On Reading The Portrait of a Lady

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Henry James is one of those writers who seems to be four or five or six different writers depending on when the work you are reading was written. There is an evolution of complexity and theme and intent throughout his work and in the first great work of the "middle period," there is a command of style, language, character, and incident that yields both a lovely and luxurious prose and a novel of high drama if of little incident.

from The Portrait of a Lady
Henry James

He was far from the time when he had found it hard that he should be obliged to give up the idea of distinguishing himself, an idea none the less importunate for being vague and not the less delightful for having to struggle in the same breast with bursts of inspiring self-criticism. His friends at present judged him more cheerful and attributed it to a theory, over which they shook their heads knowingly, that he would recover his health. His serenity was but the array of wild flowers niched in his ruin.

And again, something not often associated with James, humor:

Of their opinions Isabel was never very definitely informed; but it may interest the reader ro know that while they had recognised in the late Mr. Archer a remarkably handsome head and a very taking manner (indeed, as one of them had said, he was always taking something), they had declared that he was making a very poor use of his life.

And from a conversation between Ralph Touchett and his mother:

"No, I don't think I pity her. She doesn't strike me as inviting compassion. I think I envy her. Before being sure, however, give me a hint of where you see your duty."

"In showing her four European countries--I shall leave her the choice of two of them--and in giving her the opportunity of perfecting herself in French, which she already knows very well."

Ralph frowned a little. "That sounds rather dry--even allowing her the choice of two countries."

Block by block and word by careful word, the sentences pile up together to erect an edifice, a carefully constructed picture of a person and a personality. As in Daisy Miller, the first impression is of someone somewhat brash and perhaps a little (in the terms of the day) "saucy," but definitely of interest. We know, of course, that the end, foreshadowed in the beginning by Mr. and Mrs. Touchett's marriage, is not likely to be a happy one--the reader is nevertheless compelled down the avenue paved by such rich bricks to discover not only what happens but who Isabel Archer is.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on April 1, 2008 7:04 AM.

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