The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

I tackled this giant intimidating chunkster with the aid of the WEM ladies at Classical Quest and A Classical Case of Madness.  I really like Adriana's idea of a readalong on Facebook--she figured on reading 3 chapters a day and we would check in report progress.  It's fun and not too overwhelming to manage such a small amount--and since I was reading Anna Karenina at the same time I needed all the help I could get!

Isabel is a young American woman from Albany, and her crotchety aunt whisks her off to England to live and to see Europe.  Nothing much happens in the first 400 pages, except that every man she meets falls in love with her and asks her to marry him.  She successfully fends them off (if I were her, I'd want to be left alone to explore Europe without constant hounding from these guys!), until she meets Gilbert Osmond.  Although her other suitors are all good upstanding men, she of course has to marry the rotter.

Virtually every man she knows treats her more as an object to be owned than a real person; they are more interested in her graceful and attractive appearance than in her as a personality.  Osmond is the worst of these and literally wants her to be an unthinking thing of beauty for him to take over and possess.  When she resists this by having a few opinions, he grows to hate her--even though she always acts as a perfect wife.

I really don't understand the character of Pansy, Osmond's daughter.   If you've read this book, please tell me your opinion of her!  I think I understand partly what James wants us to think about her.  But really, I've never met a less realistic 15-year-old girl than Pansy when she is first introduced.  She comes off as about 8 years old, and I thought that either James didn't know any teenage girls (I figure that's the real case), or that she was secretly a conniving and manipulative little minx (this would be true if Pansy were a real person).

The last 200 pages are gripping (for James) and I hardly put the book down.  It was interesting to read Henry James--he is slow and wordy, and I don't know that I will read a whole lot more, but I'm glad I read this one.  And I feel pretty accomplished, too.


  1. I'm glad the synchro-read was helpful. I enjoyed your participation. :)

    I'm impressed that you read AK and Portrait at the same time! Whew! That makes me feel dizzy.

  2. Oh my! You are a better woman than I. I had to read The Turn of the Screw in college. I hated James! He took a perfectly good ghost and ruined it with his pretentious style of writing. Or so I thought. I have not read any of him since then. The very thought makes me shudder.

  3. I read this a couple of years ago for a reading challenge and really enjoyed it. James is not difficult to read as much as he is quiet and subtle.

  4. Congratulations! I am not a James fan. I enjoyed this one more than most of his other novels, but only because I read it with my ears. The audio edition made it go faster.

    Thanks for posting your review on the European Reading Challenge page.

    Rose City Reader

  5. Jean, I just finished read TPoaL a couple of weeks ago, and it was truly an amazing experience. I think this novel may have vaulted up into my top-five most favorite novels of all time. I am getting set to reread it again while on vacation in the Bahamas next week, and in conjunction with reading Michael Gorra's, "The Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece" (2012). Gorra's book was actually a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize in Non-Fiction and Biography this year!

    I think TPoaL is a novel that I shall be rereading every couple of years for the rest of my life. After I get back from vacation, I'd like to get back with you again and talk more about this novel. I saw your question(s) about Pansy, and I have my own questions and observations about Gilbert, and Isabel, and so much more. There's just so much depth in this novel--it is almost staggering to consider what a literary achievement it is.

    Great review of a great book!

    Cheers! Chris

  6. Hi Chris--your review of TPoaL just popped up in my feed this morning. I see you've been on a James and Wharton kick. :) I would love to talk more about it when you get back--have a great trip!

  7. I'm so glad you mentioned your perplexity of Pansy. I thought the same thing...she seemed more like 8 or 9. Pretty unrealistic...I think even if we account for our ignorance of late 19th century teens. Still I liked this book more than anything I'd read by Henry James before. Good review. My review:


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