October 2012

It is no small feat to read Henry James’ masterpiece in four weeks. One internet reviewer confessed to nine months. Being a slow reader myself, if it hadn’t been for a long train journey, I might never have managed it. With so many other things pressing for attention, those of us unfamiliar with James were tempted at first to skim some of its 600 pages, but we very soon realised that his interminable paragraphs and fiendishly convoluted sentences make that impossible. Then we discovered the joy of reading James and we let the chores pile up, the dogs go unwalked and let husbands get grouchy while we enthusiastically focused on Isabel Archer, from Albany, New York, ‘a young person of many theories and remarkable imagination’, who is invited by her wealthy aunt to visit Europe in the spring of 1871.

James began The Portrait of a Lady while in Florence and it is set in a milieu very familiar to him, that is, rich Americans abroad. For all its length, it isn’t bogged down with historic detail. Though it describes manners and mores over a century old, it has the immediacy of an author writing of his own time and of his own people. Interestingly for a book often nominated as The Great American Novel, it is set almost exclusively in Europe, especially England and Italy. Isabel’s marvellously independent journalist friend, Miss Henrietta Stackpole, lends some comic moments by constantly disparaging the Old World in favour of the New, when for example she dismisses the dome of St Peter’s as really quite trifling in comparison to the Capitol’s dome in Washington.

My only other warning to readers is to say that the plot can be summed up in one breath. If you are looking for fast action, it isn’t here. To mention anything about the plot would give too much away, but Portrait gives you the opportunity to see a privileged life through the eyes of a thoughtful, charismatic and flawed woman. Isabel is lively, graceful and wildly ambitious – but not for power or money or even love. She wants ‘to live.’ But how does one achieve that? Far from seeking thrills or sensuous pleasure she impulsively and stubbornly craves a kind of ‘beauty, bravery, and magnanimity,’ a knowledge and aesthetic ‘tinged with the unfamiliar.’ Though Isabel’s choices are the limited choices of a woman of her time, her instinct to be true to herself is recognisable to men and women in every generation. She is surprisingly and refreshingly modern. Feminists are divided (always a good sign). Some have supported and some abhorred Isabel’s choices, some lauded and some denounced James’ empathy with women, but as one academic put it, at the time it was published ‘the representation of her dilemma was and still is in itself consciousness−raising’.

Portrait failed to captivate a couple of our group, but the majority felt it was one of the best books we had read for quite a while. We meet again on Thursday, 8th November to discuss Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach.

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