The Portrait of a Lady, Paperback

The Portrait of a Lady Paperback

Edited by Roger Luckhurst

Part of the Oxford World's Classics series

3.5 out of 5 (1 rating)


'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 edition reproduces the revised New York Edition, with James's own Preface. ABOUT THE SERIES: For over 100 years Oxford World's Classics has made available the widest range of literature from around the globe.

Each affordable volume reflects Oxford's commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, helpful notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 640 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Classic fiction (pre c 1945)
  • ISBN: 9780199217946



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This novel begins slowly, even rather boringly, but it becomes interesting largely due to the singular qualities of Isabel Archer, the novel's main character, and her journalist friend Henrietta. Isabel has a nature that is quietly independent. To her aunt she admits that she "'always wants to know the things one shouldn't do'. 'So as to do them?' asked her aunt. 'So as to choose,' said Isabel."Isabel wants to see the world and vows never to marry. Because of the date at which the book was written, we know that marriage is one of the few options open to her (especially as she hasn't a huge amount of money). She tells her cousin Ralph, 'I don't want to begin life by marrying. There are other things a woman can do'. Ralph, though, is more clear-sighted. 'There's nothing she can do so well,' he says.Henrietta adds interest to the story. Like Isabel she is American, and critical of British life, in particular the aristocracy. She is scathing when she, Ralph and Isabel take a trip to London, and Ralph notes that no one is presently in town. 'There's no one here, of course, but three or four millions of people. What is it you call them - the lower-middle class? They're only the population of London, and that's of no consequence.'The novel is a fairly lengthy one, and some threads are abruptly dropped and never taken up again. Having finished the book, I'm still not really sure why Mme Merle engineered Isabel's marriage - the reasons given in the text aren't entirely convincing. Mme Merle seemed all set to be one of those juicy, scheming, manipulative women, but - rather like Henrietta's fierce attacks on the British way of life - the promise of fireworks is not kept.As a portrait of a young woman who wanted to "look at life for [herself]...but were punished for [her] wish" it is wholly convincing. The relationship between Isabel and her cousin is touching, and Gilbert is repulsive not because he's monstrous, but simply because he's cold. The only character I found too wet to endure is Pansy, who is quite as droopy as her name suggests. [May 2006]

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