Wednesday, February 13, 2013

February Salon

It's taken me forever to finish this month's post for Katherine's Turn of the Century Salon.  Sorry Katherine!  But here it is, and it's about Henry James' Portrait of a Lady, which squeaks in under the wire, having been written in 1880, but really--who is more turn of the century than James?



  • Do you like the author's writing style?
I don't mind Henry James' writing style, but I don't love it.  The man did like a good long sentence!   For the most part I enjoyed reading his prose medium-well.  I didn't hate it, I liked reading it, but I didn't love it either.

I often felt like even though I was getting a lot of words that described Isabel and her actions, I was not truly getting inside her.  I read this 800-page novel about her, but I didn't feel like I knew her well.  I don't know if that was on purpose; maybe James didn't mean for me to know her well?  Since it was a "portrait" perhaps it was supposed to be more external than internal.  Still, it was sometimes an awful lot of words to say relatively little.
  • What is their tone? Somber? Lighter and witty?
James is witty, but not light or amusing.  He is serious and detailed.
  • What are your impressions of the main character(s)?
I like Isabel, but I don't feel I know her all that well.  In fact I feel like I know all the other characters better!  I do not understand why she marries Osmond halfway through; perhaps she doesn't herself.

Ralph is awfully nice; I like him best, and Lord Warburton too.  Henrietta is irritating but a good friend to have around.  In fact most of the characters are likeable, decent people.

Madame Merle and Osmond, on the other hand...well.  I was hoping that Isabel would escape their clutches, right up until it was suddenly over.

And Pansy is a mystery to me.  I don't think James ever met a real teenage girl, or something.  She's a very strange character.  Although I can rather see her doing something like Megha in Mohabbatein did. *   (And wouldn't James be thrilled to be compared to a Bollywood movie?  I'm sure he would.)
  • Who is the main character struggling with? Themselves? Society? Another character?
Isabel isn't really struggling against society; as far as society is concerned, she is one of its more fortunate members and much more free than most women.  This, however, doesn't really work in her favor, because she has what amounts to a hidden enemy, who manipulates her because of her fortunate situation.  Isabel ends up struggling against the position she has chosen for herself without knowing the true consequences.
  • How is society looked upon in the novel? 
It's remarkably small.  Considering that everyone in the book is wealthy and moves in the higher circles of society, they hardly talk to anyone.  There is this tiny group of expatriate Americans, most of whom have not set foot in America for many years, and they only seem to talk with each other or their few European relatives.  Here you have this stage of great Italian cities, or London, or the entire English countryside...and this tight, closed little community.  It's very claustrophobic.

Virtually everyone in this society is highly conventional.  They nearly all place great value on acting correctly in public, but their private thoughts are mostly entirely different.  The few non-conformists are more honest, but not necessarily more virtuous; they may be wholly selfish.  Indeed that is why they do not conform.  Only Henrietta breaks out. 






*In Mohabbatein, Megha, the perfect daughter, confesses to her father that she loves a particular boy.  The father gets the boy thrown out of his school and orders Megha to forget him.  She puts on a convincing performance, right up until the minute she tells her father that she tried her best but couldn't do it and throws herself off the balcony.

3 comments:

Jenny said...

Jean, try Googling "Clover Adams". She was the real life person that Pansy (and Daisy Miller) were based on. She's really interesting.

Jean said...

Thanks for the tip, Jenny! It looks like there's a lot to read about her, so this will take me a little while. :)

Katherine Cox said...

Hi Jean! Don't feel bad if you take awhile, you have the full month to write your post. :)

I've not read a thing of Henry James, although I was thinking of picking up Daisy Miller since it's a quick read. (I'll be sure to google Clover Adams too).

I saw an adaptation of A Portrait of a Lady and wasn't very fond of it. I don't think I'd be fond of the novel either.