Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

Portrait of a Lady

First edition Provenance

James, Henry. Portrait of a Lady. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1882.

Excerpt Provenance

James, Henry. Portrait of a Lady. (Ed. Leon Edel.) Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1956.

Introduction to the Selection— by Carly Dean

Portrait of a Lady was one of Henry James’ first “major” novels, published in 1881. Portrait of a Lady is a house-novel in that the house is the setting and its inhabitants often become object-like, frozen in time and space, like furnishings to a house. Thus, most of the text is conversational and moments of introspective self-reflection making the novel highly existential and psychological rather than…let’s say, action packed. The house becomes a large, spatial metaphor for the brain, inside which the characters, or our thoughts, act out.

The lady whose portrait is painted by the novel, is the spirited, American Isabel Archer and follows her journey to Europe in affronting her destiny. The novel encompasses a major theme thread through all of James’s work: the juxtaposition of the Old World (continental Europe) against the New World (the United States). The Old World embodies a feudal civilization (e.g. Isabel is starstruck by the use of “Lord” as an epithet), a place of sophistication, social convention, decadence and history. Contrastingly, the New World is a babe of civilization and is a physical manifestation of naïveté with new money, optimism, and innocence. Interestingly enough, Henry James depicts England, or in Portrait of a Lady, specifically Gardencourt, as a threshold between the New and Old, suspended both literally and figuratively between the two. Secondary themes related to and within the larger Old versus New is honoring commitment versus freedom and, in the same vein, society’s expectations versus individual pursuits.

Lydia, like Henry James, is from Albany and she travels to the Gardencourt estate, outside London with her Aunt Lydia to meet her uncle Daniel and cousin Ralph. There, she is enamored by the English country house and during her stay, she meets Lord Warburton, and later rejects his hand in marriage as well as Caspar Goodwin’s, a wealthy mill owner from Boston. Lydia proceeds to travel and subsequently, each location symbolizes a further distance, again both literal and figurative, from her initial starting point of American-bred independence. She meets Gilbert Osmond in Florence; they later marry and move to Rome, the heart of the historic Old World and also the place of Isabel’s deepest unhappiness. Ultimately, Isabel travels back to England to be by Ralph on his deathbed and Caspar finds her in desperate pursuit to win her over from Osmond. The ending is ambiguous as to if she returns to Boston with Caspar in a selfishly-driven revolt for happiness, albeit naive, or to Rome in noble tragedy to honor her marriage and commitment to Osmond. Each city (Albany/Boston, London, Paris, Florence, Rome) correlates to a point along a spectrum of society’s moral geography and Isabel’s own happiness and independence.

Except 1-3—Illustrating the Old World Versus New World schism

[A conversation between Mrs. Touchett and Isabel on Isabel’s excitement to escape the United States and visit Europe.]

‘I like places in which things have happened—even if they’re sad things. A great many people have died here; the place has been full of life.’

‘Is that what you call being full of life?’

‘I mean fully of experience—of people’s feelings and sorrows. And not of their sorrows only, for I’ve been very happy here as a child.’

‘You should go to Florence if you life houses in which things have happened–especially deaths. I live in an old palace in which three people have been murdered; three that were known and I don’t know how many more besides.’

‘In an old palace?’ Isabel repeated.

‘Yes. my dear; a very different affair from this. This is very bourgeois” (36).

 . . . .

[A conversation between Ralph and Isabel on Gardencourt.]

‘Please tell me—isn’t there a ghost?’ she went on.

‘A ghost?’

‘A castle-spectre, a thing that appears. We call them ghosts in America.’

‘So we do here, when we see them.’

‘You do not see them? You ought to, in this romantic old house.’

‘It’s not a romantic old house.’ said Ralph, ‘You’ll be disappointed if you count on that. It’s a dismally prosaic one; there’s no romance here but what you have brought with you’ (50).

 . . . .

[An introspection of Henrietta.]

Henrietta Stackpole was struck with the fact that ancient Rome had been paved a good deal like New York, and even found an analogy between the deep chariot-ruts traceable in the antique street and the overjangled iron grooves which express the intensity of American life. The sun had begun to sink, the air was a golden haze, and the long shadows of broken column and vague pedestal leaned across the field of ruin (240).


Except 4—Illustrating the psychological effects of childhood home and Isabel’s shaping.

She had taken up her niece—there was little doubt of that…The visitor had not been announced; the girl had heard her at last walking about the adjoining room. It was an old house at Albany, a large, square, double house, with a notice of sale in the windows of one of the lower apartments. There were two entrances, one of which had been long been out of use but had never been removed. They were exactly alike—large white doors, with an arched frame and wide sidelights, perched upon little ‘stoops’ of red stone, which descended sidewise to the brick pavement of the street. The two houses together formed a single dwelling, the party-wall having been removed and the rooms placed in communication. These rooms, above-stairs, were extremely numerous, and were painted all over exactly alike, in a yellowish white which had grown sallow with time. On the third floor there was a sort of arched passage, connecting the two sides of the house, which Isabel and her sisters used in their childhood to call the tunnel and which, though it was short and well-lighted, always seemed to the girl to be strange and lonely, especially on winter afternoons. She had been in the house, at different periods, as a child; in those days her grandmother lived there. Then there had been an absence of ten years, followed by a return to Albany before her father’s death. Her grandmother, old Mrs. Archer, had exercised, chiefly within the limits of the family, a large hospitality in the early period, and the little girls often spent weeks under her roof—weeks of which Isabel had the happiest memory. The manner of life was different from that of her own home—larger, more plentiful, practically more festal; the discipline of the nursery was delightfully vague and the opportunity of listening to the conversation of one’s elders (which with Isabel was a highly-valued pleasure) almost unbounded. There was a constant coming and going her grandmother’s sons and daughters and their children appeared to be in the enjoyment of standing invitations to arrive and remain, so that the house offered to a certain extent the appearance of a bustling provincial inn kept by a gentle old landlady who sighed a great deal and never presented a bill. Isabel knew nothing about bills but even as a child she thought her grandmother’s home romantic. There was a covered piazza behind it, furnished with a swing which was a source of tremulous interest and beyond it was a long garden, sloping down to the stable and containing peach trees of barely credible familiarity…The foundation of her knowledge was really laid in the idleness of her grandmother’s house (32-33).


Except 5—No, Dear Lord,  I don’t want your multiple houses.

Dear Lord Warburton—

A great deal of earnest thought has not led me to change my mind about the suggestion you were so kind as to make me the other day. I am not, I am really and truly not, able to regard you in the light of a companion for life; or to think of your home—your various homes—as the settled seat of my existence. These things cannot be reasoned about, and I very earnestly entreat you not to return to the subject we discussed so exhaustively. We see our lives from our own point of view; that is the privilege of the weakest and humblest of us; and I shall never be able to see mine in the manner you proposed. Kindly let this suffice you, and do me the justice to believe that I have given your proposal the deeply respectful consideration it deserves. Is it with this very great regard that I remain sincerely yours,

Isabel Archer (106).


Except 6—House as the shell of a person.

[An argument between Madame Merle and Isabel on materiality and Isabel’s rejection of Lord Warburton.] 

‘If you’ve had the identical young man you dreamed of, then that was success, and I congratulate you with all my heart. Only in that case why didn’t you fly with him to his castle in the Appennines?’

‘He has no castle in the Apennines.’

‘What has he? An ugly brick house in Fortieth Street? Don’t tell me that; I refuse to recognize that as an ideal.’

‘I don’t care anything about his house,’ said Isabel.

‘That’s very crude of you. When you’ve lived as long as I you’ll see that every human being has his shell and that you must take the shell into account. By the shell I mean the whole envelope of circumstances. There’s no such as an isolated man or woman; we’re each of us made up of some cluster of appurtenances. What shall we call our self? Where does it begin? Where does it end? It overflows into everything that belongs to us—and then it flows back again. I know a large part of myself is in the clothes I choose to wear. I’ve a great respect for things! One’s self — for other people— is one’s expression of one’s self; and one’s house, one’s furniture, one’s garments, the books ones reads, the company one keeps—these things are all expressive.’

This was very metaphysical; not more so, however than several observations Madame Merle had already made. Isabel was fond of metaphysics, but was unable to accompany her friend into this bold analysis of human personality. ‘I don’t agree with you. I think just the other way. I don’t know whether I succeed in expressing myself, but I know that nothing else expresses me. Nothing that belongs to me is any measure of me; everything’s on the contrary a limit, a barrier, and a perfectly arbitrary one. Certainly the clothes which, as you say, I choose to wear, don’t express me; and heaven forbid they should!’

‘You dress very well,’ Madame Merle lightly interposed.

‘Possibly; but I don’t care to be judged by that. My clothes may express the dressmaker, but they don’t express me. To begin with it’s not my choice that I wear them; they’re imposed upon me by society’ (172-173).


Except 7—Claustrophobic in marriage and home.

 [An introspection of Isabel after marrying Osmond and moving to Rome.] 

Hadn’t he all the appearance of a man living in the open air of the world, indifferent to small considerations, caring only for truth and knowledge and believing that two intelligent people ought to look for them together and, whether they found them or not, find at least some happiness in the search? He had told her he loved the conventional; but there was a sense in which this seemed a noble declaration. In that sense, that of the love of harmony and order and decency and of all the stately offices of life, she went with him freely, and his warning had contained nothing ominous. But when, as the months had elapsed, she had followed him further and he had led her into the mansion of his own habitation, then, then she had seen where she really was.

She could live it over again, the incredulous terror with which she had taken the measure of her dwelling. Between those four walls she had lived ever since; they were to surround her for the rest of her life. It was the house of darkness, the house of dumbness, the house of suffocation. Osmond’s beautiful mind gave it neither light nor air; Osmond’s beautiful mind indeed seemed to peep down from a small high window and mock her. Of course it had not been physical suffering; for physical suffering there might be a remedy. She could come and go; she had her liberty; her husband was perfectly polite. (353)


Except 8—The physical and symbolic threshold. 

[A final, heartbreaking plea of love by Caspar Goodwood when Isabel returns to Gardencourt to be by Ralph’s side.]

‘It’s too monstrous of you to think of sinking back into that misery, of going to open your mouth to that poisoned air. It’s you that are out of your mind. Trust me as if I had the care of you. Why shouldn’t we be happy– when it’s here before us, when it’s so easy? I’m yours for ever—for ever and ever. Here I stand; I’m as firm as a rock. What have you to care about? You’ve no children; that perhaps would be an obstacle. As it is you’ve nothing to consider. You must save what you can of your life; you mustn’t lose it all simply because you’ve lost a part. It would be an insult to you to assume that you care for the look of the thing, for what people will say, for the bottomless idiocy of the world. We’ve nothing to do with all that; we’re quite out of it; we look at things as they are. You took the great step in coming away; the next is nothing; it’s the natural one. I swear, as I stand here, that a woman deliberately made to suffer is justified in anything in life—in going down into the streets if that will help her! I know how you suffer, and that’s why I’m here. We can do absolutely as we please; to whom under the sun do we owe anything? What is it that holds us, what is it that has the smallest right to interfere in such a question as this? Such a question is between ourselves—and to say that is to settle it! Were we born to rot in our misery—were we born to be afraid? I never knew you to be afraid! If you’ll only trust me, how little you will be disappointed! The world’s all before us— and the world’s very big. I know something about that.’

Isabel gave a long murmur, like a creature in pain; it was as if he were pressing something that hurt her. ‘The world’s very small,’ she said at random; she had an immense desire to appear to resist. She said it at random, to hear herself say something; but it was not what she meant. The world, in truth, had never seemed so large; it seemed to open out, all round her, to take the form of a mighty seam, where she floated in fathomless waters. She had wanted help, and here was help; it had come in a rushing torrent. I know not whether she believed everything he said; but she believed just then that to let him take her in his arms would be the next best thing to her dying. This belief, for a moment, was a kind of rapture, in which she felt herself sink and sink. In the movement she seemed to beat with her feet, in order to catch herself, to feel something to rest on.

‘Ah, be mine as I’m yours!’ she heard her companion cry. He had suddenly given up argument, and his voice seemed to come harsh and terrible, through a confusion of vaguer sounds.

This however, of course, was but a subjective fact, as the metaphysicians say; the confusion, the noise of waters, all the rest of it, were in her own swimming head. In an instant she became aware of this. ‘Do me the greatest kindness of all,’ she panted. ‘I beseech you to go away!’

‘Ah, don’t say that. Don’t kill me!’ he cried.

She clasped her hands; her eyes were streaming with tears. ‘As you love me, as you pity me, leave me alone!’

He glared at her a moment through the dusk, and the next instant she felt his arms around her and his lips on her own lips. His kiss was like white lightning, a flash that spread, and spread again, and stayed; and it was extraordinary as if, while she took it, she felt each thing in his hard manhood that had least pleased her, each aggresive fact of his face, his figure, his presence, justified of its intensity and made one with this act of possession. So had she heard of those wrecked and under water following a train of images before they sink. But when darkness returned she was free. She never looked about her; she only darted from the spot. There were lights in the windows of the house; they shone far across the lawn. In an extraordinarily short time—for the distance was considerable—she had moved through the darkness (for she saw nothing) and reached the door. Here only she paused. She looked all about her; she listened a little; then she put her hand on the latch. She had not known where to turn; but she knew now. There was a very straight path.

Two days afterwards Caspar Goodwood knocked at the door of the house in Wimpole Street in which Henrietta Stackpole occupied furnished lodgings. He had hardly removed his hand from the knocked when the door was opened and Miss Stackpole herself stood before him. She had on her hat and jacket; she was on the point of going out. ‘Oh, good-morning,” he said, ‘I was in hopes I should find Mrs. Osmond.’

Henrietta kept him waiting a moment for her reply; but there was a good deal of expression about Miss Stackpole even when she was quiet. ‘Pray what led you to suppose she was here?’

‘I went down to Gardencourt this morning, and the servant told me she had come to London. He believed she was to come to you.’

Again Miss Stackpole held him —with an intention of perfect kindness—in suspense. “She came here yesterday, and spent the night. But this morning she started for Rome.’

Caspar Goodwood was not looking at her; his eyes were fastened on the doorstep. ‘Oh, she started—?’ he stammered. And without finishing his phrase or looking up he stiffly averted himself. But he otherwise couldn’t move.

Henrietta had come out, closing the door behind her, and now she put her hand and grasped his arm. ‘Look here, Mr. Goodwood,’ she said; ‘just you wait!’

On which he looked up at her—but only to guess, from her face, with a revulsion,that she simply meant he was young. She stood shining at him with that cheap comfort, and it added, on the spot, thirty years to his life. She walked away with her, however, as if she had given him now the key to patience (480-482).


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