Great Novels: The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

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Mesmerizing and provocative, Henry James’s 1880 novel, The Portrait of a Lady, challenges us to be unmoved by its contents. It is a story about difficult choices: how to make them and how to live by them. Making these choices is Isabel Archer, James’s self-aware and self-assured heroine. Only someone as self-possessed as Isabel could read this story and not be acutely influenced by it. 
The story’s charming opening line might rival that of de Maurier’s Rebecca or Orwell’s 1984 for the title of “most memorable”, were the book better known: ‘Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea’. This Wildean, Brideshead-esque introduction anticipates a fairy tale conclusion. After the death of her only remaining parent, Isabel is plucked from her modest American home and brought to England by her wealthy Aunt. Isabel’s path seems paved to “happy ever after”, except that James does not write stories of this kind. The world which opens before us, following this cheerful beginning, is one of conflicts: the American vs. the European, the individual vs. society, the individual vs. himself. This is James’s territory. Opportunity after opportunity befalls Isabel. Wealth, marriage, and happiness are never beyond her reach but their cost is high. The offers she receives are all, in part, attempts to possess her. So Isabel is repeatedly faced with the same choice: should she forfeit independence for the chance to be happy or should she deny herself this opportunity to remain in control of herself? For Isabel, temptation comes in diverse forms, from the kind-natured and ailing Ralph to the deliciously mysterious and free-spirited Osmond. Suffice to say that Isabel’s yielding to temptation, when she eventually does, proves cataclysmic.   
This story is not one in which much happens. The Portrait of a Lady is a psychological study, written by a man whose brother was a psychologist at a time when that science was in its early stages. Isabel travels, but the journey which the story records is primarily one of the mind. James allows us to travel parts of it with her. At times, we are held at a distance and on these occasions Isabel appears confident in her decisions. At others, we enter Isabel’s head and what we find there is struggle and turmoil. At these moments, we feel the story growing dark around us, everything fading save Isabel’s thoughts. Conditioned in this way, we do not balk at the story’s sensational moments. Rather we feel them deeply, for the story’s characters and for ourselves. 
Isabel is both indisputably of her time and, equally, she belongs here with us. She is an example of “the new woman”, emerging out of the Victorian quagmire and, yet, she remains a potent character still. The questions with which she is faced are timeless. Even now we might ask whether it is possible to remain an autonomous individual and, at the same time, to fulfil the desire to share our experience of the world with someone like us. Even today, for good or bad, we feel the inverse of this desire: the essential primacy of the individual and fear of opening ourselves up to others. by Ceri James

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