Such Constant Attention: Some initial thoughts on The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

William Gass astutely describes the literary style of Henry James, “If any of us were as well taken care of as the sentences of Henry James, we would never long for another, never wander away; where else would we receive such constant attention, our thoughts anticipated, our feelings understood?”   As I was struggling to decide which title on my list of  epic books to read first, I opened up a few of them and read a paragraph or two.  After reading only a page of The Portrait of a Lady I knew exactly what Gass was talking about. That’s not to say that some of the other books on my list didn’t appeal, but the language of  The Portrait of a Lady struck me as so  meticulous and precise that I was immediately drawn in:

Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony know 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.

I also noticed, and was delighted by, James’s droll sense of humor.  Mr. and Mrs. Touchett, ex-pats from the United States,  have been married for many years, most of which they have lived apart.  It is clear that the couple has not had a successful or happy marriage, and Mrs. Touchett’s reasons for not staying in London with her husband are trite and hilarious:

Mrs. Touchett indulged in no regrets nor speculations, and usually came once a year to spend a month with her husband, a period during which she apparently took pains to convince him that she had adopted the right system.  She was not fond of the English style of life, and had three or four reasons for it to which she currently alluded;  they bore upon minor points of that ancient order, but for Mrs. Touchett they amply justified non-residence.  She detested bread-sauce, which, as she said, looked like a poultice and tasted like soap; she objected to the consumption of beer by her maidservants; and she affirmed that the British laundress (Mrs. Touchett was very particular about the appearance of her linen) was not a mistress of her art.

These seem like rather trivial reasons to reject living in a country.  I have to admit that, although I’ve never heard of or had bread-sauce, after looking at photos and recipes it does seem rather unappetizing.

Finally, James’s contrast of American versus British customs, attitudes and characters I found most compelling.  He often lingers on the habits, speech and physiognomy of his American characters.  My impression, so far, is that the English are traditional, reserved, quiet, and, perhaps, a bit uptight.  The Americans, especially in the form of the heroine Isabel Archer, possess a great deal more candor, are less interested in social classes, and, in general, are a bit more carefree.  Isabel, who has been brought to London from New York by her Aunt Touchett after the death of her parents,  is intelligent, speaks on a variety of interesting topics, is well-read, and English men like Lord Warburton, when they first encounter Isabel,  find her more appealing than her British counterparts:  “Lord Warburton was left standing with Ralph Touchett, to whom in a moment he said: ‘You wished a while ago to see my idea of an interesting woman.  There it is!'”

On a rather tangential note, I visited the Frederic Malle store in Manhattan and had the chance to sample his famous Portrait of a Lady scent.  It is spicy, sensual and exotically intriguing.  It is unclear whether or not the scent was inspired by James’s novel or character, but the description of the scent, I think, can be equally applied to what I already know about Isabel: “A rare symphonic perfume appeared: a new oriental rose, a sensuous beauty that attracts people like a magnet, a modern classic: Portrait of a Lady.”



Filed under Classics, Literary Fiction

26 responses to “Such Constant Attention: Some initial thoughts on The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

  1. Such a lovely introductory comment on style at the beginning of your post, Melissa. I’ve not got on very well with James in the past – I prefer Edith Wharton – but perhaps I should try again.

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  2. Each sentence is beautifully crafted. I reread this a few years ago, and it took my breath away again. I’d need to think again about the portrayal of the old world v the new; I don’t think it’s quite as clear-cut as you suggest, though it’s true the most decadent and corrupt characters tend to be European. But the Americans aren’t always as candid and innocent in James as they at first appear. Besides, candour can lapse into ingenuousness without the influence of a little decadence…

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  3. The only James I’ve read is The Aspern Papers which I liked very much (it was pre blog I think). His style is not one which can be read quickly but that’s no bad thing. And bread-sauce is the Devil’s work…..

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  4. The most decadent and corrupt – the most dangerous – characters in James are Americans who have become Europeans.

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  5. I don’t disagree with Tom; not all the European characters are corrupt, and the Americans aren’t all innocents- there are hybrids, as he suggests, and these are dangerous. And then there are Bostonians v. New Yorkers, and mid-westerners, etc. Romans aren’t the same as Londoners or Parisians – and there’s variety in each.


  6. Thank you for such a lovely reminder for a book that I could happily pick up and read again. Oh for more reading hours in the day …


  7. Good choice! I’ll be interested to see your thoughts as you go along. This is one of my favorite novels, and I’d say it’s Henry James at his most limpid style before he moved into the later phase of dense qualifications—maybe still precise but less easily so. From your list of possible reads, it looks like you have a great summer of reading ahead.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve become a bit obsessed with James just after the first half of this book. I’ve ordered his letters and literary criticism books to read too.


    • Not to cause any extra anxiety, but The Portrait of a Lady is both an example of the “most limpid style” and an example of the “later phase of dense qualification.” It depends on which version you are reading, the 1881 version or the 1908 version. James heavily rewrote his own novel for a collected edition, and at least in passages some of the changes are big.

      So maybe your next James novel should be whichever version of Portrait you are not reading now. I did not read both myself, but I was tempted, and have sworn that when I read the novel again, it will be the other one.

      I mean, since you have become a bit obsessed, I knew you would rather know than not know. I think I have more posts about Henry James than about any other writer. It is a rewarding obsession.


      • I do have the revised version with an intro by James himself. I am also eager to read his essays(especially his thoughts on Middlemarch) and his letters.


  8. Ali

    I love this post and look forward to your additional insights on this book. It’s such a favorite of mine! I do think James is one of those writers who requires careful attention to what he writes. (I also think George Eliot is another but in a different way though I can’t pinpoint why.) I have also read Washington Square. I got quite a bit of the way through The Ambassadors before abandoning it, and I am partway through The Golden Bowl, which I will finish at some point.

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    • I’m very curious why you abandoned The Ambassadors? I’m not sure which of his novels to read next.


      • Ali

        I think I just sort of lost interest. James felt it was his best novel, but I got a bit bored. I will probably pick it back up at some point. Similar to my experience of The Golden Bowl, there were pages where I understood very little–or only got the gist of what was going on!

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  9. jamescraigvickers

    I love the William Gass quote. I haven’t read Portrait of a Lady in years but every once in a while I will pick it up and read those wonderful first few paragraphs. (Cue aesthetic swoon). I read The Ambassadors a few months ago and loved it. The style is a little more dense but I found it was worth the effort. And I thought it slyly humorous as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. alilauren1970

    I just saw in one of your replies that you ordered James’s criticism and his letters. I own his collections of letters so I will be interested to read what you think if you post. I now want to order his criticism. I own Portrait, Washington Square, The Princess Casamassima, The Golden Bowl, The Wings of a Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl. He’s one of the authors whose many books I own. (George Eliot, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf are others.) Anyway, great post again–and I love all the comments!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for the recommendations. I, too, love Eliot and Woolf. I think what’s kept me from James is a mediocre reading experience of his short stories when I was younger. Glad I’ve given his longer novels a chance.


  11. I have read this book years ago, and I remember loving it. James’ writing style seems to be a point of contention among readers, but I like it. Thank you for this introductory post, it made me want to reread Portrait of a Lady 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Diana @ Thoughts on Papyrus

    Thought-provoking post. I especially liked how you point out that the novel contrasts American and British customs and attitudes. Madame Merle says in the novel how the English rain “never wets you”, and “there is always a little of it and never too much at once”. It is particularly fascinating to read such acute observations.

    Liked by 1 person

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