Personal Best: The Portrait of a Lady

"The Portrait of a Lady" by Henry James

By Jeffrey Eugenides
Published September 30, 1996 9:37AM (EDT)

the first time I read "The Portrait of a Lady" was under duress. Our English teacher, Mr. Linder -- a guy who jogged afternoons literally shouting out, "mens sana in corpore sano!" -- assigned it in the fall of 1976. Our class divided in a clean gender split: the girls loved it; the boys, myself included, gagged all the way through.

In graduate school, I read "The Portrait" again, and fell out of my malodorous thriftstore armchair. This time through, the book bore no relation to the one I'd so masterfully misread seven years earlier. Not only did the writing now strike me as charming and elegant, but the book's action, which had seemed so quiet and repressed before, revealed itself as passionate and gripping. The Ciceronian sweep of James' sentences got me on a musical, emotional level; and the information they so beautifully delivered gave me a sentimental education, as well as a lesson in subtlety and restraint. "The Portrait," if you haven't read it, is about a young, headstrong woman, Isabel Archer, who's beset by a band of suitors. Her cousin, Ralph Touchett, dying of tuberculosis, secretly gives her an inheritance so that she can remain independent and fulfill a grand destiny. The fortune only succeeds in enabling her to make the wrong choice, however, and Ralph dies knowing this, and it kills me every time. The plotting is magnificent. Someone's always appearing from behind a tree with a marriage proposal; some noble person is always perishing with high style, and none of this seems contrived or stock because of James' skill at rendering the complexities and shadings of thought. The book's like an opera for me now: I know what's going to happen; I just want to feel it again.

Each time, I feel it more deeply. The last time I read the book was two years ago. I'd lived in New York for eight years by then when, suddenly, in the bright mirror of the novel's characters, I began to make out their contemporary equivalents: Certain fierce-minded, wonderful, flawed young women I knew reminded me of Isabel Archer. Various creepy, loathsome Gilbert Osmonds exhibited their fine taste in Soho lofts. And, as always, I felt like Ralph Touchett, watching from the sidelines, hands thrust into pockets, my ironical distance, as James says of Ralph, "like a spray of flowers niched in his ruin."

The book is important for literary historical reasons, too. It stole the flame of the psychological novel from Europe and lit the way to the modernist exploration of consciousness. There's a favorite passage of mine: "There was a covered piazza behind it, furnished with a swing, which was a source of tremulous interest; and beyond this was a long garden, sloping down to a stable, and containing certain capital peach-trees. Isabel stayed with her grandmother at various seasons; but, somehow, all her visits had the flavour of peaches."

Those peach trees lead directly to Proust's madeleine. And the sense described comes close to how I feel about the book myself, reading it in my different seasons: peaches every time.

The book never exhausts itself; it exhausts me.

Jeffrey Eugenides

Jeffrey Eugenides is the author of the novels "The Virgin Suicides," "Middlesex" and "The Marriage Plot"

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