The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James

It’s amazing how rambling writing used to be.

I work in digital marketing and writing for the web, and the desired skill in my profession is to make copy as condensed and simple as possible. People can’t be bothered with words anymore. We’re much more drawn towards images and video content than sitting and take the time to read through a book like Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady.

It was a hefty read to be sure. James even mentions himself in the introduction:

It is a long novel, and I was long in writing it.

Yet not only is it the length of the book itself that is time-consuming, but the very complicated, rambling language throughout. It’s like wading through mud: arduous and slow. Hah! But, that doesn’t mean I write this off as a bad read.

I’m just a 21st century copywriter. It’s not what I’m used to.

In a nutshell: we follow the life of a young American lady named Isabel, who is taken under the wing of her aunt Mrs Touchett. She is brought to England to stay shortly with her aunt, uncle and cousin, and is presently proposed to by two separate suitors. She rejects them both.

When Isabel’s uncle passes away, he leaves an alarming sum of money to his niece, and Isabel suddenly finds herself very rich. She goes travelling with her aunt across Europe, and decides to marry a man of humble means in Italy.

Alas – it’s a sad marriage. It turns out Mr Osmond marries her only for her money, and she becomes very unhappy.

Strangely, there’s no real happy ending or ending of any sort to this book! Isabel defies her cranky husband by returning to England to say goodbye to her dying cousin, and though she is certainly tempted to never return to him, she just does. She puts the expectations of others and what is right before her own happiness. It may also have to do with taking care of her husband’s daughter Pansy, who she promises not to leave.

There’s some lovely language in here at times, for example:

He pointed out to her so much of the baseness and shabbiness of life, opened her eyes so wide to the stupidity, the depravity, the ignorance of mankind, that she had been properly impressed with the infinite vulgarity of things and of the virtue of keeping oneself unspotted by it.

and

He comes and looks at one’s daughter as if she were a suite of apartments; he tries the door handles and looks out of the windows, raps on the walls and almost thinks he’ll take the place. Will you be so good as to draw up a lease? Then, on the whole, he decides that the rooms are too small; he doesn’t think he could live on a third floor; he must look out for a piano mobile… Miss Stackpole, however, is your most wonderful invention… Do you know what she reminds me of? Of a new steel pen – the most odious thing in nature. She talks as a steel pen; aren’t her letters, the the way; on rules paper? She thinks and moves and walks and looks exactly as she talks.

A long and pleasant read.

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