“The Portrait of a Lady” by Henry James

An excellent portrait of a modern woman’s woe.

Yes, Henry James wrote “The Portrait of a Lady” almost one hundred and fifty years ago. Still, when I was reading it, the thought that Isabel Archer could live in the 21st century and make the same mistakes, absolutely refused to leave me.

The novel, regarded by critics as the author’s finest one, follows a young American girl, Isabel Archer, whose fate has made an abrupt leap and placed her among the aristocracy of Europe.

The book is what in modern terms is considered “slow-paced”. I personally don’t like this definition. I like to get immersed into the lives and musings of the characters, even if because of that it takes longer to read their story. The book is perfect for the colder evenings when you don’t have to rush anywhere, but instead, can be at leisure to imagine the subdued elegance of the English countryside and the bright colours of Italian Toscana.

It struck me how deeply prophetic Isabel’s story felt from the woman emancipation point of view. She seemed to be ruled by the same prejudices and generalizations that are popular in our society nowadays. She was determined not to make “trivial” decisions. She considered it “trivial” to marry the English lord, as well as to become a wife of an American businessman. It seems that her system of coordinates failed somewhere along the bumpy road with signs “I won’t be like all those other silly ladies”.

When I was reading, the most popular catchphrase from the iconic play by Alexander Griboyedov repeated in my head – “woe from wit” (“wit” with a meaning of “mind” in this case). I couldn’t shake off the feeling that Isabel has inflicted the tragedy of her life on herself with her own hands. Just like so many modern women do, ruled by the ideas you are supposed to adopt if you want to be considered smart and progressive.

“The right time is any time that one is still so lucky as to have,” is one of Henry James’ most popular quotes. I think it applies to Isabel’s story as well.

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