Sunday, May 03, 2015

The Portrait of a Lady (1881)

This fat thing may be the best known work by Henry James—I think only The Turn of the Screw or Washington Square may compete, and they are both much shorter. Though Portrait is the usual business for James of various collisions between New World and Old World, it also stands out for other reasons. One that's often mentioned is explicitly making a woman the hero and central character—the American Isabel Archer. The Scarlet Letter may be another example, but they are relatively rare before the 20th century, certainly in novels written by men. Even more interesting, to me, is that all of the principals are American, though it is set in Europe and there are many European supporting characters. There is thus less about the confrontation between the two worlds and more about its effects. Many of the American characters, including Miss Archer, are brash, defiant, outspoken, and rather thick—thick-headed and thick-skinned both. But she undergoes a change when she encounters two Americans well adapted to scheming and manipulating within the European setting, and the tragedy (if that's what it is) begins. Portrait presents itself as a standard novel of manners, as first one and then another and another unlikely marriage prospect appears and the action is largely focused on who she will choose. Isabel Archer is a strange and unexpected character—mysterious, really, in her motives, which I never quite understand and halfway think James did not either. Daisy Miller may be a useful comparison; Angela Vivian, from Confidence, another. Portrait works very well as a novel of manners providing cover for a drama of cruelty. The developments are rarely less than believable and every time I have been through it I find myself baffled and absorbed by the strange predicaments all over again—baffled, but intrigued to know what happens next, because perhaps there is a seed of explanation. It's really kind of a page-turner that way, and leaves a lot to chew over, including pondering the person at the center of it all. In many ways, all the questions are posed and answered in the title, with its odd use of the definite and indefinite articles.

"interlocutor" count = 8/560 pages

In case it's not at the library.

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