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A Heterogenous Superfluity of Trisyllabic Utterances: The Portrait of a Lady (1881), by Henry James

Ladies and gentlemen, pray mind the spoilers!

Oh my poor, poor Classics Club list. I made it in 2014 and infused it with all the optimism of my more youthful days. I was convinced I would read 100 classics (including such hefty tomes as War and Peace and Ulysses – ah the vanity of youth) in four years. Five years on and I’ve made it about 10% of the way through that list. So I’m guessing I’ll be done with it sometime around my sixtieth birthday. Hooray for me!

This book was #61 on that list, and since I somehow associated the month of March with E.M. Forster books about Italy (I read Where Angels Fear to Tread and A Room With a View in some long-ago March and since then the association has been fixed in my brain), I thought I’d read another classic that features Italy heavily. Well, last March I managed to make it about five chapters into The Portrait of a Lady before giving up. This year I was determined to make it all the way through.

The Portrait of a Lady is touted as one of James’ masterpieces, a stunning work of psychological fiction. A nineteenth-century male writer is of course the best person to tackle the fine inner workings of a nineteenth-century woman’s mind, no arguments there. With a book like this I’m sure the correct approach in any review would be to delve into the microscopic details of each chapter, examining each little aspect of the story for the subtle twists and turns that make it a remarkable piece of fiction. But since I don’t have the patience for that (which may in itself go some way towards explaining why I didn’t love this book as much as I expected to), I choose instead to hack at it haphazardly and make surface evaluations of all the bits that fall off. Brace yourselves.

As can be expected with any novel touted as a masterpiece of psychological fiction, especially one that involves men with big, nineteenth-century moustaches, this book has none of the midnight carriage-chases or dramatic, last-minute reveals that you might perhaps be longing for if, for example, you read this book during the coronavirus lockdown as I did. Halfway through reading this novel the spine of my copy cracked with a sound like thunder, and that was about the most eventful thing that ever happened in or to The Portrait of a Lady.

The main character is Isabel Archer, the “Lady” of the title. Some people love her, some people loathe her. Personally, I wasn’t able to drum up enough enthusiasm to feel anything in particular for this supposedly revolutionary American heroine who goes to England and has the audacity to avoid getting into absolutely any kind of exciting scrape, not even a little tumble off a canoe or anything. The best that can be said for her is that all the men around her seem to have a rather inconvenient habit of falling in love with her. So there’s that.

Isabel redeems herself slightly by inheriting a massive fortune from her uncle, and proclaiming she will not marry, but instead will travel around and do whatever she jolly well pleases. Ah, that’s more like it! Perhaps she’ll become an intolerable bluestocking, perhaps she’ll start a literary salon in Paris and spend her days drinking absinthe and merrily taking the piss?

Sadly, it’s not to be. Isabel goes on to marry a man whom I shall christen Odious Osmond for the purposes of this review. (We can tell he’s odious because he sends his daughter to a convent to teach her how to be a pious and submissive little woman, blech.) He doesn’t have money but Isabel has potloads, thanks to her kindly uncle. So Osmond’s interest in her is all very honest and lovely and entirely above board, yes indeed. Are we surprised when he turns out to be dismissive and even downright cruel to his wife?

So yeah, basically Isabel would have been happier marrying just about any character in this novel apart from Osbourne, including (in no particular order) Lord Warburton, the sickly Ralph, her aunt Mrs Touchett, or her dead uncle. Or even, better yet, not getting married at all (which is what she had originally resolved on in the first place) and storming around Europe ordering people about and basically having an awesome time, like her American friend Henrietta Stackpole.

Henrietta Stackpole, by the bye, was definitely my favourite character. She’s abrupt and, on the surface, completely self-absorbed. She writes for an American magazine and basically goes around giving more or less zero fucks. Apart from anything else, she’s a pretty good friend to Isabel in the end: she “crossed the stormy ocean in midwinter because she had guessed that Isabel was sad” (Ch XLVII). If that’s not friendship, I don’t know what is. This is from the perspective of someone who has forgotten to send a message to her best friend on her birthday. On more than one occasion.

To be perfectly honest, I think I would have enjoyed reading a book about Henrietta Stackpole far more than I did reading about Isabel Archer. But I have to admit that towards the end, James does make quite an effort to get us to feel sorry for Isabel. There’s quite a lot of discussion of a particular scene where Isabel sits by the fire late into the night basically thinking about how royally she’s cocked up by marrying a stinker like Osmond. You can’t help but feel a little sorry for her.

But there’s something a little withdrawn about James’ style of writing; at times he writes so dispassionately that you’d almost think Isabel was a sample he was putting under a microscope. He seems to have thought up a heroine that everyone was in love with and then proceeded to put her through the wringer just for kicks. All this isn’t helped by the fact that at times his writing style is incredibly pompous; there’s a superfluity of interminable trisyllabic and quadrosyllabic mots that, frankly, require the vocabulary and mental skills of someone far cleverer than I to truly appreciate. Basically, reading James is a little like gymnastics for the brain, as your poor neurons struggle to cobble together enough brainpower to sit through the repeated use of words like “antecedents”.

With all these objections, it would seem inevitable that the conclusion to this review would be that I hated The Portrait of a Lady. But surprisingly that’s not the case. I did find myself getting into it. I even read great chunks of the novel at a time, getting into the swing of it with remarkable ease. I even started to pity Isabel, to feel an extraordinary level of dislike for her unpleasant husband, and a creeping sense of disappointment when she didn’t give him a round kick up the backside and out of her life.

So this book is not all bad. In fact, I’m even tempted to give it more than the four stars that I’ve already given it. Admittedly, Henrietta Stackpole did a lot of the heavy lifting, but in the end it was the book as a whole that left me with a feeling that, even if I didn’t wholly love the experience, I’d read something worthwhile. I’m not sure if I’d call this book an absolute masterpiece in terms of psychological fiction. I don’t know if the character of Isabel is quite so well-drawn for that. But I will admit that it sucks you in, and that you find yourself thinking about the characters long after you’ve put it down, no matter how ambivalent you feel about the writing and the story itself.

Mostly, though, the reason this book didn’t receive five stars from me is that I cannot forgive a novelist who uses the word “heterogenous” in cold blood. I just can’t.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Rating: 4 Stars

9 replies on “A Heterogenous Superfluity of Trisyllabic Utterances: The Portrait of a Lady (1881), by Henry James”

great post and i don’t say that just because i agree with everything you wrote… well, maybe that is the reason; anyway, i’ve never in over sixty years of itinerant reading been able to finish one of his books… i got about half-way through Roderick Hudson once but quit because it didn’t seem to be about anything, plus the writing was turgid. reading HJ is like taking a bath in a local swamp: there might be things in there that are interesting, but the surrounding ooze makes it improbable that you’ll ever find them. i think some authors are more interested in the physical action of placing pen to paper and making marks than they are in actually communicating something and HJ is one of those…

“HJ is like taking a bath in a local swamp”… haha I love this. Yes, James is definitely very demanding! I can’t say finishing this book at last made me particularly eager to read more Henry James…

This would have to be one of the best ever posts on A Portrait of a Lady that I have read. Ever! You even almost made me think that I should reread this book one day. But…heterogeneous!

The centenary of James’s death had me listening to a radio prog extolling the virtues of this novel, and set me reading some of his novellas. To be honest I found them worthy and, I suppose, memorable despite wading through treacle prose and having to reread several passages. Could I be bothered to read this thick novel? Possibly, though I think I may stick to his shorter fiction for the time being.

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