Steady as she goes: thoughts on the first half of Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady (by Jill)

IMG_3787 IMG_3786 IMG_3785 IMG_3784 IMG_3783Okay, okay.  It’s February 3rd.  And The Portrait of a Lady is the January AP English Challenge book.  I know.  But come on.  It’s six-hundred plus pages and I also had to read One Hundred Years of Solitude, another novel of not insignificant length, in January.  We’ll tell you all about that later. In short, I am loving this book this time around.  Henry James is a freaking master of the English language and he spins a fascinating yarn with interesting characters (not the least of which is Isabel Archer, my new favorite female character in all of literature) and beautiful, vivid descriptions of places and a time long past.

I spent the first half of January dreading starting this book.  I read the first few pages at the very beginning of the month at the end of a visit to Panera.  I was concerned I was going to have as much trouble this time around as in 1993: the long paragraphs!  The lack of dialogue!  The boring plot!  After that brief foray into late nineteenth century England I put the tome down, finished Long Day’s Journey into Night, finished One Hundred Years of Solitude, and then I picked this up again.  I really wish I’d started it earlier!  Not just because it’s now February and I’m not done yet, and not just because I have to read Anna Karenin(a) this month.  Mostly because it’s actually good.

The first chapter begins with a very long description of Ralph Touchett and Lord Warburton taking a stroll around the grounds of Gardencourt, Mr. Touchett’s country manor outside of London.  It begins this way: “Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea (59).”  And then there are five long paragraphs of description that fill three and a half pages before a whit of dialogue appears.  So you see why I was a bit put off at first, right?  But on re-reading, James does a remarkable job of setting the scene for the setting of the first half of Volume One.  I could easily imagine the beauty and peace of the grounds at Gardencourt and I understood why Ralph Touchett, Mr. Touchett, and later Isabel, love the estate so much.

Volume One largely concerns itself with Isabel Archer’s introduction to England and Europe, Italy in particular.  She is a young woman, in her early twenties, whose father has lately passed away.  Her mother died long ago, and both of her older sisters are married with families, are barely mentioned.  She has no other close relations, but Mrs. Touchett is the sister of her mother.  She became estranged from the Archers years ago because of a disagreement she had with Isabel’s father, and has barely known Isabel.  Once Mr. Archer passes away, Mrs. Touchett seeks out her three nieces and sees that Isabel is alone in the world and offers to take her to Europe.  Her husband lives in England, and she resides for most of the year in Florence.  I suspect this sort of thing happened not infrequently when a marriage was unhappy and the means were available.  I suppose these days the Touchetts would simply have divorced, but back then that was simply not done.

Isabel settles in with her newfound relations, and forms a bond with her cousin Ralph quite quickly.  He is ill, with tuberculosis (who didn’t have tuberculosis in the late nineteenth century?).  Ralph is a good, kind person, who has his cousin’s best interests at heart.  In fact, he is probably the only one of Isabel’s companions who simply loves Isabel for Isabel, without any ulterior motives in play.  This becomes more obvious in Volume Two, which I’ve started but am not going to mention, because this, of course, is all about Volume One.

Isabel tends to leave a string of suitors in her wake.  There’s Caspar Goodwood from Boston who she tells she has no interest in marrying before she leaves America.  He follows her across the pond to beg for her hand.  Lord Warburton also proposes and she rejects him too.  Now, I like Isabel.  She is a very interesting person and I’d really like to hang out with her, but come on!  Does she smell like freshly baked cookies or something?  It isn’t until we get to Italy that we meet a man who Isabel finds as fascinating as all the men she meets find her.  That would be Mr. Gilbert Osmond, yet another American expatriate living in Italy.  Reading this book I started to think that there weren’t any Americans left in America.  But there is something about Mr. Osmond that puts me, and most of Isabel’s circle, off.  Is it his advanced age?  His weird habit of collecting bric-a-brack?  His something-isn’t-right-with-this-picture relationship with Madame Merle?  All I know is he rubs me the wrong way and I don’t quite understand what our Isabel sees in him.

How’s this for a bit of foreshadowing?  The last line of chapter twenty-three: “It was not probable that Isabel should be injured (303).”  This comes at the end of Ralph’s reflections on Isabel’s friendship with Madame Merle.  Obviously this comment raises concern that Isabel will, indeed, be injured by her friendship with Madame Merle.  But how?  At the end of Volume one that’s still undetermined, but maybe Gilbert Osmond is involved….

While I’ve been reading The Portrait of a Lady over the past couple weeks the thought I’ve kept having, and I think Bethany has had it too is this: “Shit.  If sixteen year old me was wrong about this book, what else was I wrong about?”  Because I have lived over half my life just knowing in my bones that Henry James was a hack whose membership in the canon was the decision of a bunch of dead white men, who obviously had terrible taste.  Henry James had nothing to say to me as a modern American woman. But he has plenty to say.  He paints this beautiful portrait of a world gone by, of these fascinating people, especially Isabel Archer.  She is real to me.  She isn’t perfect by any means, but she is a whole person, and Henry James created her out of ink and paper.  And that is a miracle.  So, I ask again: what else was I wrong about?  I shudder to even think.



This entry was posted in AP English - 18 Years Later, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Henry James, Reviews by Jill. Bookmark the permalink.

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