Lord Warburton

It’s a funny thing…I thought Portrait of a Lady was one of my favorite novels, but I started reading it again for the tenth time or whatever it is and discovered that…it’s not any more.


There’s less to it than I’d remembered. It’s just endless wandering around Gardencourt talking in a desultory way, and then Osmond and lots of baroque but boring plotty stuff and an annoying end. I’ve never liked the baroque plotty stuff after she marries Osmond, but I thought up through the fireside scene, where she reflects on the marriage and the awfulness of Osmond, was great stuff. Now I don’t. The fireside scene still is, but the hundreds of pages that lead up to it – meh.

Nobody does anything. They’re all rentiers. Mr Touchett was a banker, but he’s not any more, and no one else is anything. Henrietta is supposed to be a journalist, but she’s a funny kind of journalist – she writes stuff about staying in country houses – in other words she’s Henry James. That’s not journalism. Caspar Goodwood does working, but he’s offstage almost the whole time. Everybody else – bupkis. They don’t even do intellectual stuff with all that nice leisure. They just stroll up and down, and chat.

Isabel is supposed to be so great, but all she does is decline one suitor then decline another suitor then accept a third. That’s not doing anything. You could say the same of Jane Austen novels, but they’re much shorter and tighter than this one, and in a way the protagonists do do more than Isabel does. Plus it’s almost a century later – Isabel has less reason to do nothing.

It’s as if the whole subject is living in one big house or another, and who marries whom. There’s no world. There’s no action, no real thinking (apart from the fireside scene, and that is still all about The Marriage), no learning, no work, no real effort…

It seems empty now.

I get more and more ruthless about fiction all the time. It’s strange.


  1. Gretchen Robinson says

    Give me Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. That was radical at the time, walking out on her suffocating marriage where she was playing house with her sanctimonious, controlling husband.
    In a feminist class in college we had to write a synopsis and make up an extra scene of what she did after leaving and going on her own.

  2. says

    Or Middlemarch, with another marriage in which the woman is delusional about the man but in which they are both doing something, as are the other characters, most of whom do not have big country houses and bales of cash.

  3. Stacy says

    I don’t like Henry James.

    As somebody once said, he chewed more than he bit off.*

    * Either Mark Twain or Peter de Vries, or possibly William James (!) or Mrs. Henry Adams. Whoever said it, I love them.

  4. carlie says

    I haven’t gotten around to reading it before – is it supposed to be a statement on the idleness of the rich, or a statement on how women weren’t allowed to do anything, or is it just bad?

    Gretchen – Ibsen is my favorite playwright.

  5. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    I read it in college and all I can remember is that, at one point, Henry James spent 3 or 4 pages describing, in great detail, a spiderweb on the ceiling.

  6. thephilosophicalprimate says

    Some wag once quipped that William James was the better writer, and Henry the better philosopher. I’m inclined to agree.

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