Review: The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James

Posted 18 June, 2007 by Trish in Reading Nook, Review / 11 Comments


Title: The Portrait of a Lady
Author: Henry James
Date Finished: June 18, 2007
Pages: 578
Rating: 3.25/5

After just finishing this book, I’m still not sure how to react to it. I read this as part of the Classics Reading Group, but also included it in the By the Decades challenge (for 1880s). Many hail this book as one of James’s finest, but since I’ve only read a handful of his short stories, I can’t really judge on that.

The story is about a young woman, Isabel Archer, who travels from her native America to Europe after her father dies. She claims to be an independent woman and takes every measure to prove herself to be just that. The book asks questions about how independent can a woman at this time truly be and at what does it cost to be independent (I’m not referring to monetary costs, although that subject also arises in the book).

For me the book was a little tragic–for the costs of Isabel’s independence seem rather great. If you’ve read my review for Dinner at the Homesick Diner you know that I like to have complete little redemptive endings, and once again I did not find this here.

Recommendation: Not for the light reader. James relies heavily on character development in this book, and often times my eyes would begin to glaze over at the lengthy descriptions that often lasted pages. I guess one literally gets a great “portrait” of all of the characters once the book is through. The dialogue was enjoyable, and I grew to appreciate the descriptions, but it took a lot of patience and a lot of time to get through this one. I’m glad that its over and I can put it back on the shelf.

*picture courtesy

11 Responses to “Review: The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James”

  1. I *tried* to read The Wings of the Dove by James. Tried being the operative word. I very rarely EVER quit reading a book….but I just couldn’t take it!! I don’t think will be one I pick up anytime soon!

    But I liked your review!

  2. I have Wings of a Dove sitting on my shelf, but I think I’ll wait a while to read it (like years from now!). Thanks for your comment!

  3. I read this when I was living in Japan and for some reason I have a positive memory of it – but I couldn’t say why now. I might have to reread and see how I’d feel about now.

  4. MyUtopia–that’s about how I felt while reading it…struggling just to finish!

    Verbivore–I can’t imagine re-reading this one. :) Thanks for stopping by…

  5. I didn’t care too much for this one either. I do plan to try some of James’ other stories but I don’t plan to revisit Portrait anytime soon.

  6. Portrait of Lady – yeah I agree, kinda depressing how Isabel looses her innocence and free-spiritedness.. My favourite James book is “what maisie knew” although it’s also somewhat glum… =(

  7. Glimmer-glass Girl, thanks for coming by. Yes, I was really disappointed by this ending. I haven’t read anything else by James except for short stories.

  8. Oh, I read this during those days when I was challenging myself to read something classic (pre-blogging). I don’t remember much really, something about a manor with a huge lawn that looked over all the land? but I do recall being impressed with it (or myself for finishing!?) Anyway, I don’t meet many people who can say they’ve read this. :)

    • Care – Funny that you posted a comment on one of my very very first blogging posts!! I don’t know many people who have read this one either and I can’t say I blame them. I’m still angry at Isabel. ;)