look at life for yourself – but you were not allowed; you were punished for your wish. You were ground in the very mill of the conventional!”

While reading The Portrait of a Lady I often found the language and dialogues extremely simple and impactful at some points but confusing at others. For instance I was left with many questions, and that ending was the most anti-climatic open ending of all time. I did find some things indigestible regarding Isabel, but that is a product of the era the book was written in.

“To say that she had a book is to say that her solitude did not press upon her; for her love of knowledge had a fertilizing quality and her imagination was strong.”

But the perspective of visiting and experiencing the English life from an American eye was quite interesting. Of course the quips Henry James adds for his characters stems from the time he spent in England himself, and it shows throughout his novel.

“There is no such thing as an isolated man or woman; we are each of us made up of a cluster of apurtenances. What do you call one’s self? Where does it begin? Where does it end? It overflows into everything that belongs to us”

 I also want to mention that while reading The Portrait of a Lady there is a certain kind of inspection of the human state that Henry James makes that just cuts right through you. For me, the way Isabel thought about her freedom and the fear she had of being tied to a man without having experienced life just spoke to me on another level.

“She had always observed that she got on better with clever women than silly ones like herself; the silly ones could never understand her wisdom; whereas the clever ones – the really clever ones – always understood her silliness.”

Similarly, when it came to Ralph there was a bittersweet story line for him that just made you wish he could be better. Then we have Henrietta Stackpole: the correspondent of an American magazine who shares her adventures in Europe for the American audience. I really loved her story line and found the ending really wholesome.

“…and the great advantage of being a literary woman, was that you could go everywhere and do everything.”

I also loved how she knew what Isabel needed and was a true friend in every step. Even when they were at odds with each other, Henrietta did everything she could to protect her and her individuality. She was the rock that reminded Isabel of her past self and values, and eventually the one she returns in the end.

Overall, this novel is really something, and I am sure is you liked the three books I mentioned earlier, you’ll like this too.

Onto the basics:

  1. Rating: 4.0/5.0
  2. Favourite quote: “She carried within herself a great fund of life, and her deepest enjoyment was to feel the continuity between the movement of her own heart and the agitations of the world.”
  3.  Reader level:  It is a classic, so you’ll end with words like odious and pusillanimous. So make a guess.
  4. Should you read:  If you enjoy classics then you will like this one.
  5. Would I read it again: Probably not.

Till next time,



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