Our central character is Isabel Archer of Albany, New York, a young woman of no great means, and no great beauty (that is, by her own estimation; others disagree) yet of rich imagination, high ideals and a thirst for knowledge of the world. Carried off by her aunt to England, she quite unexpectedly finds herself the beneficiary of a substantial legacy from her uncle, a very successful American banker in London. It will, her admiring cousin says to his father, allow her “to put a little wind in her sails” and to see the world.
Though some American reviewers rather dismissed the book when it appeared in the mid-1880s, for other readers today The Portrait of a Lady has become THE Great American Novel, or at least very close to the top. That is for a number of reasons, including among others the delineations of character and the psychological depths of the work. A few years ago, in a biographical study of James, Michael Gorra drew on it as a central work (not surprisingly his book is called Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece). James himself tinkered with it over the years, and the text here comes from the so-called New York edition of 1907-09.
Much of the action takes place in Italy, particularly n the expatriate communities of Florence and Rome. Without giving anything away, it’s worth noting that James’s ending for the novel has caused some puzzlement, not to say controversy, among readers. (Nicholas Clifford)
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