Saturday, April 6, 2013

Americans Abroad

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James is a story of bright futures and committed friendships.  It's also a story of regrettable choices and duplicity.  Isabel Archer is a young American woman who has recently lost her parents.  In an act of kindness, that is implied to be somehow self serving, her aunt, Lydia Touchett, brings her to England.  There Isabel charms her cousin, Ralph, and his father, Mr. Touchett, who is expected to die shortly.  In a last minute change to his will, Mr. Touchett decides to make Isabel a wealthy woman.  Isabel is shocked by her good fortune.  Lucky for her, she has her new friend, Madame Merle, to guide her life as a rich bachelorette.

This was the first Henry James book that I have read, and I read it (or actually listened to it) just because I hadn't read him before.  I have to say that I liked him better than Jane Austen.  His characters faced true conflicts, there was good and evil, and there was a little more action than I found in Emma.  The characters' decisions are also more relevant to the modern day reader.  We can relate to the idea of people using one another for their wealth, or of an unfortunate marriage that the parties are still reluctant to leave, even though James was writing in the 1880s.  In fairness, Austen could have been James' grandmother, and her works were from the early 1800s, so they should be expected to be less like the modern day.  I think that Austen's fans would say that this is part of the charm.

A strange thing about The Portrait of a Lady is that all of the major players are US ex-pats living in Europe.  The Touchetts, Isabel, her friends Henrietta and Casper, Gilbert Osmond, and Edward Rosier are all main characters who are originally from the US.  I was trying to figure out why Portrait should be the story of Americans living abroad, as opposed to the story of Europeans living in Europe, or of Americans in America.  I decided that it must have had to do with creating a limited circle of acquaintance, so that there would be reasons for the characters to keep running into each other.  This also served to isolate the characters, so that those who have been in Europe for less time have fewer true friends who they can rely on for advice.

Portrait is told in third person omniscient style, meaning that it is narrated by an unidentified third person who is able to tell us the characters' thoughts.  There were a couple of times where I thought that it was hinted that the narrator was really Henrietta Stackpole.  Henrietta is Isabel's brash friend from the US who is a newspaper correspondent, and who is constantly on the verge of publishing too much about our characters.  I like the idea that the novel could be the culmination of Henrietta's work that she has written but not submitted to the newspapers out of deference to her friendship with Isabel.  I also think that it is clever that this character shares the name of the author, using the feminine variation.

Portrait was a long book, at 656 pages.  Although I enjoyed listening to it on MP3, I think that I would have gotten bored at certain points if I had been reading.  But probably not as bored as I got reading Austen.  Portrait is another book off the list for the Off the Shelf Challenge.

WINNER ANNOUNCED:  The winner of the Glow giveaway is Mary B!  Mary contacted me via email, so I have her contact information and she will be hearing from me shortly.

Next up on CD:  Ines of my Soul by Isabel Allende

Still Reading:  What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty


  1. Glad you liked it! I found this book very powerful. Though I have to say I prefer Austen. :) It sounds like the main difference is that you relate better to James' realism than to Austen's romantic satire. I prefer books to be an escape from reality, so I tend not to read realism quite as much. I have to be in the right mood for realism. :)

    1. I'm going to give Austen another try soon. I know that I'm in the minority in not loving her . . . we'll see if I can learn!


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