Henry James wrote so skillfully about America’s moneyed class that it’s easy to get sucked into their indolent, self-centered lives. But take a step back, and you wonder how they can stand themselves. All they do is travel around Europe in railway cars and carriages, visiting museums, attending concerts and engaging in verbal sparring sessions while living off their inheritances. Maybe that’s why so many of them seem unfulfilled.
James, who grew up in this rarefied atmosphere, was obviously comfortable with it. His leisurely expositions of his characters’ internal struggles draw the reader deeply into a world in which one’s fate depends on marrying well – that is, bringing a sizable fortune to the union. This is the trap awaiting Isabel Archer, a young woman from Albany, New York, whose aunt introduces her to late nineteenth century British society. Though she has little money of her own, she has charm, so it’s not long before suitors begin gathering at her door. Isabel’s conflict over whether to marry, and whom, is the heart of The Portrait of a Lady.
There is plenty of romantic frustration in this story, mostly on the part of young men powerless to fulfill their desires. Isabel’s cousin Ralph Touchett is a particularly tragic figure because of circumstances that allow him to be, at best, her valuable friend.
To me, the book’s principal appeal is how well it explores the art of conversation, a talent once highly-valued among sophisticated people and reflected in the works of Jane Austen. The verbal bantering among Isabel and the other characters makes for hours of delightful reading. However, be advised that James’s narration is often challenging. Occasionally, I found myself wishing for a machete to hack my way through some of his denser sentences. There’s also a critical conversation about the parentage of Pansy Osmond that left me stumped.
Lest you think this is a book about snobs, rest assured that there are several raisonneurs who occasionally bring the others down to earth. I particularly liked Isabel’s friend Henrietta Stackpole, who pops up now and then to cut through the prevarications with a refreshing frankness. Unlike her friends, Henrietta is a woman of the future. She’d be right at home in today’s liberated world.