Literary Corner Cafe

Friday, November 26, 2010

Book Review - The Classics - The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

Note: The following review may give away minor plot details that some readers would rather avoid.

While The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl may be structurally more sophisticated works than The Portrait of a Lady and The Turn of the Screw more imaginative and unique, for me, it is The Portrait of a Lady that most clearly defines the writing of Henry James and espouses the major themes threaded throughout his work: the contrast between American naïveté and European sophistication and the conflict that arises when innocence confronts worldly experience.

The Portrait of a Lady contains all the long, convoluted sentences that characterize James' middle and later work: the rather stilted artificiality, the melodrama, the extraordinarily memorable scenes (the tea party and the scene of Madame Merle at the piano come instantly to mind, but there are others), but The Portrait of a Lady is set apart, I think, by the very "humanness" of its characters. None of them, with the exception of perhaps Gilbert Osmond are wholly "good" or wholly “bad” (and if we knew more of Osmond’s background, we could probably make allowances for him as well). They are flawed human beings who (sometimes) try to do what's best, but like all human beings, they often fail. James, himself, said, “A novel is in its broadest definition, a personal, a direct impression of life.” The only other book I've read that portrays men and women so superbly in all their human frailty is Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, another timeless classic.

The Portrait of a Lady centers around young, beautiful, naïve Isabel Archer who travels from the United States to visit her wealthy relatives at an English estate, Gardencourt. Her aunt, Mrs. Touchette, needs her; her uncle, Mr. Touchette, likes her; her cousin, Ralph Touchette, loves her...perhaps not in a wholly unselfish manner, as any lover should, but he does care for her, and Isabel, it should be pointed out, is not yet capable of loving in a wholly unselfish manner, herself. In traveling to England with Mrs. Touchette, Isabel makes a life-altering choice, because in traveling to England she leaves behind in the United States one very serious suitor, Caspar Goodwood.

From the very beginning of the book, Isabel makes some disastrous choices, choices that could charitably be ascribed to her youth and naïveté, but disastrous nonetheless. Most of these disastrous decision are prompted by Isabel’s desire to be free and to experience the world on her own terms. Ralph Touchette, in a roundabout way, makes Isabel’s desired independence possible, and in so doing, he has a hand in Isabel’s ultimate destiny. However, it is when Isabel meets the very worldly and cosmopolitan Madame Merle that her destiny is finally sealed. Isabel, in all her innocence, is fascinated by Madame Merle and wants to be more like her.

It gives away nothing of the plot to tell you that eventually Mr. Touchette dies and Mrs. Touchette and Isabel set off for Paris, and ultimately, Florence. It is in Florence that Isabel once again meets the enigmatic Madame Merle and binds her (Isabel’s) destiny to the whims and foibles of a man named Gilbert Osmond, referenced above.

Isabel was certainly a pawn in a very dangerous game, but as in most “real life” situations, she’s not wholly without blame, herself. It really is not “others” who cause Isabel’s is Isabel, herself, for she is possessed, not only of innocence but also of much ambition, much stubbornness, and some degree of vanity. These qualities, more than the evil machinations of those around her prove to be her undoing.

And what about Caspar? Is he really as “good” as some readers would have us believe? I don’t think so. Caspar is a complex character, just as Lord Warburton (one of Isabel’s suitors) is a complex character. Both of them represent, to me, something that Isabel can’t, or doesn’t want to deal with. It is this “something,” or rather the lack of it, that draws her, in part, to Gilbert Osmond. Ralph Touchette, too, is a very flawed character. He loves Isabel, yes, but is he really a fine and trustworthy friend or is he, underneath his veneer of illness, as manipulative and cunning as both Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond?

And what of Madame Merle? So many people see her as simply devious, underhanded, manipulative. Yes, I saw her as all those things and plenty more besides. But I also saw her sadness at growing older, her pain over the “loss” of her child, her desperation to cling to what respectability she could. In short, I saw her as a very complex and complicated woman. She was certainly a much more complicated personality than was Isabel, whose very “innocence-to-a-fault” most certainly contributed to the “evil” in those around her.

“Complex” and “complicated” are two words that have often been used to describe the prose of Henry James during his middle and later years. (His earlier works, like Daisy Miller, were more straightforward.) Yes, James does write convoluted sentences that fold back on themselves time and time again and can go on for pages. His books are sometimes “slow” because he gets to the verb only after giving us a long string of adjectives and descriptive phrases. That’s okay; plot never takes center stage in any novel by James. His works are essentially character studies and explorations of the themes that haunted him most of his life. Although I know many people who are quite critical of James’ almost baroque style, it is languid and beautiful, and if you have the patience for it, it is soothing, almost “balm for the soul.”

Nothing in The Portrait of a Lady is “black and white.” This is a book painted in every shade of gray and that is part of what causes it to be a masterpiece and makes it so fascinating and timeless despite a plot that many people would call more than a little trite and dated. Plot, in this book, exists only in order for James to develop his characters, characters that showcase his vast knowledge of human frailty and ultimate truth.

The Portrait of a Lady is a delicious book for readers who enjoy slower-paced, deeply insightful novels. While this is an ensemble character study, it is in no way a psychological treatise (Henry James was the brother of William James). Those readers needing a fast-paced plot with plenty of story tension should be warned they won’t find it here. This book is definitely a five-star treat to be slowly savored and long remembered. The Portrait of a Lady is a classic that everyone deserves to read at least three times: once for the story, once for the prose, and once again to revisit and reacquaint themselves with James’ fascinating, flawed, but deeply human, characters.


Recommend: Definitely, without reservation. Not since Anna Karenina has there been a novel that portrays human beings in all their frailty as magnificently as this one. Both life-enriching and insightful.