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Henry James - The Portrait of a Lady

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I'm in the middle of this book and torn between wanting to know what happens and getting a bit bogged down. This is my typical response when reading 'a classic' and want to persevere. Can anyone offer any encouraging words? Or food for thought?

 

So far I'm finding it hard to relate to the main characters. Isabel, the heroine, is described in such detail that I feel that I should know her inside out by now, but I don't. Maybe I'm just not 'deep' enough... And James is always referred to as such an excellent author (my motivation for picking up the book in the first place) that I want to be able to appreciate him. At times like this I wish I was back at school and studying this as a 'set text' so that the teacher could tell me how jolly clever it all is and I could agree. :o

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Well, I finished this book after a slog of several weeks. I'm glad I did but I can't say that I'm itching to read the rest of James' work. I think I have to accept that I'm to superficial for 'the classics'. Any insights gladly received.

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Mungus, I've just given up half-way through this book and it's like a weight's been lifted. I agree with everything you said about it. Maybe we're just not clever enough to appreciate James.

 

I never had this problem with any other classics I've read, but I think the difference between James and the likes of Dickens, Austen, Hardy etc is that they all had great stories and characters you cared about. James, for me, had neither.

 

Right, I'm off to read something FUN.

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Well hurrah for us for seeing the light! I've been on a bit of a 'worthy' reading mission for a while and have decided to put a line under the whole sorry episode and go back to my common or garden modern mix.

 

Enjoy whatever it is you decide to read next. I have a lovely shelf full of temptations. :)

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Goddamn right, started Transmission by Hari Kunzru now and it's great to be reading something easy and fun for a change (maybe I shouldn't have started POAL immediatley after making it through Don Quixote!)

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I had to try to read this for my degree. 10 pages or so was enough to put me off ever picking up a Henry James novel again. Very turgid stuff and, frankly, life's too short.

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James is quite difficult to like. Portrait suffers greatly from the emotional coolness and insularity that it tries to portray, inevitably distancing readers from the protagonists. James also has a highly drawn-out style: try looking at exactly how long he manages to string out some of his sentences.

 

One work you have to try, though, is The Turn of the Screw, which many would argue is the best ghost story ever written and has been variously adapted for film and television. It's a lot shorter and well worth it.

 

Shorter James is, on the whole, easier to deal with and perhaps, therefore, easier to appreciate. You could also try Washington Square.

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Rescued Post

 

--------------------------------------------------19th December 2005, 09:41 PM

 

purplebongowoman

Moderator

 

I have just finished Portrait of a Lady. It was a tremendous slog for the first half of the book, but all of sudden I was hooked. I think it is difficult for us to appreciate the situation that Isabel was in. We are so accustomed to the idea of "self-fulfilment", as a human right for men and women. Isabel has choices, but she is still a product of the old society where duty prevails over personal goals. Isabel wants freedom but she does not really know what she wants to do with it. This is contrast to Henrietta, who represents the emancipated woman, unencumbered by the social restrictions that Isabel is operating within. It portrays so well the dishonesty of the relationships amongst the leisured classes. No-one ever speaks plainly to one another, except towards the end when Ralph is on his death bed - this gives the characters "permission" to be open. The more I think about the book the more layers it reveals.

 

Yes, Henry James' writing is very dense, and encountering the pages of unparagraphed text (and it's no good skimming them) made me groan at times, but I think the effort was well worth it.

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I've just finished Portrait of a Lady and like the other readers found it slow going, partly due to the language. But like purplebongowoman I got hooked about half way through, and I agree with her the book does seem to be about freedom and what it means. Isabel gets a legacy which another character thinks will give her the freedom to live a broader and more expanded life, but which leads instead to her becoming trapped when the important life choice she thinks she has freely made turns out to have been manouvred by Madame Merle (I'm trying not to give too much away). The information the Countess gives her near the end of the book gives her knowledge about her situation which seems to help restore her freedom - instead of being paralysed by her notions of duty, she regains the ability to take action.

 

I think once the web has closed round Isabella you start to get interested in how or whether she will escape from her predicament. She nearly becomes one of manipulators herself, believing that she is duty bound to encourage Pansy to make the very same marriage of convenience that she herself refused to make earlier in the book, while not realising that she is really furthering the secret aims of someone else entirely in doing this. I was disappointed at the end not to find out what happens to Pansy.

 

I thought one unlikely aspect of the novel, apart from the legacy itself, was the number of suitors/admirers Isabel seemed to have at the start (Warburton, Goodwood and Ralph Touchett) but this might have been to give Isabel a range of various possible fates from what each admirer could have offered her, since getting married was the only real choice in life she had the power to make. It was never suggested that she should get a job like Henrietta or Goodwood, who I think are the only characters who earn any money. The others just live off their inherited money or off other people's.

 

This is the first long novel I have read by Henry James and I did enjoy it more than I thought I would.

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I finally finished this book today, and actually after a bit of a slog getting through it, I raced through the last 150 pages. James' skill in drawing the web around Isabella and making us both see what is occuring but not why, really was superb. The constant references to "us" and "reader" was a little disconcerting. I took this to be a realist novel, despite the ghost at Gardencourt and the character names, but the constant intrusion threw me and made me think more about the title of the novel. The author was really creating a work of art in the character of Isabella and he really wanted us to be clear about that I think.

 

Isabella as a character made me largely sympathetic to her. Although, I feel that she deserved her fate. She placed such importance on free choice and making her decision, that she should live with the consequences of her 'free choice'. But then, it wasn't a free choice and she shouldn't have felt duty bound to continue with her choice in the face of that.

 

Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond were excellent villains and at one point I was pretty fearful of Osmond. James' dialogue was truly wonderful and the lynchpin in building emotion, suspense, and plot. I loved it.

 

I had questions at the end though - about Pansy, about Isabella, about Caspar Goodwood - but that's the mark of a good novel, that it leaves you wanting.

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I am just beginning this book today as part of my degree course. I must admit, the things I had heard about it before and the thoughts on this thread are not making me feel very enthusiastic. I'm feeling a bit like I'm having a 19th century novel meltdown and am having to plough on regardless. I could do with Portrait being a relatively easy read but it's not sounding as though it is... :confused:

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I did enjoy this. I found it very slow though, I only finished it the day before yesterday after starting it the date I wrote the last post. I think it was something to do with the style it was written in which slowed me down, was it ere I read about how long his sentences are? Crumbs, though, not quite sure how I will formulate an essay on it...

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G K Chesterton called James' style the Hampered Obstacle Race - or words to that effect. But I found the style interesting to grapple with and it certainly added more to the twists and turns of the characters' inner consciousness. What did you think about the end Hilary?

Were you happy that Isa goes back to Gilbert?

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She kind of

lived up to her own self imposed ideal, didn't she? Her other obvious option, that of setting up with Casper Goodwood didn't seem all that great an option either, to be frank. And I'm afraid I was so upset about poor old Ralph, I wasn't for consoling by that point! It seemed so tragic that he had set her up to have money and therefore a free life, and yet she chose to marry a pretty hateful man she wouldn't have been able to consider (or been pushed towards) if she hadn't had it. And Ralph lost her pretty much forever. Ooh, *sobs*

 

 

I can so relate to the 'hampered obstacle race'. :D That made me laugh!

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She absolutely did, though through the study, you learn to appreciate that her decision to go back to Osmond was a defence against villainy. By going back to him, she ultimately chooses to not be like him by maintaining her high moral code. For a lot of the contemporary critics, this made her a true tragic heroine. Plus she keeps her promise to Osmond's daughter. I don't know if I am convinced by that as the romantic side of me wishes that she found happiness somewhere - but it is an interesting way to too look at her decision.

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Yes, that's true. I did want to have a sneaky peek at

his reaction when she went back, I mean, after the stand she made in going to Ralph in the first place... I'm glad she kept her promise to Pansy though, that girl was caught up in it from no fault of her own.

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I did too - I would loved to have read Osmond's reaction though I think it would have been collected and cool. His arrogance that he can control Isabel would have accepted than she obeyed him. Pansy really is the true Gothic heroine in this novel isn't she?

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I felt

that he was win-win, either she goes back to him and he can control her, or she doesn't and he can be rid of her. She was lose-lose, she can go back to being controlled by him, or she can not go back and, like you say, sink to his level and I'm not she could resign herself to that.

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That's a very insightful way to look at the end - I didn't think of it in those terms but of course you are absolutely right. Though

I suspect for Osmond her returning was a little more of a loss than we are led to believe. I think he loved and hated her in equal measure and found her strong presence suffocating. Plus, he would have to watch her mould Pansy more in her form rather than the one he wished. Pansy was clearly his most valuable object - and to have to relinquish control of her and her affections transferring to another would have been soul-destroying for him.

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Yes, you're right,

Pansy really did adore her, didn't she?

 

 

Do you know, I really didn't see the

Madame Merle being Pansy's mother

bit coming. I felt a bit cross with myself for not putting the clues together into a clever whole.

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Do you know, I really didn't see the

Madame Merle being Pansy's mother

bit coming. I felt a bit cross with myself for not putting the clues together into a clever whole.

 

Me neither.

she was always described as a great deal older than Osmond - and that gave me the impression that though they were in cahoots of sorts that it was a purely asexual relationship.

 

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Gosh, all these spoilers almost make me think that there is a Henry James book that might not bore me to tears.

 

:D Go for it Meg!

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All this talking spoilers is making me feel like a spy! :D

 

Yes, that's maybe why I didn't pick it up.

Though there were enough gaps in the story and some unanswered questions eg about Pansy's mother which I felt afterwards should have alerted me. But no. But then it was good because I as the reader kind of felt the same sort of shock, followed by all the small details slotting into place in my mind that Isabel was reported to have felt.

Clever.

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