“The Portrait of a Lady” is the first of Henry James’ works of fiction that I have read and I’m already hooked and hunger for more! This novel is not just a psychological portrait of a lady but also a pictorial portrait. Henry James is a pure aesthete. The book is dotted with references to painting, sculpture, architecture and various exquisite “bibelots”, as well as to the beauty of nature. James paints his characters and the local colours of England and Italy in all their changing shades of light with such masterly technique that it takes your breath away.
The Portrait of a Lady is certainly one of his masterpieces, providing the reader with a brief study of those formative years for Isabel Archer. She’s the epitome of 19th Century American youth—innocent and impressionable, thrust into the overwhelming social conventions that have been instilled as a part of European society for centuries. For Isabel, contact with this society and meeting fellow compatriots that have already succumbed to these conventions eventually leads to a slow asphyxiation of her own desires and beliefs. It forces her to forego her fears of intimacy and independence, and take up tradition. Though doing so opens up even more hardships, which finally culminate with Isabel’s complete disillusionment and forlorn acceptance of her current situation. It’s certainly a depressing tale and one that doesn’t really have a good satisfying conclusion.
However with James, the conclusion isn’t necessarily important; it’s the journey… the mystery and recognizing how well the deception is played out and how it affects the main characters in different ways. And even though I already knew how the story would conclude before reading, the journey James takes us on… all of those psychological twists, those observations of character and place—how all of these subtle details come together makes the book a satisfying read.