The Portrait of a Lady is a story of Americans abroad, and a story of love and loss. Isabel Archer arrives in England with her aunt, Lydia Touchett, who is intent on broadening her horizons. Lydia is the mother of Isabel’s cousin Ralph, who lives with his father on their English estate, Gardencourt. Within a few weeks of her arrival at Gardencourt, Isabel turns down two marriage proposals, insisting on maintaining her independence. She inherits a considerable sum of money, and it appears she will be able to achieve her goal. Unfortunately, her “friends” have other ideas, and when Isabel travels to the continent, she soon finds herself falling for Gilbert Osmond, an American living in Italy. Sadly, their marriage is not a happy one and Isabel is stuck making the best of a bad situation.
The story evolves quite slowly, but there’s much more to this rich novel than can be described in a simple plot summary. Henry James’ writing is complex, but not as difficult to read as I’d feared. James was himself an American living abroad, and he clearly loved his adopted country. Speaking through Ralph Touchett’s father, James offers a delightful point of view of an American living in England:
I’ve been watching these people for upwards of thirty-five years, and I don’t hesitate to say that I’ve acquired considerable information. It’s a very fine country on the whole–finer perhaps than we give it credit for on the other side. There are several improvements I should like to see introduced; but the necessity of them doesn’t seem to be generally felt as yet.
And the characterizations are superb. Ralph cares deeply for Isabel, but never acts on his feelings. Lydia is self-centered, but in an amusing way. Madame Merle, a good friend of Lydia, is quite eccentric and takes Isabel under her wing; however, there is a mysterious side to her as well. Isabel’s friend Henrietta is assertive and brash, perhaps representing the “typical American” in Europe. Gilbert Osmond is completely unlikeable, and his sister Amy, the Countess Gemini, is vapid and self-centered, but pulls off a major feat near the end that shows there’s much more to her than meets the eye.
Throughout this novel Isabel is caught between a desire for independence, and societal pressures and expectations. James’ understated prose delivers surprising emotional intensity, through a collection of memorable characters. Highly recommended.