***Group Read: The Portrait of a Lady, Chapters 1-11

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***Group Read: The Portrait of a Lady, Chapters 1-11

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Bearbeitet: Mrz. 18, 2011, 10:10am

And we're off!
The general group read thread is here.

As reference, here's a link to the Sparknotes for this book. Plot summaries and Analysis are available for groupings of 3-4 chapters. Below is an excerpt from the Analysis of Chapters 1-3:
The opening sentence of Portrait of a Lady may not be the most exciting in all of literature ("Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea"), but the novel's opening perfectly prepares the reader for the development of the novel's main themes.

The main theme of Portrait of a Lady is the conflict between individualism (represented here by Isabel Archer's "independence") and social custom. The novel begins with the ultimate social custom, the English tea ceremony, set amid a genteel landscape populated by good-natured, affectionate members of the high upper classes. This well-ordered and familiar scene, which has obviously been acted out by the three men involved a hundred times before, is then disturbed by the appearance of Isabel, who arrives amid a chaos of barking dogs and ruffled expectations. At once, Isabel is at odds with the calm traditions of social convention, and the novel's thematic exploration is off to a strong start.


It is also important to note that Portrait of a Lady is set almost entirely among a group of Americans who live in Europe, and the novel's most significant secondary theme is the contrast between the idea of Europe and the idea of America, and how those ideas are negotiated in the minds of the expatriated Americans. In a very general sense, James uses the idea of America to represent innocence, individualism, optimism, and action, while Europe tends to represent sophistication, social convention, decadence, and tradition.

Does this analysis ring true for you?
What are your impressions of the book so far?

Mrz. 15, 2011, 12:02pm

I think it rings true so far for the most part; although, I haven't noticed any European decadence yet. I thought the introduction of Miss Stackpole kind of jarred the relationships of the others. I like the character of Isabel and the dad Daniel Touchett. I am really enjoying this read so far.

Mrz. 15, 2011, 5:49pm

I just finished the first eleven chapters. I was struck by how fast the reading went. I expected to get lost in Henry James's convoluted sentences, but I didn't find that the case at all.

I love how you've started us off, Laura. I laughed when I read this:

The opening sentence of Portrait of a Lady may not be the most exciting in all of literature....

I'm a big note taker on books of this size, especially since I'm going to be traveling and listening to part of it on CD and mixing it up with other reading, etc. My first phrase is: LOVED the garden tea, what a pleasant and tranquil beginning...

I think I am ready for a book like this. Maybe that's why I zoomed through the first bit so quickly. That, and the fact that I have a million things to do to get ready for my trip to Texas on Thursday, including finishing my other book so I can take it back to the library.

I'm enjoying the book too, BJ. Some of my other first impressions...

H. James has spared no detail in describing Isabel Archer. I liked the meeting between her and "Crazy Aunt Lydia." These two seem alike in many ways; it's no wonder they "clicked." I also liked her BIL's quip -- "Isabel is written in a foreign tongue."

The Touchetts may have been long-time residents of England, but Mr. T. remained fully American..."Mr. Touchett had made himself thoroughly comfortable in England, but he had never attempted to pitch his thoughts in the English key."

I also loved this line when Isabel wanted to stay up late visiting with cousin Ralph and Lord Warburton and Mrs. T. had to remind her, "You are not at Albany, my dear."

Like BJ, I thought Henrietta Stackpole shook things up with her visit. She was the epitome of the independent woman who works for a living and wasn't shy about saying what she thought. It was a riot when she told Ralph he should return to America and get a job. The misunderstanding about marriage was humorous as well.

I think Ralph might be my favorite character thus far. I loved the closeness between him and his father. What a poignant scene when he was thinking that he would like to die first because he couldn't stand it without his father's influence in his life. I know just enough about Henry James to see some similarities to Ralph. They both had poor health, were expatriates in England, and both of them had a wisdom about people based on their keen observations.

Bearbeitet: Mrz. 16, 2011, 5:13pm

Donna, I'm so glad you're taking notes! Love your impressions.
I use page flags and marked chapters 1-11 with reckless abandon. I like this description of Isabel:
Whether or not she were superior, people were right in admiring her if they thought her so; for it seemed to her often that her mind moved more quickly than theirs, and this encouraged an impatience that might easily be confounded with superiority. It may be affirmed without delay that Isabel was probably very liable to the sin of self-esteem; she often surveyed with complacency the field of her own nature; she was in the habit of taking for granted, on scanty evidence, that she was right; she treated herself to occasions of homage.

And this from Mr. T. was a wonderful point of view of an American living in England:
I've been watching these people for upwards of thirty-five years, and I don't hesitate to say that I've acquired considerable information. It's a very fine country on the whole-- finer perhaps than we give it credit for on the other side. There are several improvements I should like to see introduced; but the necessity of them doesn't seem to be generally felt as yet.

And Miss Stackpole struck me as the stereotypical brash American, full of their own opinions and not taking time to objectively assess another culture. She is the antithesis of Mr. T. BJ, I agree she "jarred" !

Bearbeitet: Mrz. 16, 2011, 7:34pm

Like earlier posters, I'm loving this book. James has such a dreadful reputation for labyrinthine sentences that I was a wee bit scared, but once I slid into the book, it just moved as smoothly as river.

A couple of quotes I liked: "Isabel had stayed with her grandmother at various seasons, but somehow all her visits had a flavor of peaches." p. 18 in my edition. I knew exactly what he meant; I thought it a perfect sentence.

Another that may be apt for our group:

"Her reputation of reading a great deal hung about her like the cloudy emvelope of a goddess in an epic; it was supposed to engender difficult questions and to keep conversation at a low temperature." p. 27 Kind of depressingly current, that one.

I do agree about the two themes, but one thing seemed very ominous to me, especially since I just finished up Washington Square by the same author: Crazy Aunt Lydia confides in her son and tells him that she's not being completely altruistic here; she has the ulterior motive of being sort of helped to make her own path in society with the aid of a pretty niece. Also, she makes it pretty clear that she's manipulated Isabel a bit, both by pointing out how bored she (I.) is, and by fudging a bit about who is paying for what. I fear this doesn't bode well.

Mrz. 16, 2011, 9:04pm

>5 bohemima:: James has such a dreadful reputation for labyrinthine sentences.
Writing the quotes in #4 I realized how liberally he used the semicolon to string together those labyrinthine sentences. Somehow that helps because I read them like mini-sentences.

Mrz. 16, 2011, 10:41pm

I don't really care for the aunt. She seems kind of cold to me.

Mrz. 18, 2011, 9:54am

I started this today on the treadmill and read for about a half hour, and I barely got through the introduction!!!
Hopefully I will begin the ACTUAL book shortly, and I'm glad to hear it's not as dry as the intro. I read the whole thing, but I'm not sure I caught more than 50% of the meaning.

Mrz. 18, 2011, 10:08am

>8 BookAngel_a:: Angela, I couldn't stomach the intro and skipped it. I'm enjoying the book !

Mrz. 18, 2011, 12:52pm

The book itself is so much better than the intro. Thank goodness!

Mrz. 18, 2011, 12:53pm

10 - And just think, BJ...we can handle Proust, but we can't handle Henry James' introduction! That's certainly saying a lot. ;)

Mrz. 18, 2011, 1:52pm

I have now read the first 11 chapter chunk and am enjoying it so far. I skipped the preface altogether.

Preliminary thoughts: it's too early for me to really see the sharp distinctions between the idea of England and the idea of America. I am not sure, for example, whether the Touchetts will turn out to be more English or more American, and how that will play out--they seem to be positioned in the middle of the two worlds. Likewise Isabel's father seems to me to have had more the air of the "decadent" European, and not to have conformed to American expectations (maybe this is evidence of a degree of "Europeanness" about him--the family traveled a lot, the girls occasionally went to French schools, etc.)

I was surprised by some very funny moments. Of Isabel's father: "while they had recognised in the late Mr. Archer a remarkably handsome head and a very taking manner (indeed, as one of them had said, he was always taking something." And, discussing Isabel, her older sister says she would like to give Isabel a chance to develop, and her brother-in-law replies "Oh Moses!... I hope she isn't going to develop any more!"

I have also noted a couple of instances of what appears as hypocrisy or double standard. The discussion of whether Lord Warburton is sincere in his radicalism, and his sisters' shock and consternation at the idea that they would give up their estate, suggests insincerity. (i found this conversation very funny.) And Isabel's discussion with Henrietta about privacy, and whether it applies to others or only to herself, seemed to point to a similar disconnect.

Isabel's own aspirations seem to underline this as a possible theme-- "such contradictions would never be noted in her own conduct. Her life should always be in harmony with the most pleasing impression she should produce; she would be what she appeared, and she would appear what she was." She yearns for difficulty to present itself so she can act with great heroism. I am thinking Isabel needs to be careful what she wishes for!

And I too loved the peacefulness of the opening sentence.

I am not finding James' sentences to be that difficult to read, but my goodness his paragraphs are endless!

Mrz. 18, 2011, 2:32pm

Anne, I agree that Isabel needs to be careful what she wishes for!

I also think Mr. Touchett is between both worlds, but I still like him. He seems really tolerant of his wife, who only spends a month out of each year with him. Maybe down the road a little, we will get more info about their relationship.

And the more I read, the more I like Ralph, too, Donna!

Angela, I think Proust much easier to follow than that preface! At the end of reading it, I told my husband, "I have no idea what I just read."

Bearbeitet: Mrz. 19, 2011, 11:12pm

My decidedly un-scholarly impressions so far:

Mr. Touchett seems like a likeable old chap and Ralph's close relationship with his father is very touching, though I'm not sure at this point whether he (Ralph) has much of a personality of his own.

Isabel seems quite full of herself. I'm not sure (because I can't recall already) how old she's supposed to be. If in her early 20s, then I guess that's to be expected in some cases. If older, then I'm not sure I like her all that much.

And Henrietta!!! I want to strangle her. Absolutely strangle her. She's insufferable. Even by modern standards, she's incredibly rude, isn't she? Something tells me she enjoys putting people on the spot. Who is she anyway to make all those pronouncements about everyone? She makes me think of a teenager who's just discovered a new concept and sees everything and everyone through just one narrow point of view.

I'm not having any trouble with James' long sentences. Hadn't noticed they were long, actually. Maybe because I tend to be long-wided myself? Didn't bother with the preface though, because I tried reading his intro in The Turn of the Screw and the Aspern Papers AFTER I'd read the book and found he made no sense whatsoever, which is when I decided that his fiction was probably his stronger suit.

ETA: sorry about the spoilers that were contained herein. I honestly hadn't noticed I had read well past the 11th chapter. Won't happen again (hopefully!)

Mrz. 19, 2011, 11:18am

For some reason, I kind of think of Henrietta as sort of paparazzi. She is talking with people ultimately to get a story for her job. So she pushes the envelope. I don't really like her either. She is also presumptuous with her friends.

Mrz. 19, 2011, 11:13pm

Re #14: I'll go copy/paste the offending bit into the next spoiler thread. Apologies to anyone if I've spoiled anything.

Mrz. 23, 2011, 11:39am

I just finished the first 12 chapters, came here, and re-read all of your comments.

Thanks so much for your notes and insights! They've been very helpful to me. :)

Personally, I'm not sure what I think of any of the characters, except for old Mr. T. I like him very much. But the others are still somewhat of a mystery to me. Even Isabel. I want to like her, but I'm still trying to figure out if I do. I guess I like her EXCEPT for her conceit. But is she really conceited? I'm not sure of that either...

It continues to amaze me how quickly people "fall in love" in these classic works. It took me quite a long time to fall in love, so I have a hard time relating to that.

Mrz. 23, 2011, 1:30pm

>17 BookAngel_a:: It continues to amaze me how quickly people "fall in love" in these classic works. It took me quite a long time to fall in love, so I have a hard time relating to that.
There's a bit of discussion about that on the next thread, when you're ready.