Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Henry James’

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

I nearly didn’t read The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James because I was angry after feeling ‘suckered’ into reading Mrs Osmond by John Banville without realising in advance that the story was a sequel to The Portrait of a Lady, which at that time I hadn’t read. I also disliked the main characters in Mrs Osmond so much that I swore I would never read ‘Portrait’.

Obviously, my promises mean nothing, because I added The Portrait of a Lady to my Classics Club list anyway.

The ‘lady’ of the book’s title is Isabel Archer, a poor young American woman who was lifted out of her life in Albany, New York to travel to Europe with her rich aunt, Mrs Touchett.

Mrs Touchett first took Isabel to the family home near London, where Isabel charmed her uncle, her cousin Ralph and Ralph’s friend, Lord Warburton. Before long, Isabel had declined Lord Warburton’s offer of marriage along with another offer from an eligible young man she had known in America, telling her disappointed aunt that she preferred her freedom.

Ralph also fell in love with Isabel, but rather than try his luck where no one else had succeeded he convinced his father on his deathbed to leave half of his fortune to Isabel so that she could live a full life, so that Ralph, who suffered from ill health, could take an interest in the results of his experiment to make his cousin a rich woman.

After Mr Touchett senior’s death, Isabel travelled with Mrs Touchett to Italy, where she was manouevered by Madame Merle, a friend of Mrs Touchett’s, into falling in love with and marrying Mr Osmond, a poor American who had expensive tastes and high standards for everyone other than himself.

By the second half of the story Isabel was unhappily married to Mr Osmond, having realised that he had married her for her money. She took all responsibility for having fallen in love with an illusion.

I found it interesting that Isabel said she wanted freedom for herself yet from the very beginning of this story she was manipulated by others. In some of these instances Isabel knew what was going on and had the power of refusal, such as when Mrs Touchett visited her in America and offered to take Isabel with her to Europe or when she received offers of marriage, but in other instances, such as Ralph asking his father to make his cousin a rich woman or when Madame Merle and Mr Osmond presented Isabel with his most charming self with a view to her marrying him, Isabel’s life was directed by others.

The story moved quite slowly but it held my interest. The settings were glorious and all of the characters, including the minor characters, such as Mr Osborne’s daughter, Pansy and an American journalist friend of Isabel’s became very real to me.

I disliked the ambiguous ending of The Portrait of a Lady. After reading 600 or so pages I felt that I ‘deserved’ to know what happened next although this did leave the way open for John Banville to write Mrs Osborne, which I may well re-read now that I know who his story was about.

The Portrait of a Lady has convinced me to continue reading Henry James’ books.

The Portrait of a Lady was book forty in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

The Wings of the Dove by Henry James

I started The Wings of the Dove by Henry James while Melbourne was in lockdown during 2020 but I wasn’t able to concentrate well enough to get past the first 20 pages. My notes from that first attempt said, “Henry James uses too many words.”

When I tried the book again in May 2021 Melbourne was out of lockdown and I was working in my office in the CBD several days a week, with a more established routine and feeling generally more relaxed. As a result I was able to persevere and while I didn’t love the story or the slow writing style as much as I’ve enjoyed the Henry James’ books which I’ve previously read, on this attempt I at least became interested in the characters and their stories and was able to finish the book.

Milly Theale was an extremely rich, young American orphan when she travelled to London with her companion, Mrs Stringer, who while there, reconnected with a friend from her schooldays, Mrs Louder.

Mrs Louder then introduced Milly to her beautiful, but poor young niece, Kate Croy and the two young women became friends. Milly also met Kate’s secret fiance, Merton Densher, who Milly had briefly met in New York before coming to London.

Mrs Louder wouldn’t allow Kate to marry Densher because he was also poor, but when Kate learned that Milly was dying she came up with a plan for Densher to make up to Milly and marry her, with an eye to marrying him herself once he became a rich widower, her aunt also encouraged him to carry out Kate’s plan.

Densher, who was smitten with Kate, went along with the plan and followed Milly, Kate and their entire entourage to Venice where Milly went to die (or to live, as her doctor encouraged her to do before she died, without ever stating that she would die).

I feel as if I should have disliked Kate, Densher and Mrs Louder for using Milly for their own gain, but they were charming, interesting and although my perception may be wrong, at least somewhat well-intentioned towards Milly. I felt that Kate and Densher actually cared for Milly and wanted her to die happy, even though their passion was for each other.

The writing style is lethargic, with long complicated sentences that required a lot of concentration to read. Characters hinted at things at but rarely made their intentions clear and left others to determine what a raised eyebrow or a slight change in a facial expression might have meant. The book probably deserved more time from me as I think I would have gotten more from it had I read it more slowly and diligently.

While I didn’t love The Wings of the Dove I am keen to watch the 1997 film which starred Helena Bonham Carter as Kate Croy and am hopeful that watching this will clarify if Kate and Densher actually cared for Milly or if their motivation in how they acted towards her was pure greed.

The Wings of the Dove was book twenty eight in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.

The Lesson of the Master by Henry James


When I read Washington Square by Henry James earlier this year, I was really excited and hopeful that I had found an author whose work I would treasure as much as Jane Austen’s.

The Lesson of the Master is good too. Better than good actually, the writing is beautiful, the pacing is perfect and the story is subtle and comes very close to being exactly right, but I didn’t feel that emotional connection with the main character of with the story that I have with Jane Austen’s characters. This may have been because, as a female, I relate better to Austen’s heroines.

The Lesson of the Master starts with Paul Overt, a young writer who has had early writing success, visiting a country house where he hopes to meet his idol, Henry St George. St George is a celebrated novelist who Paul rates very highly, while acknowledging that St George’s most recent novels are not of the same high quality as his earlier works.

Paul meets St George and his wife who is an invalid. Mrs St George shocks Paul by telling him she has burned books written by her husband which she didn’t think saleable. Paul is idealistic, and despite falling in love with the beautiful Marian Fancourt, he gave her up after St George suggested to Paul he would be a better writer if he doesn’t marry and have children. The implication is that St George has sacrificed his own art to support his family.

Paul goes abroad and writes a masterpiece, but when he returns to England he learns that Mrs St George has died and that Marian Fancourt is now engaged to marry St George.

I finished the book feeling as if young Paul had been scammed by the master, (St George), but I didn’t really care much. Maybe Paul was scammed and maybe he wasn’t, but would he have written his later great work had he become engaged or married to Marian himself? We will never know, because this is a novel and Henry James was the person who determined that particular point. According to the introduction to the story by Cohn Toibin, this story was based on the author’s own experiences and was in part, a justification of his own choice to remain unmarried.

As I’ve written this review, I’ve realised that the plot is cleverer than I originally believed, but still think the characters needed filling out more emotionally. I liked that the characters names were descriptive, for example, Marian Fancourt couldn’t have been anything but a beautiful, literary groupie and Paul Overt is an undisguised, open young man. Even the name of Henry St George has connotations of the saint who died for his beliefs. Summersoft, the name of the country house where the story begins, sounds like an ideal place to sit on the grass with friends on a warm Sunday afternoon.

I won’t give up on Henry James just yet, even if the moral of The Lesson of the Master was ‘do as I say and not as I do.’

Washington Square by Henry James


Washington Square is the first book I’ve read by Henry James and already, I think I am going to like his works as much as I like Jane Austen’s. Every word in Washington Square is perfect and is in exactly the right order. Every sentence adds a little more to the story, without any padding or boring bits.

The story is well mannered and gently told. The heroine of Washington Square is a young woman called Catherine Sloper, who is the only daughter of a prestigious New York doctor. Dr Sloper is wealthy and very, very clever. Catherine, to her father’s disappointment is not clever, nor is she pretty, interesting or particularly attractive to men, despite being brought up with every possible advantage available to girls at the time.

When a would-be young man about town, Morris Townsend, starts paying attention to Catherine, she falls in love with him. Her father, Dr Sloper, almost instantly decries Morris as a fortune hunter. Catherine’s Aunt Penniman, who is as silly as Dr Sloper is clever, involves herself in Catherine’s romance, siding with Morris against her brother and constantly meddling, in an attempt to create drama and excitement, which is the opposite of Catherine’s nature.

Catherine wants desperately to please her father. She is known throughout society for her goodness and placidity, although in one respect she is very like her father, as both are intractable, to the point of pig headedness. When Dr Sloper investigates Morris Townsend and finds him to be a waster, he lets it be know that he will disinherit Catherine if she were to marry Morris. Dr Sloper appears to want what is best for his daughter, but his behaviour seems unkind.

When Catherine and Morris become engaged, Dr Sloper takes Catherine off to Europe in an attempt to force Catherine to change her mind. Dr Sloper seems to regard his daughter coldly, studying her feelings and behaviour as if she is an experiment he is involved with. Despite his apparent coolness, one of the most dramatic and forceful moments in the book is between Dr Sloper and Catherine while they are walking on a lonely track in the Alps, when Dr Sloper confronts her about her plans to marry. He seems almost jealous of Catherine’s relationship with Morris, although Catherine comes to believe that her father doesn’t love her at all and that his behaviour is to do with wanting to control her.

Throughout my reading of Washington Square, I kept thinking of the heroine as ‘poor Catherine.’ I felt enormously sad for her, feeling unloved by her father, worrying that Morris was indeed a fortune hunter, and having to cope with the continual annoyance of her foolish Aunt Penniman.

My emotions were manipulated by the author constantly throughout this novel, and I was on Catherine’s side the whole way through. I laughed aloud at some of the descriptions of characters. I felt anxiety for Catherine during social situations, angry with Dr Sloper for his controlling behaviour, frustrated with Catherine’s aunt and hopeful that Morris would turn out to truly love her. I also felt both disappointment and satisfaction for reasons that I won’t say here because they would spoil the plot for would be readers.

During my reading of this novel, I continually found myself closing the book in an attempt to prolong the pleasure of my reading. I could not be happier to know that there are so many more books by Henry James, just waiting for me to read them. Life is good.

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