I don’t think I am an average reader. The tag “New York Times Bestseller” is a warning for me to stay away from the book. At the same time I will never start or finish a book based on its reputation. If it isn’t engaging me in some honest way I will walk away from it no matter how “classic” it is. I admit that I started reading Portrait of a Lady because it is considered a classic. And, in spite of what I just said, I don’t think I have ever found reason to walk away from a classic. As hard as it was to read Portrait of a Lady, I couldn’t walk away from it.
Yes, Portrait of a Lady was hard to read. Perhaps the difficulty lies with the glacially paced plot. Kitchen linoleum curls faster than things happen in this novel. I think readers of Stephen King and Dean Koontz would claim that nothing actually does happen in this book. Based on today’s standards, if you took an electrocardiogram of the book there would be three barely discernable blips where something happened. Or perhaps it was James’ long sentences and extensive vocabulary that made it hard. In truth, it was neither of these that made me exert energy and summon willpower when it came time to pick up the book again. I actually enjoyed the storyline and found James’ mastery of the language exhilarating. What made it difficult for me to open the book for each reading session was what I call the “exercise effect.” Exercise is great while you are doing it and especially after you’ve finished, but getting started takes commitment. Reading James is a very real form of mental exercise that takes willpower to begin.
Once I found the motivation to open the book for a reading session I found myself entranced by the story. Reading Portrait of a Lady isn’t a casual beach combing or even snorkeling in a reef; it is diving deep to explore the Titanic. James uses no buzz phrases or popular clichés to cheat his way through communication; James works the language hard to communicate intangibles that each of us experience in our own lives, but don’t know how to express. Here are three examples:
Isabel had stayed with her grandmother at various seasons, but somehow all her visits had a flavour of peaches.
She took a candlestick herself and held it slowly here and there; she lifted it high, and as she did so he found himself pausing in the middle of the place and bending his eyes mush less upon the pictures than on her presence. He lost nothing, in truth, by these wandering glances, for she was better worth looking at than most works of art. She was undeniably spare, and ponderably light, and proveably tall; when people had wished to distinguish her from the other two Miss Archers they had always called her the willowy one.
She wondered at her; she thought her very extraordinary. The Countess seemed to her to have no soul; she was like a bright rare shell, with a polished surface and a remarkably pink lip, in which something would rattle when you shook it. This rattle was apparently the Countess’s spiritual principle, a little loose nut that tumbled about inside of her. She was too odd for disdain, too anomalous for comparisons.
And then there is this lady we are studying throughout the novel. When I read this novel as a young man I fell in love with Isabel Archer just as the four men in this book did. It appears that James is fascinated by Isabel Archer himself. Isabel is an enchanting lady in the classic sense; her presence makes men want to be better men. From the moment we meet her it’s hard not to love her:
The person in question was a young lady, who seemed immediately to interpret the greeting of the small beast. He advanced with great rapidity and stood at her feet, looking up and barking hard; whereupon, without hesitation, she stooped and caught him in her hands, holding him face to face while he continued his quick chatter. His master now had had time to follow and to see that Bunchie’s new friend was a tall girl in a black dress, who at first sight looked pretty.
. . .
“Is this your little dog, sir?”
“He was mine a moment ago; but you’ve suddenly acquired a remarkable air of property in him.”
“Couldn’t we share him?” asked the girl. “He’s such a perfect little darling.”
Ralph looked at her a moment; she was unexpectedly pretty. “You may have him altogether,” he then replied.
James knows this lady well, however, and makes us aware of her—not vices, for she has none—but of her vulnerabilities.
She only had a general idea that people were right when they treated her as if she were rather superior. Whether or no she were superior, people were right in admiring her if they thought her so; for it seemed to her often that her mind moved more quickly than theirs, and this encouraged an impatience that might easily be confounded with superiority.
It is Isabel’s vulnerabilities that lead to the unhappy ending that many complain of. We readers like Cinderella endings. There is no Cinderella in this novel. There is only a lady—a lady with standards far above most of our own in our marriage-throw-away world—who is not willing to run from the difficult situation she got herself into in spite of all the readers’ advice to do otherwise. I think there is no other ending James could have written and still had the true lady he believed in. in the novel we meet other women with the title of “Lady,” but we meet none who embody the title so fully as Isabel Archer.
Portrait of a Lady is not for weak readers. It is a book that demands much. For me the payoff is great. This book lingers in your life like an old friend. Does it deserve its classic status? I give it my vote.