“One ought to choose something very deliberately, and be faithful to that.” Isabel Archer is a young, intelligent, and spirited American girl, determined to relish her first experience of Europe.
She rejects two eligible suitors in her fervent commitment to liberty and independence, declaring that she will never marry.
Thanks to the generosity of her devoted cousin Ralph, she is free to make her own choice about her destiny.
Yet in the intoxicating worlds of Paris, Florence, and Rome, her fond illusions of self-reliance are twisted by the machinations of her friends and apparent allies. What had seemed to be a vista of infinite promise steadily closes around her and becomes instead a “house of suffocation”.
Considered by many as one of the finest novels in the English language, this is Henry James’s most poised achievement, written at the height of his fame in 1881. It is at once a dramatic Victorian tale of betrayal and a wholly modern psychological study of a woman caught in a web of relations she only comes to understand too late.
This audio guide to James’s novel is presented by Roger Luckhurst, who is Professor of Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck, University of London.
introducing henry james
1. Click here to hear about Henry James’s New England family and why it may have made James keen to escape to Europe. [3:02]
2. James was steeped in European culture and originally thought that he was going to become a French writer. Find out why he became an English one instead by clicking here. [2:08]
3. In the latter years of his career, James’s literary reputation grew while his readership shrank and he increasingly turned away from his public. Find out more about the trajectory of his career here. [2:26]
introducing the portrait of a lady
4. Here Roger Luckhurst explains how James’s novel was originally published and why he sees it as an important transitional text between the traditional Victorian high realist novel and the modernist novel – “almost, but not quite, a stream of consciousness narrative”. [3:19]
5. “I think Henry James is looking at a changing landscape about marriage and about the possibilities that young women now have. We’re about ten years before the rise of the so-called New Woman and very active campaigns for women’s suffrage.” To learn more about this aspect of the novel, click here.[3:33]
6. James’s writing increasingly became distanced from the realist models he started out with. Find out more here. [0:41]
7. James became famous for writing stories about the confrontation of the old world of Europe and the new world of America. Hear how this confrontation is played out in The Portrait of a Lady here.
8. “Art for art’s sake”? Discover why this doctrine presented such a challenge to Victorian morality and how James presented it dramatically through his characters in The Portrait by clicking here.
Reading the portrait of a lady, and beyond
9. The Portrait of a Lady is a very long book. Is it also a difficult one? Click here to find out. [1:06]
10. If you’ve enjoyed The Portrait of a Lady, what Henry James should you try next? Roger Luckhurst’s recommendations are here. [1:23]
11. And what about Hnery James on film? Roger Luckhurst recommends his favourite film versions here.[1:04]