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When Isabel Archer a beautiful spirited American is brought to Europe by her wealthy Aunt Touchett it is expected that she will soon marry But Isabel resolved to determine her own fate does not hesitate to turn down two eligible suitors She then finds herself irresistibly drawn to Gilbert Osmond who beneath his veneer of charm and cultivation is cruelty itself A story of intense poignancy Isabel's tale of love and betrayal still resonates with modern audiences


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    10 Things I Love About Henry James’s The Portrait Of A Lady1 Isabel ArcherThe “lady” in the title Beautiful young headstrong and spirited the American woman visits her wealthy relatives in England rejects marriage proposals by two worthy suitors inherits a fortune and then is manipulated into marrying one of the most odious creatures on the planet Gilbert Osmond She’s utterly fascinating and if I were back in university I imagine having long conversations and arguments about her character What does she want Freedom? The ability to choose even if it’s a bad choice? Is she a projection of James’s latent homosexuality? Is she a feminist or not? There are no simple answers 2 The Prose and Psychological ComplexityDamn James knew how to write long luxuriant sentences that dig deep into his characters’ minds Sometimes the effect can be claustrophobic – get me out of this person’s head – but often it’s utterly compelling and convincing We partly read fiction to learn about other people’s lives right? Well James does that The exceptions Isabel’s two wealthy handsome suitors Warburton and Goodwood are less than believable and remind me of eager or horny? dogs their tails wagging whenever they’re around their lovelust object3 The StoryOkay not much really happens But as the book progressed even though I sort of knew the outcome it’s hard to avoid spoilers from a 135 year old classic I was increasingly curious to see how Isabel would act In fact I raced through the final chapters breathlessly Who knew Henry James page turner And have a theory about that ending? Take your turn4 The HumourIt’s not a comedy but there are lots of amusing bits James’s narrator is genial and funny Henrietta Stackpole her gentleman friend Mr Bantling and even Gilbert Osmond’s sister the Countess Gemini are all very colourful characters who elicit a chuckle or two And Isabel’s aunt can be terribly cutting as well I love Ralph Isabel's cousin and the dignified British Lord Warburton’s reactions to the enterprising no fuss American “lady journalist” Henrietta 5 The SettingsEach one is significant from the stately Gardencourt home of Isabel’s relatives the Touchetts to the bustle and anonymity of London to the ruins of Rome where Isabel finds herself stuck in a dead fossilized marriage James is a master at finding the right place to stage a scene I could write an essay about interiors and exteriors in the book but I’ll spare you6 The VillainsMadame Merle and Gilbert Osmond individually they’re sinister but together they’re positively Machiavellian In fact in one scene it’s revealed that they both like Machiavelli and Isabel doesn’t get the clue They totally play her And yet they’re believable too Osmond’s scene in which he professes his love is brilliant in its manipulation and the final turn of the screw asking her to do him a favour is very clever Madame Merle’s motivations always keep you guessing Does she see herself in Isabel? Is she jealous? Does she just want to exert her power over her? The scene in which Isabel sees both in her home conspiring evident from their attitudes is so powerful James refers to it a couple of times And of course it’s missing from the Jane Campion film see below7 The ThemesDoes money corrupt? What do you really know about someone before you marry? What is the true nature of freedom? What happens when New World American innocence meets Old World European experience? All these themes – and many others – come across naturally and never feel shoe horned into the story8 The TechniqueI remember hearing people go on about the architecture of Henry James’s novels and this one is sturdily handsomely built The book begins and ends in the same setting And there are some ingenious sections in the middle where time has passed and the reader discovers major information through conversations Like any great writer James knows what to leave out He makes you do work to fill in the pieces but the novel becomes memorable because of that And he bridges the Victorian and Modern eras in the same way that Beethoven bridges the Classical and Romantic eras9 Chapter 42After a huge blowup with Osmond Isabel stays up all night staring into the fireplace and ponders her life thinking How did I get here? James considered it one of the best things he’d ever written and although I haven’t read a lot of his work which I will soon remedy I’d have to agree It’s right up there with Hamlet’s soliloquies10 The Fact that the Book Doesn't Lend Itself Well To Adaptation A couple days after finishing the book I watched the Campion film starring Nicole Kidman Besides an evocative score and a brilliant performance by Barbara Hershey as Madame Merle and a suitably slimy one by John Malkovich basically changing costumes from his Dangerous Liaisons character it was dreadfully dull There have been other James adaptations – The Wings Of The Dove The Golden Bowl The Bostonians – but none of these films has achieved the critical or popular success of an Age Of Innocence Howards End or Room With A View Maybe it's hard to get that psychological complexity onscreen? Read the booksConclusion James is The Master Up til now I’d only read his shorter works like the novellas “The Turn Of The Screw” “Daisy Miller” view spoilerI still don’t quite know what killed her sorry if that’s a spoiler hide spoiler