So begins “The Portrait of a Lady,” and its opening chords, quiet as they are, have almost no match in English-speaking literature. You have to go to “Great Expectations”—to the raw, shivering sea light and the talk of slit throats, all so vastly distant in tone, though not on the map, from this teatime in the warm sun—to find the same trembling sense of a plot in waiting and a book in bud. What Pip sees, hears, and does in a few paragraphs will determine the entire span of Dickens’s novel, though Pip will take almost as long to understand why, and no less an impact is made upon Isabel Archer, the woman on the grass; from here, she will be launched on an adventure, both by the men she meets at tea—two of whom will fall in love with her, and one of whom will bequeath her a fortune—and by the delectable deluge of her senses.
The Portrait of a Lady is a story about an American who believes in individual autonomy learning a very hard lesson about the limits of self-determination. Isabel will lose her innocence in every sense: as Gorra writes, she “rejects the plot that other people might write for her, and insists instead that she must be free to choose, free to make her own mistakes”. And it is a story about recovering the past: Isabel must rediscover her past in order to claim her future.
Capturing the grandeur of a gracious, splendid Europe of wealth and Old World sensibilities, this glorious, complex novel has become a touchstone for a great writer’s entire literary achievement. From the opening pages, when the high-spirited American girl Isabel Archer arrives at the English manor Gardencourt, James’s luminous, superbly crafted prose creates an atmosphere of intensity, expectation, and incomparable beauty.
Isabel, who has been taken abroad by an eccentric aunt to fulfill her potential, attracts the passions of a British aristocrat and a brash American, as well as the secret adoration of her invalid cousin, Ralph Touchett. But her vulnerability and innocence lead her not to love but to a fatal entrapment in intrigue, deception, and betrayal. This brilliant interior drama of the forming of a woman’s consciousness makes The Portrait of a Lady a masterpiece of James’s middle years.