‘The Portrait of a Lady’ by Henry James – Less Brain and More Form than Middlemarch?

‘The Portrait of a Lady’ by Henry James   (1881) – 608 pages   Grade: A-

{92A1E96D-8DF2-4854-9DE1-A00801EBE277}Img400‘The Portrait of a Lady’ by Henry James starts out as a sunny drawing room comedy on the order of Jane Austen where the young woman visiting England from the United States, Isabel Archer, quickly turns down marriage proposals from two rich suitors because she wants to see Europe first.   The world is just opening up for Isabel, and she wants to remain independent.

The first suitor is Lord Warburton who owns several huge estates throughout England as well as mansions in France and Italy.  One wonders what kind of knucklehead would turn down an offer of marriage from Lord Warburton.  The other suitor, the American Caspar Goodwood, has the misfortune of owning only one cotton gin company.

Isabel is staying with her banker uncle Mr. Touchett who promptly dies and settles a fortune on Isabel.  In all my years I’ve never been bequeathed a large sum of money by someone I barely knew, but perhaps I’m not as pretty and spirited as Isabel Archer.

Then Isabel begins her travels to the European continent by going to the Touchett’s estate in Florence, Italy, and there she meets the villains of our story, Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond.  Yes, things take a nasty turn and instead of being in Jane Austen’s sunny drawing room we are stuck in a terribly sad George Eliot marriage.

Isabel falls helplessly in love with the superficially charming but calculating schemer Gilbert Osmond.  Madame Merle has told him about all the money Isabel now inherited, and he wants it for himself.  Madame Merle is his partner in crime who introduces him to Isabel.  Soon Isabel and Osmond are married and living near Rome with Isabel’s new teenage stepdaughter, the unfortunately named Pansy.  After the marriage, the cynical Osmond has got the money, and he doesn’t have much use for Isabel except to crush her soul.

The story in ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ is told with passion and energy. The warm and witty repartee between the various characters is simply amazing.  It quickly became apparent that ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ would become my favorite Henry James novel.  The characters and plot are as striking and memorable as a George Eliot novel.

There is some evidence that in writing ‘The Portrait of a Lady’, Henry James was reacting to George Eliot’s novel ‘Middlemarch’ which I consider perhaps the greatest of all English language novels.  Both novels are about a bright young woman making an unfortunate marriage.  It seems to me that her first marriage is a momentous occasion in any woman’s life.  She must give up the life she was leading before for a new life, and it is so easy to make the wrong decision.  Perhaps Isabel reflects James’ thinking with her belief that “a woman ought to be able to make up her life in singleness, and that it was perfectly possible to be happy without the society of a more or less coarse-minded person of another sex.”

After reading ‘Middlemarch, James wrote that his future works are “to have less ‘brain’ than Middlemarch, but they are to have more form’.  I do believe that James succeeded in the ‘less brain’ goal, but I’m not sure about the ‘more form’ part of the equation.

8515505286_9c22d63401_zHenry James makes no apologies about solely writing about the upper class; that is one thing that I find it difficult to stomach about him.  It still annoys me that Henry James apparently considered poor people or even the middle class to be unworthy of inclusion in his novels.  Instead we get the richest of the rich traipsing from one vast estate to another.  Certainly writers must write about those they know, and I suppose James does a great job of pinning down these super rich types, However I do believe that his works are limited by him restricting his subjects strictly to the absurdly rich.

George Eliot dealt with the entirety of her society, and thus I find many of her works more meaningful to me.   So my final advice would be to definitely read ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ but read ‘Middlemarch’ first.

7 responses to this post.

  1. Hi Tony, Portrait of a Lady is one of my favorite books and I love Henry James. I remember in a college lit class a professor discussed James’s intention of not addressing the poor or working class in his novels and instead focusing on the wealthy. I don’t believe it was out of snobbery or any insensitivity to the poor. He is a very psychological writer and wanted to get to the depth of psychological issues with a character without the distractions of struggling to make a living and a focus on feeding a family or surviving poverty. Without these difficulties, sad to say, a character has more freedom to delve into more soul searching endeavors.


    • Hi Cathy,
      Yes, ‘Money and Henry James’ or ‘The Psychology of Money in Henry James Novels’ or ‘Money and Marriage’ would make a great doctoral thesis. When Isabel is relatively poor she gets two marriage offers from very rich men. When she inherits a goodly sum of money and the word gets out, then the calculating scheming Osmond and Madame Merle come out of the woodwork.
      My own sympathies do not lie with the very rich, but I do watch Downton Abbey. One thing that does bother me is that the people in James novels are the leisurely rich who because of inherited wealth have very little to do besides travel. The emptiness of their lives sometimes becomes oppressive.


  2. Now I need to read Middlemarch. I have to say I’m a bit wary about George Eliot. I don’t like her French counterpart George Sand and I couldn’t read The Mill on the Floss. Perhaps I’ll have a better experience with Middlemarch.

    PS no-one writes about unfortunate marriages as well as Balzac.


    • Hi Emma,
      George Eliot is a writer that somehow I’m in tune with, but that does not necessarily mean everyone or specifically you will necessarily find her simpatico. I have not read George Sand but from your description of her maybe I will.
      However I’ve read a lot of Balzac, and he writes about most things well.
      Thanks for stopping by!


  3. Tony, I loved this piece about Portrait of a Lady! It is one of my favorite books, but you are also very funny. She was a bit of a knucklehead, wasn’t she? And I love Ralph Touchett. I realize he was sickly, but he was my favorite character when I first read this novel at age 17.

    It remains my favorite book by James. In fact, I’m probably due for a reread.


    • Hi Kat,
      I’m happy you noticed my attempts at humor here. I consider ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ a wonderful novel despite my annoyance about James’ class views. I couldn’t see anyone turning down a marriage proposal from Lord Warburton. That would be similar to turning down Lord Grantham on Downton Abbey.

      Be sure to come back tomorrow night when I post another article about ‘The Portrait of a Lady’.


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