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Customer Review

on 21 August 2012
Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady
It's been coming for a long time - my first reading of The Portrait of a Lady. Half a century ago at university, I skipped the James option, but later got hooked on The American and The Ambassadors. For some reason I, too, couldn't enthuse about The Golden Bowl and have even recently found What Maisie Knew a bit of a drag. Washington Square, though, since 'teaching' it. has always been my favourite James and in many ways The Portrait reminds me of WS.

The isolated good heroine theme persists in James. She is always surrounded by advisors and controllers or would-be controllers from whom she has to fight free. Sadly. social mores always triumph over self-expression and, as in most Victorian fiction, duty always wins. Love, that other 4 letter word, usually brings disaster to the heroine, who is either locked up in a convent in the end or obediently returns to her controllers.

If you can stay with it this is an enthralling novel. One really cares about Isabel and comes to loathe some of her suitors. Surely the triple-suitor-for- the-heroine motif is taken from Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd and Caspar Goodwood is not a million miles away from Mr Boldwood. They were so obsessed by marriage, weren't they, these Victorians, not to mention their forerunners, Austen, Richardson et al.

But, as others on this thread have pointed out, the plot is not the main element - it is in fact pretty conventional - and the style is everything. Talk about The Psychological Novel! HJ just won't leave a notion alone without teasing it to death, surrounding it by pussyfooting subjunctives and absenting himself as narrator in saying such as 'this is no part of our story.'

As a warm-up to Proust this is an admirable taster of what has been called 'The Mandarin Style.' If you enjoy style and re-reading sentences for the sheer delight in language and selection of le mot juste you'll love it.
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