I’m reading 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books in 2011. Read more about this project here.

‘A great many people give me the impression of never having for a moment felt anything’ – Isabel Archer, The Portrait of a Lady.

Why did I want to read it?

Well, first of all, Henry James is one of the ‘great’ novelists and I have never read anything by him. I was also interested in reading it as Kirsten Tranter’s The Legacy is based on Portrait. Kirsten and I have another panel together at Perth Writers Festival in March.

When was it published?

It was first published (as a serial) in 1881, and a revised edition was published in 1908. My edition is from the Vintage Classics range. All Vintage Classics (with their gorgeous covers) are now only $12.95. Overseas readers, check out Amazon and Kindle editions (+ UK).

What’s it about?

Isabel Archer comes from America to England to stay with her aunt, uncle and cousin. From the outset she is painted as someone with a hunger for knowledge and experience, who would be unwilling to sacrifice her independence for marriage or anything else. She has a preference for solitude, is very self-aware and in many ways ‘modern’ and she has a complex nature which admires both those who are outspoken and vivid, and those who are respectful, ‘decent’ and quiet. Two-hundred pages into the novel, there is a large shift in her situation. It seems as though she will be much freer to pursue her ‘ideas’, but other hands come into play, other influences…

Tell us more about the author.

Like many of his characters, Henry James moved from America to England, and spent the last 40 years of his life there. He was a key figure of 19th Century realism, and apparently his novels were some of the first to go into such depths of consciousness and perception (through the musings of the characters). He wrote many respected novels, but also short stories, reviews, biographies, plays and travel books. He was born to a wealthy, intellectual family on 15 April 1843 and lived to 28 February 1916.

So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?

‘Do you know where you’re drifting?’ Henrietta pursued, holding out her bonnet delicately.

‘No, I haven’t the least idea, and I find it very pleasant not to know. A swift carriage, of a dark night, rattling with four horses over roads that one can’t see – that’s my idea of happiness.’

I found this a very absorbing read. James creates a complete world – from the details of afternoon tea in the opening pages, to the way he dips in and out of settings and the thoughts of the characters. In some chapters you wonder – ‘why am I with this character now and how is it relevant?’ But everything ties back in with, and has an effect on, our protagonist, Isabel.

It is so interesting to read this now, in a feminist sense – we cannot help but cheer Isabel on in her hunger, in her desire to be true to herself. And James allows her decisions to appear complex and murky. Her feelings change – she changes – through the course of the novel, and it is so sad. I read it and thought of all the women reading it over the years – young women at the turn of the century, travellers to Europe, women who’ve come into money, married women in all different eras. Sure, everything in society has changed. We no longer have to pretend that we’re okay for the sake of decency, when we’re unhappy. Or do we? We no longer have to choose between travel and self-development, and the ties of marriage. Or do we? The book still has the ability to make you think about your position.

The other characters in Portrait – Isabel’s cousin, Ralph; Lord Warburton; Madame Merle; Osmond – display a range of multilayered (though self-serving) motivations, and Isabel is caught up in their web. Isabel’s opinionated and outspoken writer friend Henrietta Stackpole may be the only character who gets what she desires, in the end.

I could say a lot more – particularly about desire and gender roles – but I don’t want to spoil it for you. I went in knowing nothing and it takes some time for events to unfold (but how rich the set-up is) and it was better not knowing.

What I will say, is how much I enjoyed the descriptions, not just of the characters, who are so well-sustained, but of the house at Gardencourt, of Florence and Rome, of items of clothing. The novel is detailed but not florid, sentences are lengthy yet elegant. A few times reading on hot days I found myself lost and had to go back a few paragraphs, but on the whole it’s extremely readable.

What’s next?

I have a great deal of preparation to do for Perth Writers Festival, but I think the next books will be Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Have you read Henry James? What are your thoughts? Let’s allow spoilers in the comments…

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