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.