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9 Mar 2011

The Portrait of a Lady

A young, spirited, and 'interesting' American girl is whisked off to England, is determined to be independent, inherits a fortune, turns away suitors (she wants freedom), but is soon cast about as a pawn in a great scheme.

Hot dang.

I picked up Henry James' novel as part of the Booklover's project. I chose his most celebrated and am rather sorry for it. I loved it so much that it's a great disappointment to think the rest all fall below this one.

I've heard the judgement of verbosity pinned on James and I think it somewhat misleading. If a thing can be said in 4 words or 10, James will go for the 10. However, the incredible pace, meaning a gorgeously and perfectly steady one, is maintained only because he doesn't indulge in the verbosity of say Trollope, or heck, Proust. He doesn't ramble off into never-ending thought trails, in this novel at least. Just saying.

I have my small gripe that makes The Portrait of a Lady more of a 4.7 than a full 5. That he too often explains everything that went on before when it was perfectly understood with his subtle hand. A bit like when someone feels the need to explain their joke. Takes the shine off. Nevertheless I would be doing it a disservice to call it anything less than a masterpiece.

James has a beautiful ability to shape character and plot movement. Each character was unreservedly distinct, with definite form and colour. James' brilliance is not in his depiction of motivation, as is Eliot's, but in humble yet vivid nuances of emotion and behaviour. Events intertwined gracefully and crossed just enough. The ending, thank goodness, does not insult the reader's intelligence.

I have to mention Madame Merle. While Isabel has to now be one of my favourite heroines (not saying I loved her always, but, darn it, I so appreciated her), Merle was amazing. A bit like the casting of Fatal Attraction. While Daouglas was the star, Close stole the show. I'm unfortunate too in knowing my own Madame Merle. Oh, not so polished, but certainly a social star with motives that almost no one sees.

If you're a fan of the classics, of Gaskell, Wharton, or Trollope, and if like me you've never given Mr James much thought, I urge you to slap him on your tbr list right now.


  1. I haven't read this one. I've only read The Turn of the Screw, but I thought it was kind of boring. It's supposed to be scary, but I didn't get that vibe. It might have just been my frame of mind at the time. I might not have been in the mood for paragraph long sentences.

    I do want to give him another try. The Portrait of a Lady sounds like a good place to start. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  2. I'm ashamed to admit I've never read James and I really must. I believe his style is something like Edith Wharton and I'm a huge admirer of her work. Adding to tbr.

  3. Nice review, Monica! I will add 'The Portrait of a Lady' to my 'TBR' list. I have read one James novel - 'The Aspern Papers' - and liked it very much.

  4. Monica, this is one book I've meant to read for a long time. Thanks for the excellent review to encourage me:)

  5. I loved this, too. Then again, it's the only James I've read. And I also haven't read Gaskell, Trollope and Wharton. Am I missing much?? Btw, thanks for visiting my blog and dropping a line. I'm glad to have "found" your blog, really lovely. :)

  6. Kristi I'll be trying Wings of the Dove or Washington Square next.

    VR, well, this was my first. Will definitely read more of his.

    Vishy, ooh, will take a look at that one.

    Diane, thanks, give it a go.

    kissacloud, welcome. If you like the old masters, do give Wharton a go.

  7. Last year I read Trollope and Wharton for the first time, and really enjoyed them both. I also read The Turn of the Screw, which I liked, but didn't love.
    Your excellent review has caused me to put this on my TBR classics list for this year...thanks!