If you guessed by noting two uses of the word “physiognomy” in the first three pages that The Portrait of a Lady depicts a more literate era, you would be right. If you guessed by the author’s taking 21 chapters to set up the intrigue that he might have had an eye for detail rivaling Charles Dickens’, you would be right. And that he was writing for a more patient, less video-crazed readership than exists today. Or if you guessed that this novel’s descriptions might have been drawn out into many magazine segments as was common in the late 1800s, you would be right. But if you guessed that author Henry James’ lengthy, lyrical “reedy, silvery Thames” descriptions depict only innocence and quaint dealings, you would be wrong.
The Portrait of a Lady begins with perhaps a foreshadowing of the tangled web to be woven beginning in chapter 22: “Real dusk would not arrive for many hours … the shadows … lengthened slowly …” The subtlety of evil slithers without her awareness into our heroine’s life long after we have gotten to know her character. Then she is faced with tougher decisions than she’s ever had to make before. Although Psalm 15’s concept of keeping a promise even if it ruins you is not mentioned in the novel, it certainly comes to mind as our heroine ponders options in her dismal dilemma.
Our heroine, bright, inquisitive Isabel Archer, is a young lady brought from New York to England by her aunt, Mrs. Touchett. The Touchetts are Americans who have lived a life of gentility in England for 30 years when The Portrait of a Lady begins. Through them, Isabel has opportunity to travel and mingle with gentle persons throughout Europe. Acquaintances and suitors abound, as Isabel’s adventures feed her independent spirit and hunger to learn about all kinds of people. She learns some people sacrifice themselves for her, and some sacrifice her for themselves. Through her experiences, the reader sees subtle, tragic faults in two common ideals and idols of youth—freedom and defense of underdogs.
This novel evokes emotions from pleasure to pain. Although few of us have money enough to freely roam Europe for years, we can visit new lands and stroll estate gardens vicariously through Isabel. We can marvel and in some cases, laugh at the intelligent candor of this novel’s characters. We can linger in the leisurely pace of James’ descriptions. But then we also revisit mistakes of our youth. We wonder how a person can ever really know another’s character and motives. Indeed, we struggle to wriggle free of horrible ropes of reality: We can’t ever fully know another’s motives. Both love and hatred appear in different forms in this novel. The Portrait of a Lady is also an insightful study of how having or not having money affects character.