Portrait of a Lady: Study of the Vague

I just finished The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James.  Is anyone out there a fan?

There’s a lot to like about it.  Some intriguing characters; some vexing quandaries.  But most of all, it’s pretty vague.  Henry James writes a lot about people sitting around, being.  They’re definitely not doing anything, especially in the first half of the book.  They’re only occasionally saying anything.  They’re not even always thinking anything specific.  The author goes on at length about the various characters’ . . . mode of being.  That’s the only way I can describe it.  If it sounds vague, it is.

I started reading this years ago.  I can’t remember whether I finished, but I figured I just didn’t get it.  Now I think there’s not so much to get.

Have you read it, or anything else by Henry James?  (I started The Wings of the Dove and ran into the same issue.)

I’m very happy to be linking up again finally with Jessica, the spiciest of housewives, for What We’re Reading Wednesday.

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10 thoughts on “Portrait of a Lady: Study of the Vague

  1. Ooh, I love Henry James and I have read quite a bit of his works. The Bostonians is probably my favorite of his. Regardless, he is not an author I would convince others to love, because, like you said, his narrative is so contemplative and yet the most major plot points are are dealt with so swiftly you miss them! I don’t always agree with his conclusions about humanity (I think he feels like especially women, not evil but good women, are far too susceptible to letting their lives be ruined over emotional hang-ups) but I do feel like he has an amazing perspective into human psychology. I believe he actually was a psychologist, or maybe his dad was? He also has a beautiful way of letting a story unfold (so slowly!) and of painting a thorough picture of the geographic and social landscape surrounding his characters.

    I recommend What Maisy Knew, a completely unique way of telling about love, divorce, deception, good and evil through the eyes of a child. Really fascinating, very short, and the story moves right along!

    • Rebekah, I think you have a future as a literary critic, I really do. I’m going to add WMK to my list, bc there is something I like about Henry James’ writing, especially if its not so long and slow.

  2. For some reason I feel as if I read this at your house, curled up downstairs in the basement, but I could be very wrong about that. I think I liked it because of the characters and, as you said it, the vexing quandaries that arise. I became aggravated by the relationships, but I believe the reader is supposed to. I actually found it to be quite a page turner, but you’re probably right … vague.

    ??? What am I even saying?

    • Ha. I think I did have a copy in the basement, which I subsequently gave away, only to replace just recently when it was “assigned” for book club. So yeah, you probably did read it at my house. In between writing letters. 😉

  3. I started to read it but only got a few chapters in when I decided to shelve it. Because I did not finish it I have no room to have an opinion, but it seemed like James was thoroughly impressed with his own writing and the characters were thoroughly impressed with themselves (especially Isabel). It’s no good for an author to tell you that someone is a remarkable person – they have to show you. Again, perhaps if I had read the whole novel I would feel differently. One opinion that I doubt would have changed, however, was regarding James’ style, which I found to be quite verbose (she said, after writing an entire paragraph)

  4. If you think that’s bad, it only gets worse as he gets older. There’s a whole short story about a haunted house where literally. nothing. happens. So I kind of like Portrait of a Lady in that context.

    And I remember in college preferring it to Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth.

    Oh, and there’s a fun story in Chesterton’s Autobiography about how he and Belloc crashed his party at his house. Or maybe it was his brother, William’s. But I think they were both there. Hil-arious.

    • The essay I linked to with the pictures says something about P of a L being written “early on, when his prose was still lucid and compact.” I read that and thought, “Lucid and compact, wha?” And I found Wharton hard to get through too, but I think most of her books are shorter at least. Not sure about that tho.

  5. I’m currently slogging through The Ambassadors. I hadn’t read any James since college (my dad, the English prof, always raved about P of a L but I don’t think I ever read the whole thing–shame on me, the English major). I think philosophy ran in that family (see the brother, William) and James’ writing seems very philosophical and analytical to me–like an opposite approach to Hemingway’s: whereas Hemingway was radically brief, concentrating on actions and cryptic words and leaving almost everything else under the surface, James seems to analyze everything that’s under the surface in such minute detail that it’s hard to track the actual action. At least that’s my take so far. But boy, can he write a shockingly beautiful phrase!

    • I read hemmingway years ago … Late teens maybe. Didn’t understand it at all. I want to go back and read him now and compare him to James. Also, my legal training has given me a strong preference for clear concise writing. That makes it harder for me to enjoy James’ prose but maybe I’ll enjoy hemmingway more the second time around.

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