My only previous experience with the American writer Henry James was a failed attempt to read The Ambassadors back in 2005, and successful reads of two of his short stories, “Daisy Miller” and “Turn of the Screw,” back in high school. While he earns near-universal praise for the emotional depth of his writing and the quality of his prose, I always thought his prose was too prolix, and avoided him for years as a result.
The Portrait of a Lady appears on the Bloomsbury 100, which meant I either had to end my boycott or give up on my goal of reading all 100 titles, and since this also appears on the Novel 100 (at #29) I figured I’d stop being a stubborn ass about it and give it a read. James’ prose is, still, too prolix, and the novel moves about as quickly as a Yankees-Red Sox game on national television, but I could see that it’s also the work of a brilliant writer, and his central character is among the most memorable I’ve encountered.
Isabel Archer, the lady of the title, starts the novel as a young American woman who travels to visit her aunt and wealthy English uncle at their estate outside of London, where her aunt rarely spends time but her uncle and her cousin Ralph are often in residence, as both suffer from health issues. Isabel’s high-spirited, independent nature faces an unexpected test when she inherits a fortune and no longer has to even consider marrying for money, which leads her into a mésalliance that wrecks her innocence and threatens to destroy her individuality.
James invests nearly all of his time, including some multi-page paragraphs, in building and exploring the character of Isabel; rather than allowing her words and actions to define her, he crafts her with costive prose that I found difficult and unengaging. It is one thing to tell us that Isabel couldn’t feel shame for her mistakes for long because “she had an unquenchable desire to think well of herself;” it is another to talk about this for over two pages without a paragraph break. James’ fustian dialogue still illuminates her character and those of her suitors, the American expatriate Madame Merle, and her friend from Albany Henrietta, so why bury them in mountains of Dickensian descriptions?
Portrait‘s climax was by far its best and most clever part, as James gives us an ambiguous ending where we can easily imagine Isabel choosing either of the two paths ahead of her. By that point, she’s made her bad marriage and realized she’s effectively trapped in it, until an escape route appears before her – but one that would require her to sacrifice image and propriety in the eyes of the aristocratic world in which she travels. Her tie to her stepdaughter, who is growing up under the oppressive thumb of Isabel’s husband, may be a stronger disincentive to flee than her vows to her husband. Has her independence atrophied so far that she would choose a lifetime of unhappiness to save face? I’d like to imagine James writing both endings and opting to forgo one entirely because neither option satisfied him. Or maybe he just got lazy.
Next up: I’m about 2/3 of the way through Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, which is also on the Bloomsbury list. Beth’s not doing so well right now, though, so I put the iPad in the freezer.