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Henry James' ‘Portrait Of A Lady’

A fresh take that finds a bridge out of the Victorian Age and a tough comment on American exceptionalism.

Henry James, by John Singer Sargent

Henry James, by John Singer Sargent

American exceptionalism is a hot topic again in this year’s presidential campaign.  Are we or are we not fundamentally different?  Uniquely able to make our own way in the world?  To master our own fates?  It’s not a new idea.  The great Henry James took it on in his novel Portrait of a Lady more than a century ago.

A novel bridging up out of the Victorian age, toward the modern.  With a woman at its heart.  Struggling to define her own life.  Meeting limits of history and human nature.

This hour, On Point:  American exceptionalism and Henry James “Portrait of a Lady.”

-Tom Ashbrook


Michael Gorra, professor of English at Smith College and author of Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece.

Susan Griffin, chair of the English department at the University of Louisville. She is editor of the Henry James Review and the author of Henry James Goes to the Movies.

From Tom’s Reading List

The Daily Beast “Is Henry James’s ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ the great American novel? Michael Gorra makes the case that even in Europe, Isabel Archer’s sense of her independence and exceptionalism—and its limits—reflected America’s own.”

The New Yorker “This is hardly the most American of starts, and certainly not the most American of sentiments; those readers, if canvassed, could have nominated a host of more agreeable experiences. The whole setup sounds suspiciously English; was it for this that Emerson, Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and others had founded the magazine, twenty-three years before? Suspicions are confirmed, as the tale unfurls; the setting is indeed an English lawn, rug-soft, on a waning summer’s day, and one of the tea-takers, to make matters worse, is an English lord.”

Huffington Post “It is not surprising that the choice puzzling most readers revolves around Isabel’s choice of a husband. To paraphrase Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged, at least by readers of fiction, that a young woman in possession of a fortune must be in want of a husband. Of course she has opinions about marriage — what heroine doesn’t? But this heroine is different: “The first on the list was a conviction of the vulgarity of thinking too much of it.””


This is the trailer for the 1996 film adaptation of Portrait of a Lady.

Text: Portrait of a Lady

Henry James. (1843–1916). The Portrait of a Lady.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Chapter I

UNDER certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. There are circumstances in which, whether you partake of the tea or not—some people of course never do—the situation is in itself delightful. Those that I have in mind in beginning to unfold this simple history offered an admirable setting to an innocent pastime. The implements of the little feast had been disposed upon the lawn of an old English country-house, in what I should call the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon. Part of the afternoon had waned, but much of it was left, and what was left was of the finest and rarest quality. Real dusk would not arrive for many hours; but the flood of summer light had begun to ebb, the air had grown mellow, the shadows were long upon the smooth, dense turf. They lengthened slowly, however, and the scene expressed that sense of leisure still to come which is perhaps the chief source of one’s enjoyment of such a scene at such an hour. From five o’clock to eight is on certain occasions a little eternity; but on such an occasion as this the interval could be only an eternity of pleasure. The persons concerned in it were taking their pleasure quietly, and they were not of the sex which is supposed to furnish the regular votaries of the ceremony I have mentioned. The shadows on the perfect lawn were straight and angular; they were the shadows of an old man sitting in a deep wickerchair near the low table on which the tea had been served, and of two younger men strolling to and fro, in desultory talk, in front of him. The old man had his cup in his hand; it was an unusually large cup, of a different pattern from the rest of the set, and painted in brilliant colours. He disposed of its contents with much circumspection, holding it for a long time close to his chin, with his face turned to the house. His companions had either finished their tea or were indifferent to their privilege; they smoked cigarettes as they continued to stroll. One of them, from time to time, as he passed, looked with a certain attention at the elder man, who, unconscious of observation, rested his eyes upon the rich red front of his dwelling. The house that rose beyond the lawn was a structure to repay such consideration, and was the most characteristic object in the peculiarly English picture I have attempted to sketch.

You can read the full text here.

Excerpt: Portrait of a Novel

Use the navigation bar at the bottom of this frame to reformat the excerpt to best suit your reading experience.

“Reprinted from Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece by Michael Gorra. Copyright © 2012 by Michael Gorra. With the permission of the Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company.”

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  • jacob_arnon

    Goodness, I hope you will discuss the book and not any movie or  video version of the book.

    Anyway, I don’t buy the Isabel Archer America analogy. In what way can a character who doesn’t return to her native land represent that country. 

    I’d sooner accept the view that Isabel Archer is a kind of modern day Diana the ancient goddess of the hunt (though in the book she is both hunter and hunted) than a stand in for the latest facile theory about what America is or is supposed to be.

    • JoshuaHendrickson

      The analogy may be forced and have no relationship with James’s intentions.  But all great art may be interpreted in innumerable ways, all more or less valid.  And the notion of American exceptionalism was certainly alive and well in the nineteenth century, and James damn well knew it.

      • jacob_arnon

        “But all great art may be interpreted in innumerable ways, all more or less valid. ”
        There are limits to the ways one can interpret even the richest most comprehensive text.

         “And the notion of American exceptionalism was certainly alive and well in the nineteenth century, and James damn well knew it.”

        “Exceptionalism” meant something different in James’ day that it came to mean after WW2.

        To James who did not think that America had produced any great art (except perhaps the writing of Hawthorne), exeptionalism meant that the US was still undeveloped culturally and artistically at the time he wrote The Portrait.

        A better James text for such a discussion is “The Golden Bowl” which contrasts the states of European and American culture. 

  • JoshuaHendrickson

    I just re-read Gore Vidal’s novel 1876.  The last time I read it was in 2000; believe me, the similarities between the way the Republicans stole the 1876 election and the way the Republicans stole the 2000 election haunted me with their sinister sense of history rhyming.

    But that’s all by the way.  Here’s my point:  in 1876, the main character, the fictional writer and illegitimate son of Aaron Burr, Charlie Schuyler, has a brief encounter with an unnamed writer who admires Schuyler’s critical essays on Turgenev and Flaubert, and who offers to send Schuyler a copy of his new novel before he heads off to Europe.  From these clues, I surmise that the unnamed writer is meant to be Henry James.  I don’t know much about James’s life, but I do know of his fondness for Flaubert and Turgenev (not to mention Vidal’s lifelong interest in the Master), and I strongly suspect that my guess is correct.

    This doesn’t have much connection with today’s show, but the coincidence (not unlike, though much less dramatic than, the 1876-2000 coincidence) leads me to mention it.  By the way, now that he’s dead (decidedly not “passed on”), wouldn’t it be a good idea to do a retrospective on Vidal, his literature and life?

  • TinaWrites

    None of us can be Free until All of us can be Free.  There is too much poverty in America for any of us to be Free.

    We are not exceptional, only tragically neglectful.  

  • J__o__h__n

    Tom, how well did the Bush administration’s making their own reality work out? 

  • Mouse_2012

    Connie sounds so fake and more like a robot

  • Mouse_2012

    So Great that Bush the 2nd was the primetime speaker at the 2012 RNC

  • Thinkin5

    So many “Americans” came from all around the world with their “exceptionalism”. They started that dream in another country and gifted America with their drive and talents. We are a lucky country to have home grown and imported exceptional people.

  • Thinkin5

    I wonder if Henry James’ dear friend Edith Wharton had a big influence on this book? 

  • Dick Johnson

    Visually impaired, I “listened” to Portrait recently–and came away stunned.  Stunned. Paradise Lost IS echoed (the world was all before them), but to watch this beautiful, intelligent, talented, sensitive heroine become entangled and lured and finally entrapped by her own choices, one after another, until she fiinally walks directly into the sinister webwork of a future that will strangle and kill her.  Great American novel?  I think.  Epic, like Milton.

  • Michele

    I think it is true that you have to go abroad to feel your own Americanism. Like the caller, I too studied and lived in Oxford.  I lived there for 2 years and assimilated in some ways quite well, but also felt apart.  There were times that where I felt quintessentially American (exuberant, emotive, openly curious).  There is a definite class system in place but I must admit that once outside the US it becomes painfully evident that we also have a class system.  There is more mobility but it exists.  In America people ask you where you went to school, in Europe they ask you who your father is.

    In many ways the difference can be measured in the management of expectations.  Who your family is and the advantages they’ve had will often inform what one can expect out of life.  In the States this is also the case but I noticed especially in England that many people don’t think they have options. 

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