The Portrait of a Lady is another classic American novel that I read for my literature studies in university. It was first published in 1881 and is regarded as the most popular and well-known book by American realist Henry James. He was one of the influential writers operating between realism and modernism. Even though he was a native American, he spent most of his adult life in England and became a British subject right before his death. The juxtaposition between America and Europe featured heavily in his long novels and his plots revolved around personal relationships, told from the point of view of a character – often with interior monologues and unreliable narrators. Besides long and short novels, he also wrote articles, travel books, (auto)biographies and plays. And he was also nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature no less than three times (in 1911, 1912 and 1916).
Isabel Archer is the main character in this book. She is a young, spirited American girl who, after her father’s death, travels to London to visit her aunt Lydia and her rich husband Daniel. Their neighbour, Lord Warburton, takes a liking to her and proposes to her, quite out of the blue. But, as she is determined to enjoy her first time in Europe, she rejects him – choosing her freedom and independence over marriage. Shortly after, Caspar Goodwood proposes to her as well. Though she is infatuated with him, she doesn’t want to sacrifice her freedom.
When her cousin’s father falls ill and dies, Isabel inherits much of the man’s estate, thanks to his son and Isabel’s cousin Ralph. As she is now very wealthy, she is free to decide her own fate. So she decides to continue her European adventure and travel to the mainland. She visits Paris, Florence and Rome and meets an American named Gilbert Osmond on the way. When he proposes to her, she accepts thinking he is a great match for her. But it later turns out that the match was set up by Madame Merle, Osmond’s friend who Isabel met at her cousin’s estate in London.
Once married, Isabel and Osmond leave Florence and settle in Rome. Unfortunately, the marriage quickly turns bad as Osmond does not love Isabel and married her mostly for her money. On top of that, he is a very selfish and egocentric man who isn’t willing to make an effort for his wife. Isabel finds solace in her relationship with Pansy, Osmond’s daughter from his first marriage. When Pansy wants to marry her suitor, Edward Rosier, Isabel wants to make it happen but Osmond stops it. Osmond doesn’t want his daughter to marry an art collector. He wants her to accept Warburton’s proposal (yes, the same neighbour of Isabel’s aunt who proposed to her earlier). Rightly so, Isabel fears that Warburton is just using Pansy to get close to her.
When Isabel hears that her dear cousin Ralph is dying, she immediately wants to go to him to be there in his final hours. She wants to escape her bad marriage and return to her family. Osmond doesn’t want her to leave, but she decides to do it anyway. In the meantime, however, her sister-in-law tells her that Pansy is not Osmond’s child from his first marriage, but that she is the product of his adulterous relationship with Madame Merle. So when Isabel says goodbye to Pansy before going to England, she agrees to come back for Pansy afterwards.
Isabel does leave her husband and goes to England to be with her cousin Ralph. After Ralphs death, Caspar Goodwood finds her at the estate. It appears that Isabel still might have feelings for him, and he is definitely still interested in her. He begs her to leave Osmond for him and kisses her passionately. Isabel, however, pushes him off and runs away. When Goodwood comes back to the estate the next day, he is told that she has returned to Rome. And that is the end.
Habitual readers of my blog know that I love happy endings and really can’t stand open endings. And yes, such an ending is enough to spoil an entire book for me. It didn’t completely spoil this book, but suffice it to say that I’m really put out by the ending. Of course, Henry James did that on purpose to match his realistic ways. For Henry, this story is not about what happens to Isabel and the other characters in the end. What is important is the road they travel and the decisions they make.
Isabel, in essence, is a young, free-spirited, optimistic and independent girl in the beginning of this book. She stands by every decision she makes, good or bad, and she refuses to look back. This forms her throughout the story into an adult. An adult who has suffered in life and who has learned to conform with society and social standards. And that is what this book is about, Isabel’s growth as a person. It’s not her life story, it’s not a story about how she ended up. I can appreciate that, but what I wouldn’t give for an epilogue a few years later which shows Isabel (and Pansy) happy in whatever way!
I didn’t like this book when I first read it in university. But then again, I didn’t like any of the books we had to read at university. When I’m forced to read something, I lose interest rather quickly and it’s hard for me to enjoy what I’m reading. So, about a year ago, I promised myself to reread every one of them to see if I enjoy them now. And I do! Well, at least in this case. Besides the missing epilogue, I really liked this book. I could understand most of the decisions Isabel took and how she got to where she was. If you are not sure whether to read it, go ahead and do it! It’s a heavy book and it will take some determination, but it’s worth it!