#23 The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James


Isabel Archer’s biggest problem is that every man she meets wants to marry her. She is so charming, so popular, and so very beloved that her aunt can’t resist taking her on an all-expenses-paid Eurotrip; her uncle is compelled to leave her half his fortune (70,000 pounds in the 1860s); and her cousin nominates her as his sole reason to live. (And yes, he wants to marry her. More on that later.)

Isabel spends the first half of Henry James’s most popular novel breaking hearts right and left. Her suitors, hundreds of pages later, have yet to move on. Feeling crestfallen after you’ve been rejected by a woman you knew for a week? Weird, but fine. Hoping she’ll change her mind? Sad, but fine. Following her across entire continents to tell her how heartbroken you are—for years at a time—and laying on guilt trips as if she owes you fuck all?

Not OK, gents. Not OK.

Needless to say, when she does get married, and her husband grows to hate her with a passion, Isabel is utterly perplexed. But I’m so charming! she thinks. And so popular! And so beloved, and attractive, and rich!

To the reader, however, the mystery of his malice is skimpy at best. For one, his name is Gilbert Osmond—obviously a villain’s name. Second, and more importantly, no human can live up to the kind of expectations harnessed to Ms. Archer. When Madame Merle (a friend suspiciously interested third party) encourages Osmond to meet Isabel, he asks:

Is she beautiful, clever, rich, splendid, universally intelligent and unprecedentedly virtuous? It is only on those conditions that I care to make her acquaintance.

Madame Merle assures him that this description neatly “corresponds” to Isabel, the human equivalent of a profiterole. A few sad years into the future, however, Isabel is already failing on every count (except, perhaps, “rich”), to the detriment of Osmond’s matrimonial ROI.

To everyone else, though, Isabel has lost none of her appeal. There are still several mopey losers stalking her—notably her cousin Ralph, a full-time invalid for whom stalking is a challenging hobby. Manly professions of love have, by this point, become comedic for the reader, and tedious for Isabel. Here’s her reaction to Ralph’s romantic entreaties:

Was he too on that tiresome list?

Contrary to Osmond’s line of thinking, perfection may actually be Isabel’s greatest flaw. You know that old platitude moms hand out like lunchboxes to their fourteen-year-old daughters, looking with the eyes of unconditional love past braces and puppy fat: “Honey, flaws are what make you interesting”?

Well, it turns out that’s absolutely true. I’m not saying those fourteen-year-old girls will get Prom invitations from the Jonas Brothers, or anything. But my biggest point of dispute with The Portrait of a Lady is its supremely boring heroine in Isabel Archer. Her commitment to her own “independence” lasts about as long as this sentence. Her ambitions fall prey to the usual predators of marriage and motherhood. Duty to her husband and social convention wins out, in most cases, over her own feelings.

None of this would be as grating if we weren’t repeatedly reminded of Isabel’s (supposed) independence, ambition, and defiance of tradition—and if Isabel weren’t constantly patting herself on the back for these very qualities. She’s not even as autonomous or accomplished as her friend Henrietta Stackpole. If Isabel were ever to meet Countess Ellen Olenska from The Age of Innocence while walking the streets of New York or London, she would look like a wilting wallflower in comparison.

All that said, I enjoyed my trip across Europe through the eyes of Henry James and Ms. Archer—particularly the plot twist I inexplicably did not foresee. I just wish there had been a scene where all of Isabel’s lame suitors lined up, one in front of the other, only to be knocked down like dominoes. Literally or figuratively—I’m not picky.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

James is not as funny as Jane Austen, or as gifted as William Makepeace Thackeray. His ambition is weak next to George Eliot’s, and his themes look timid up against the Brontës’. But as a fan of 19th-century Brit lit, I’m going to let this one sneak its way onto the Greatest Bookshelf anyway.

Favorite Quotes:

“You are too fond of your liberty.”
“Yes, I think I am very fond of it. But I always want to know the things one shouldn’t do.”
“So as to do them?” asked her aunt.
“So as to choose,” said Isabel.

She wondered whether his sense of humour were by chance defective.

She had too many ideas for herself; but that was just what one married for, to share them with some one else.

I don’t want every one to like me; I should think less of myself if some people did.

Read: 2015


4 thoughts on “#23 The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James

  1. Pingback: 75 Books! a.k.a. Three-Quarters! a.k.a. My Deathbed! | The 100 Greatest Books Challenge

  2. Pingback: #66 Clarissa, Samuel Richardson | The 100 Greatest Books Challenge

  3. Pingback: My Wish List for Future Classics (and All Other Books) | The 100 Greatest Books Challenge

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