Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Isabel Archer: Friend or Foe? (Book Review of "The Portrait of a Lady"

Book Review: "The Portrait of a Lady" by Henry James (American novelist), published 1881

Henry James succeeds in ushering our frustration with Isabel Archer from shortly after we met her, to the very end. His book ends rather too-life like, without resolution, without hope for the future, leaving the reader’s understanding of Isabel "in air". Or, as he says in his notes "en l’air".*

Isabel seems like the perfect heroine. She is poised, intelligent, beautiful, admirable, or so everyone tells us. But her actions and her own words hardly reinforce this view of her. In her own words, her thoughts are small and limited, and yet everyone observes that her ideas have no bound. So who is right? Unfortunately, author Henry James never helped us determine the answer.

This is the third time I've read about Miss Archer. I say Miss Archer for to me she will always be that. Mrs. Osmond, as she later evolved to be, seemed always to be a wrong note in my ear. Miss Archer has potential, opportunity, and adventure in her name. Mrs. Osmond is a trapped, sad, conventional woman. I suppose the true tragedy of this book is that our heroine was in fact both women simultaneously. Perhaps Henry James understood women better than I thought when he poignantly portrayed a woman’s double nature. Her double reality. Her double experience. How many of us are both Miss Archer and Mrs. Osmond? How many of us have unlimited potential that we steadfastly keep under lock and key? Why do we do this? Is it because we do not know our heart? James didn’t think so. It seemed that Isabel (for now we must admit she is both women), clearly knew her heart. Sure, she fell victim at times but she clearly knew what she wanted when she wanted it. I will not pretend to understand what it was she wanted. Three readings of this novel still leave me in the dark. It seems that most of her friends, perhaps all of her friends in the story also never really knew what she wanted. That was little matter to Isabel. In this she never wavered.

So why did Isabel put duty or pride above her freer nature? Was it that so much freedom was too much for her? She hinted at such when she dismayed that she was given such a large fortune by her uncle and it seemed right to her that rather than keep it for herself, she find a poor gentleman (the vile Mr. Osmond) to bequeath it too. She was unsettled in her freedom and found it wanting. She thought that a quiet, settled life as the wife of a gentleman was better, why? I am left with many questions about this heroine.

I would love to know your thoughts. Perhaps if I come to understand her, I shall see myself in a clearer light.

Looking for more?
1. From an essay by Patricia Rohrer, Teachers College, Columbia
“Something terribly human yet terribly flawed about the project of Isabel Archer, the heroine of Henry James' Portrait of a Lady, has always drawn me to this story of one individual's quest for a meaningful life. A spirited and intelligent young woman, Isabel unexpectedly inherits a fortune, freeing her particularly from the need to marry. Defying convention, as well as the aid and advice of her closest friends, Isabel pursues her dream of an "original" life with cool, confident independence.” Continue reading…

2. There is a 1996 movie version of The Portrait of a Lady, starring Nicole Kidman. I haven’t been able to locate a copy but it is directed by Jane Campion who is also the director of The Piano.

3. Pick up your own copy of "The Portrait of a Lady" by Henry James.

*Henry James, “The Portrait of a Lady”. Penguin Classics Edition, 1984 (original printing 1881), Appendix “From the Notebooks of Henry James”, p. 640

About the author: Allison Frederick is a writer and online marketing educator for other creative women. offers free Web 2.0 resources. She is also the author of an upcoming novel, A Portrait of Josephine, an academic-lite thriller. Find out how to receive a free copy of the novel by visiting

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