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The Portrait of a Lady

Henry James
Further Study


Further Study Context

Henry James was born in New York City in 1843 and was raised in Manhattan. James's father, a prominent intellectual and social theorist, traveled a great deal to Geneva, Paris, and London, so Henry and his brother, William, accompanied him and virtually grew up in those locations as well. As a child, James was shy, delicate, and had a difficult time mixing with other boys—his brother, who was much more active, called him a sissy. William James, of course, went on to become a great American philosopher, while Henry became one of the nation's preeminent novelists.

The James family moved to Boston when Henry was a teenager, and Henry briefly attended Harvard Law School. But he soon dropped out in order to concentrate on his writing. He found success early and often: William Dean Howells, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, befriended the young writer, and by his mid- twenties James was considered one of the most skilled writers in America. In novels such as The American,The Europeans, and Daisy Miller, James perfected a unique brand of psychological realism, taking as his primary subject the social maneuverings of the upper classes, particularly the situation of Americans living in Europe. For James, America represented optimism and innocence, while Europe represented decadence and social sophistication; James himself moved to Europe early on in his professional career and was naturalized as a British citizen in 1915 to protest America's failure to enter World War I.

Throughout his career, James earned criticism for the slow pacing and uneventful plotting of his novels, as well as for his elliptical technique, in which many of a work's important scenes are not narrated, but only implied by later scenes. But as a stylist James earned consistent admiration; he is often considered to be a "writer's writer," and his prose is remarkable for its elegance of balance, clarity, and precision.

First written in the 1880s and extensively revised in 1908, The Portrait of a Lady is often considered to be James's greatest achievement. In it, he explored many of his most characteristic themes, including the conflict between American individualism and European social custom and the situation of Americans in Europe. It also includes many of his most memorable characters, including the lady of the novel's title, Isabel Archer, the indomitable Mrs. Touchett, the wise and funny Ralph Touchett, the fast-talking Henrietta Stackpole, and the sinister villains, Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle.

While he was a dedicated observer of human beings in society, James was a socially distant man who formed few close friendships. He never married and openly claimed to practice celibacy. Perhaps this gave him time to write: in four decades of his writing career, he produced nearly 100 books, including such classics as The Golden Bowl,The Wings of the Dove, and the immortal ghost story "The Turn of the Screw." He died on February 28, 1916, shortly after receiving the English Order of Merit for his dedication to the British cause in World War I.

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