Monday, October 02, 2006

Book Review: The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James sketches the account of life and times of most memorable heroine Isabel Archer. Isabel leaves US and arrives in England with her Aunt. Her cousin, Ralph, who ails from tuberculosis takes active interest in her, and Henry James creates highly realistic and entertaining conversations, which shed light into the character and thoughts of both these characters and the uncle and the aunt. The story gets interesting with presence of two suitors, each highly successful in their respective country (US and UK). The dying uncle leaves his neice a fortune, and she finds herself independent enough to pursue her whims and life.

Her marriage to Gilbert Osmond, the events that lead to it and how Isabel comes of age is the reason why Portrait of a Lady is a must read novel for every person. After denying two apt and deserving suitors, Isabel ventures to make a tragic choice and the intricate interplay of her perception or rather lack of it with the circumstances and events makes novel a masterpiece. The strains between the Old Europe and New America, the idiosyncracies associated with each come to fore, both through Isabel's life and through that of her journalist friend's, Henrietta Stackpole's.

Be it plain Pansy, the perfectionist Madame Merle, the cold and practical Aunt, the socialite Countess Gemini, each woman, like Isabel, is portrayed in sufficent detail. The two suitors engage as character studies, while the cousin Ralph is the character that shall stay with me forever. Admirable even in adverse circumstances, he is for me besides Isabel, the greatest creation of Henry James.

The story could have become melodramatic, but that is highly understated. The dialogues could have filled it to make it like screenplay, but James supplies nice descriptions of both the physical world and that of what goes in Isabel's heart to make it substantial. The commentaries on love and marriage that are subtly built into the novel, and the picture of both US and Europe seem quite contemporary. For a novel written in 1881, it shows how acute the observations of the author were, as well as the fact that we, humans, live life with similar choices, mistakes and feelings irrespective of the age. The novel has enough element of suspense, and events unfold in unexpected ways, making each discovery a pleasant or unpleasant surprise.

Having read many bleak American novels, this Henry James novel allows one to see how a Jane Austen type entertainer can be generated with sufficient origanility by a masterful writer. I am spellbound by the analogies in many of the most memorable actresses, espicially in how they make their choices between men.

Four excerpts from novel shows one the essence of the book:

"Justice to a lovely being is after all a florid sort of sentiment."

"She had had a more wondrous vision of him, fed though charmed senses and oh such stirred fancy!- she had not read him right. A certain combination of features had touched her, and in them she had seen most striking of figures. That he was poor and lonely and yet that somehow he was noble- that was what had interested her and seemed to give her her opportunity. There had been an undefinable beauty about him - in his situation, in his mind, in his face. She had felt the same time that he was helpless and ineffectual, but the feeling had taken a form of tenderness which was very flower of respect."

"It was not till the first year of their life together, so admirably intimate at first, had closed she had taken the alarm. Then the shadows had begun to gather; it was as if Osmond delibrately, almost malignantly, had put the lights out one by one."

"How could anything be a pleasure to a woman who knew that she had thrown away her life?"

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