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The Portrait of a Lady | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Portrait of a Lady | Context


The British Nobility and Land Ownership

Being born the eldest son of a British nobleman meant a man would inherit, upon his father's death, the family land, property, title, and a seat in the House of Lords, one of the two branches of Britain's parliament. It is into this privilege that The Portrait of a Lady's Lord Warburton has been born. Lord Warburton's 50,000 acres would be rented to tenants who farmed it, creating a lavish income.

At the end of the 19th century, there were calls to reform the peerage system that governed who could sit in the House of Lords and for how long. In fact, there were efforts in the other branch of parliament, the House of Commons, in 1886 and 1888 to change the laws entitling the nobility to automatic seats based merely on heredity. Questioning the wealth and political power given to the nobility simply based on birth was a radical position to take, especially for someone like Lord Warburton who benefited from it so greatly. However, his guilt over the disproportionate share he enjoys reflects the growing sense of resentment of the aristocracy (particularly with regard to their land ownership), a desire for a more democratic government, and what James regretted as a decline of the empire.

The Writing of the Novel

In 1875 James moved to Paris and lived most of his adult life as an expatriate, largely in England. He published many of his best-known works here, including Daisy Miller and The Europeans (1878). These works focus on the contrast between the optimism and individualism of American characters set against the "Old World" of European society. James traveled in the best circles, frequently dining with nobility and other famous authors, which gave him opportunities to observe European aristocrats. He admired the sense of social responsibility he observed in the English nobility. The intimate knowledge he gained of British culture, society, and personality became increasingly central to his work. The best-known novel of his early career, The Portrait of a Lady, records a British social structure quickly fading from existence, much to James's dismay. James began writing the novel while visiting Florence, Italy, the setting where the characters of Isabel and Gilbert Osmond have their fateful introduction.

The Portrait of a Lady was first published serially in MacMillan's Magazine and the Atlantic Monthly from October 1880 to December 1881, and Houghton, Mifflin & Co. published the novel in late 1881. James revised the novel and wrote the preface for a collection of his work, published by Charles Scribner's Sons (New York) in 1908. In the 1908 revision, James focuses the novel even more narrowly on the inner life of Isabel Archer, infusing the novel with the concerns of his later works, including sexuality and psychological realism, essentially transforming what had been a Victorian novel into a modernist one.

As James progressed as a writer, he depended less and less on plot, and he became increasingly interested in the psychology and personality of his characters. In this, he was influenced by Ivan Turgenev, a Russian author primarily interested in character rather than narrative. In The Portrait of a Lady, James focuses entirely on the main character, creating everything else—the plot, the supporting characters, the setting—from his idea of who she is. He called the novel "an ado about Isabel Archer."

The novel's enduring place in the American literary canon is a testament to the writing and perhaps to the tragic figure of Isabel Archer herself. The novel was made into a television series by the BBC in 1968 and more recently a film starring Nicole Kidman and John Malkovich in 1996.

The New Woman

The "New Woman" was a term used to describe women in the late Victorian age who rejected the conventional gender roles assigned to them by society at the time. This was part of the early feminist movement, which would eventually become subsumed by the women's suffrage movement—defined by women campaigning for the right to vote and run for office. Women who wanted to be independent challenged Victorian ideals of womanhood and refused to be forced into marriage and motherhood, choosing careers and independence instead. Often represented by artists at the time as a young woman with a bicycle, symbolizing her ability to transport herself under her own power as well as her control of her own body, the New Woman exercised self-determination, choosing her own path.

The character of Henrietta is just this sort of woman. She has her own job, makes her own plans, travels alone, and freely expresses her opinions. She doesn't need a man to take care of her, and she would not be satisfied to sit at home and take care of a family. She is referred to as a "female correspondent," which means a woman who is a journalist, and the fact that there is a term for her career identity points to the growing number of female writers entering the field and other lines of work.

Transatlantic Fiction

Henry James wrote The Portrait of a Lady during the Gilded Age, a time of economic prosperity after the Civil War. At this time it became more common for Americans to travel overseas, creating a marked increase in tourism in Europe. James explores the contrast between American and European values, customs, and traditions by featuring American main characters traveling in Europe in many of his novels and stories, including The Portrait of a Lady, Daisy Miller, and The Ambassadors (1903). He himself was an expatriate, living in Europe most of his adult life, finally becoming a British citizen the year before his death. His transatlantic fiction, fiction which focuses on American characters traveling and living abroad, influenced the next generation of expatriate American writers who explored similar themes. His influence extended to Ezra Pound and Edith Wharton, but also the group of writers known as the Lost Generation who wrote after World War I in Paris. These writers included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Hemingway.

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