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Authors: Henry James

The Portrait of A Lady

Table of Contents
Henry James
(1843-1916) spent his early life in America, but often traveled with his celebrated family to Europe. After briefly attending Harvard, he began to contribute both criticism and tales to magazines. Later, he visited Europe and began
Roderick Hudson
. Late in 1875, he settled in Paris, where he met Turgenev, Flaubert, and Zola and wrote
The American
. In 1876, he moved to London, where two years later he achieved international fame with
Daisy Miller
. His other famous works include
The Portrait of a Lady
The Princess Casamassima
The Wings of the Dove
The Ambassadors
(1903), and
The Golden Bowl
(1904). In 1915, a few months before his death, he became a British subject.
Regina Barreca
, professor of English at the University of Connecticut, edited
The Penguin Book of Women's Humor
and wrote
They Used to Call Me Snow White . . . But I Drifted
Perfect Husbands (and Other Fairy Tales)
; and
Sweet Revenge: The Wicked Delights of Getting Even
. She writes for the
Chicago Tribune, The Hartford Courant, The New York Times
, and other publications, and has appeared, often as a repeat guest, on
48 Hours
, and
. She can be reached via her Web site,
Colm Tóibín
was born Ireland in 1955 and lives in Dublin. He is the author of five novels including the Booker-shortlisted
The Blackwater Lightship
The Master
, and of the short story collection
Mothers and Sons
. His nonfiction includes
The Sign of the Cross
Love in a Dark Time.
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Published by Signet Classics, an imprint of New American Library,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
First Signet Classics Printing (Tóibín Afterword), July 2007
Introduction copyright © Regina Barreca, 1995
Afterword copyright © Colm Tóibín, 2007
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eISBN : 978-1-4406-2080-5

‘‘But who is ‘quite independent,' and in what sense is the term used?—that point is not yet settled. . . . [I]s it used in a moral or in a financial sense? Does it mean that they have been left well off, or that they wish to be under no obligations? Or does it simply mean that they are fond of their own way?''
—Ralph Touchett, in
The Portrait of a Lady
The Portrait of a Lady,
Henry James takes an enthusiastic, spiritually ambitious, emotionally charged, attractive and powerful young woman, and seems to set her up for the coming-of-age rites of wealthy young Americans made familiar by earlier writers. Our heroine comes to England in the full flush of her early adulthood, learns about European manners and mannerisms, and finds her American sense of self-reliance challenged. James then presents us with what has been regarded as the appropriately happy ending for such a heroine: she meets and marries a man some years her senior who will shape her ambitions to fit acceptable conventions and teach her to harness her energies for suitably feminine purposes. But
The Portrait of a Lady
, first published in 1881, is like other James novels in this one respect: it does not proceed according to formula.
The heroine's marriage does not signal the end of her story, but instead ushers her into an entirely new world: a world where Isabel Archer's true character is tested and shaped in ways that place her firmly in the company of other great—and perhaps tragic—heroines. But unlike her possible companions in tragedy—Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Lily Bart—Isabel Archer's passionate response to the quiet desperation of her married life does not lead to her death but to a sense of survival.
Isabel Archer survives because she is the quintessential young American woman, one who has been raised to trust her own intelligence and intuition. As young as she is, Isabel instinctively resists the confinement of artificial manners and inherited values that usually characterize her European counterparts. James twins her American sensibilities with an understanding that the world is already moving in the new directions that will make it the modern world and so constructs a woman who, despite the more conventional aspects of her life, is clearly subversive.
Isabel is subversive in ways even she does not intend or fully understand, in part because of her will toward independence. Isabel believes and repeatedly asserts that she is an independent young woman, but the very definition of the term ‘‘independence'' for a woman is at the heart of James's novel. Isabel's adoring cousin, Ralph, questions precisely how the term ‘‘independence'' applies to the nineteen-year-old woman from Albany: is it a matter of money, of morality, or merely a refusal to listen to the advice or warnings of others? Can a woman, especially a young American woman transported to Europe and given access to a fortune without an education in how to deal with either, be independent, given the limited options open to one in her position? Isabel is awarded financial independence through Ralph's intervention but must learn the difference between freedom and independence. Even at the beginning of the book, Isabel is independent; only by the end of the work is she free.
Early in the novel James tells us that it is one of Isabel's theories about herself that she was ‘‘very fortunate in being independent, and that she ought to make some very enlightened use of her independence.'' But even with all of her excellent qualities—we are informed by the narrator that she is ‘‘intelligent and generous'' and has ‘‘a fine free nature''—the question remains: ‘‘[W]hat was she going to do with herself? . . . Most women did with themselves nothing at all; they waited, in attitudes more or less gracefully passive, for a man to come that way and furnish them with a destiny. Isabel's originality was that she gave one an impression of having intentions of her own.'' Having intentions of her own, however, is no guarantee that Isabel is indeed free to choose her own destiny. The overriding tension in the novel concerns Isabel's continuing belief in her own independence in light of her gradual awakening to the fact of her own subjugation, to the awareness that she seems fated to do the world's will rather than her own.
From the start Isabel asserts her need for the good will of other people even as she insists on the predominance of her own judgment. Despite the fact that her aunt, Mrs. Touchett, is responsible for chaperoning Isabel from America to England after the death of Isabel's parents, ‘‘our heroine'' (as James often calls her) is wary about accepting the counsel offered by her well-meaning relative, even at the cost of her own reputation. When Mrs. Touchett suggests that it is simply not correct for Isabel to remain alone in the company of Ralph and his friend Lord Warburton after her aunt leaves the room, Isabel obeys her wishes with great reluctance because she does not understand the objection. Yet she nevertheless informs her aunt that she ‘‘always want[s] to know the things one shouldn't do.'' Thinking her niece merely contrary by nature, Mrs. Touchett rejoins, ‘‘So as to do them?'' Isabel's answer provides an early key to her character; she is not so simple as Mrs. Touchett assumes. Isabel wants to know what is done ‘‘so as to choose.''
It is not surprising that the choice that puzzles most readers of
The Portrait of a Lady
is Isabel's choice of a husband. To paraphrase Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged, at least by readers of fiction, that a young woman in possession of a fortune must be in want of a husband.

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