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I Finally Read… “The Portrait of a Lady” by Henry James

May 16, 2015

You know those books that you’re supposed to have read, but never got around to? In this post, Sharon Steel explores the experience of finally reading a classic that’s been on her list forever: Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady.

Why’d you wait so long?!

I think I purposefully forgot. I knew it would require commitment: Sentences sometimes stretch to a paragraph, and most editions clock in at well over 400 pages.

What made you pull the trigger?

I saw a copy lying on the street in my old neighborhood in Brooklyn, so I picked it up. It still sat on my shelf for about a year before I finally felt ready to conquer it. I started it immediately after my annual reread of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I was in a think-y, sassy mood from the Austen, and when I set P&P aside, I decided I wanted to “stay in England” for awhile. James, as an expat looking in, seemed like he’d be an excellent guide.

Why’d you love it?

The Portrait of a Lady is a book, to quote the wisdom of Seinfeld, about nothing. It is also somehow about everything. The heroine, Isabel Archer, is someone whose reputation is well known in English literature, although I didn’t realize just how small and simple her story actually is: A charming, intelligent American girl travels to England and suddenly inherits a pile of money from her uncle. Three handsome, rich, and charismatic men fall in love with her, she marries one of them, and her life takes an unexpectedly dark turn. But The Portrait of a Lady is less about plot than it is about Isabel’s passionate inner life, which James exposes with mind-bending clarity over the course of the novel. I was mesmerized by how a writer, let alone a male writer, could get inside the head and heart of a woman with so much compassion and eloquence.

Favorite passage?

When Isabel asks her cousin Ralph what he thinks of Gilbert Osmond, one of her suitors, he says: We know too much about people in these days; we hear too much. Our ears, our minds, our mouths, are stuffed with personalities. Don’t mind anything anyone tells you about anyone else. Judge everyone and everything for yourself.

The verdict?

The Portrait of a Lady has become a part of my personal canon. I already feel a deep nostalgia for the gentle yet persistent way I came to know this book, almost as if it were a lifelong friend I was destined to meet. It has changed the way I think about emotion through language, both as a writer and reader.

You should read this book if…

You’re alert and prepared to be wholly engrossed. I wouldn’t read TPOAL before bed; this isn’t passive reading. It’s fully active and entirely absorbing.

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Sharon Steel is a writer living in New York City. She's written about literature, fashion, music and pop culture for many publications, including New York, Bon Appétit, InStyle, and Rolling Stone. Her personal heroes are Jane Austen, Carson McCullers, Lillian Ross, and Frances Hodgson Burnett. Read more of Sharon's posts.

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