By all but universal agreement, The Portrait of a Lady (1881) was Henry James’s first masterpiece, a lengthy contemplation of the fate of an orphaned American girl who falls victim to European manners and morals—the first great articulation of his “international theme.”
Inveterate James enthusiasts, sometimes playfully known as Jacobites, concede that even some sophisticated readers find James hard going; Michael Gorra’s fine study ought to help. James’s early stories are unremarkable, but the author was not slow to see this, and moved to remedy their defects. The result was a prodigious growth of his art and craft which produced Portrait (as we shall call it) before he turned 40. A disappointing attempt to transform himself into a playwright in the following decade failed, but, by a mysterious rule of compensation, the experience taught him lessons that would enrich his “late style,” whose difficulties are considerable and thus erect new barriers for the common reader.
As for the technique of Portrait, James explains in the preface he wrote for his 1906 revision (whose emendations of the original text cover some 80 pages in one standard edition) that he had learned from the great Russian storyteller Ivan Turgenev to begin with a distinct person and imagine where her personality would take her, instead of imagining a plot and peopling it with characters.
Isabel Archer, the heroine of Portrait, is one of many young women in James’s fiction who are victimized, sometimes with their own unintended help, by the predatory plotting of those they believe they can trust. The tale relies on our belief (or suspension of disbelief) in a 19th-century world where divorce is banned or disreputable and where so-called bastards are condemned, unless they have the luck to be the offspring of kings or Roman cardinals, and even though they had no hand in their begetting. Not least, women had yet to emancipate themselves from patriarchal domination, and marriage vows demanded virtue and obedience of wives, if not of husbands. Those vows become a big part of Isabel’s dilemma; she takes them seriously indeed.
Among Jamesian heroines, Isabel Archer is arguably the most innocent. Her idealism, as she “affronts” her destiny—the verb is significant—echoes the high registers of the American Puritan tradition. She trusts a circle of new European friends whom the adult reader today quickly identifies as designing and mischievous, including the man she marries. Through the generosity of a well-meaning cousin who admires her freshness and ambition, she has been endowed with a fortune that predictably exposes her to fortune--hunters. She rejects two admirable suitors, an English viscount and a young American entrepreneur, to give her hand to an aestheticized and deracinated fop, Gilbert Osmond, originally from Baltimore, who dwells among his bibelots on a Florence hilltop. She is warned that this marriage will trap her in the conventionality she is fleeing. But she is so nobly blind to underhanded motives that she refuses to listen to cautionary words that would shock her ingenue stepdaughter, Pansy.
Henry James never wrote a bald or obvious tale. He transmutes what could pass for melodrama into a penetrating exploration of an evolving consciousness: Isabel’s rueful growth into understanding. Gorra writes that Portrait is a bridge to modernism, a pioneering study in human interiority that would later undergo further development by Faulkner, Joyce, Woolf, and others. No less a critic than F. R. Leavis pronounced it one of the two greatest novels in the language, and even those who question such an exalted designation find it irresistible. So great is Isabel’s high-minded cluelessness that, having at last surmised that her husband despises her for her “ideas” (that is, her originality and social adventurousness), her giddy but kind sister-in-law has to spell out the truth for her: Osmond has married her for her money; his mysterious friend and intermediary Madame Merle is actually Osmond’s mistress and Pansy is their illegitimate offspring; and Merle’s aspiration is to endow Pansy with a dowry that will win her a brilliant marriage.
Well might Isabel’s informant exclaim, in the face of her naïveté, “With you, my dear, one must always dot one’s i’s.”