Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady: Part 1. Novel as Case Study

Sometimes, I read a classic when I see a film that makes me curious enough to pick up the original. I confess that I do see a lot more film than I read books. That is how I discovered Elizabeth Gaskell. But not Jane Austen. I liked Austen and had read all her novels before I saw an excellent production of Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. I doubt that any of the subsequent films based on Austen would have induced me to read her books. To my taste, none of them measures up to the Firth-Ehle performances. This is not true of Shakespeare whose plays I laboriously read for classes before I saw films of them. But my interest in Shakespeare was rekindled by wonderful British film productions, a few of them done by actor/director Kenneth Branagh. Yes, including his fun and delicious musical Much Ado About Nothing.

Portrait of Henry James
Portrait of Henry James (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The Portrait of a Lady, 1st edition
The Portrait of a Lady, 1st edition
I saw a film of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady years ago played, probably as well as she possibly could by Nicole Kidman. She might have gotten good reviews for her performance but I only remembered it as dreary. She failed to make Isabel Archer live for me. Did not make me curious enough to read the novel. Recently, however, I took a new interest in James’s novel because my husband talked about recent reviews he just read of the book. So, I downloaded a free ebook version of it.

I have to admit that the book intrigues me now.

This is a novel that would be extremely hard to translate successfully into film. There isn’t much action and not much overt conflict. Most of the intrigue occurs in the minds of characters. I don’t fault Henry James for this. From a realist point of view, I applaud him because I think that, in fact, that is where most of our conflicts reside. But it would not make for a page-turner novel. So, I applaud him a second time, for the audacity it took to write it and put it out there to a judgmental reading public. Predictably, perhaps, it did not do well.  Of course, now it’s a revered masterpiece although most readers might still balk at reading it.

I also understand better Nicole Kidman’s difficulty giving life to Isabel for that same reason. How do you act out the stream of thought that constitutes your turmoil? Outward facial gestures can only go so far and, anyway, quite a number of them are ambiguous. A down-turned mouth, for instance, can mean one is unhappy, or skeptical, or contemptuous, etc. Many times the expression in the eyes and the muscles on the cheek, including the mouth itself, would cue you in on what a particular gesture means. But those would still not fully convey an idea or an affect.

As fiction, Portrait is hard reading. Again, for the same reason—it is pages and pages of introspection by the characters. Not just by Isabel Archer but by other characters, as well, and to a degree proportional to their importance in the story that unfolds. Many pages are devoted, for instance, to the thought process of Isabel’s cousin Ralph Touchett. Ralph, to my mind, is the voice of Henry James in this novel. He is the wise, forbearing character on the sidelines, towards whom it is impossible not to be sympathetic. He makes it possible for Isabel to realize her full potential by persuading his father to give Isabel half of his inheritance. Later, at a crucial point in Isabel’s life, he sees what intelligent, eager, open, and lively Isabel does not see or refuses to see. And, later still, it pains Ralph to see himself proven right even as Isabel puts up a front to deceive him about her current unhappiness. He sees through that deception, too.

The Portrait of a Lady is 223,843 words of a character study—done principally by going into Isabel’s stream of thought as well as that of other characters who help define who she is. When you know that Henry James was, in fact, the younger brother of philosopher/psychologist William James, then you see where Henry’s tendencies might have come from.

Older brother William is sometimes saddled with the distinction of being the father of American psychology, a rather formidable designation he justified by writing Principles of Psychology. The book, probably the first of its kind, has a permanent and enviable place in the history of psychology. One of the chapters in it is called Stream of Thought.

We now often casually use the phrase “stream of consciousness” to refer to a series of usually uncensored thoughts or ideas that flow freely, the second one from the first, the third from the second and so on. Next time you use the term, think of William James—the first scholar to write about this phenomenon. That is not to say, William originated the idea. Hamlet’s famous “To or not to be” soliloquy, as my husband points out, qualifies as a stream of thought.

With its intimate engagement into Isabel Archer’s inner life as well as her relationships with peripheral characters, The Portrait of a Lady qualifies as a psychological case study. It might be the first psychological novel ever written, as some analysts have claimed. Henry James’s connection to William James and William’s pioneering place in the field of psychology makes that claim more plausible to me. I wonder, in fact, whether Henry consulted with brother William when he wrote Portrait.

For free epub versions of the novel:
Volume I
Volume II

A book about the book

I love a dialogue. Tell me what you're thinking.