Born in New York in 1843, Henry James was a renowned author and a forerunner of literary modernism, a prominent movement intent on reinventing literature to reflect a rapidly-changing world. He lived in England for many years and travelled across Europe, producing fiction and travel journalism about Americans in Europe and Europeans in America. In 1878 James published the novel Daisy Miller to great acclaim In 1881 he produced the novel considered to be his masterpiece, The Portrait of a Lady. Set mostly in England and in Italy — one of James’ favourite locations — The Portrait of a Lady is a story about love, hidden motives and betrayal, and an exploration of shifting power dynamics in relationships.
Isabel Archer is a young, beautiful and intelligent American. She travels to England with her aunt, determined to find her own way in life. Expected to marry, Isabel rejects two suitors. She values her independence and is at her happiest with her cousin, Ralph. He cares deeply for Isabel, despite her doubts.
“‘I don’t know what you care for; I don’t think you care for anything. You don’t really care for England when you praise it; you don’t care for America even when you pretend to abuse it.
’I care for nothing but you, dear cousin,’ said Ralph.
‘If I could believe even that, I should be very glad.”
—No sé qué te importa de verdad; me parece que nada de nada. En realidad, Inglaterra te importa un bledo aunque la alabes y te importa un comino América, aunque finjas que la denigras.
A lo que él replicó:
—Lo único que de veras me importa eres tú, querida prima.
—Si pudiera creer aunque no fuera más que eso, sería muy dichosa.
Ralph, ill with pulmonary disease, makes plans to give half of his inheritance to Isabel. Although his father would have liked Ralph to marry Isabel, Ralph hopes that the money will help her stay independent and ensure that she is not forced to marry for money:
“Ralph leaned back in his chair with folded arms; his eyes were fixed for some time in meditation. At last, with the air of a man fairly mustering courage, ‘’I take a great interest in my cousin,’ he said, ‘but not the sort of interest you desire. I shall not live many years; but I hope I shall live long enough to see what she does with herself [...] I should like to do something for her.’”
Ralph se apoyó en el respaldo de su silla con los brazos cruzados y durante un momento fijó los ojos en el suelo, meditando. Por fin, con actitud de quien se reviste de coraje, dijo:
—Yo siento un enorme interés por mi prima, pero no un interés de la clase que tú deseas. Seguramente no viviré muchos años, pero tengo la esperanza de vivir lo bastante para ver qué va a hacer ella consigo misma [...] Me agradaría poder hacer algo por ella.
Ralph, however, is not the only person making plans for Isabel. Madame Merle, a socialite and friend of Ralph’s mother, visits Mr. Osmond, an American ex-pat living near Florence. Whilst hiding secrets of her own, Madame Merle makes her goals abundantly clear:
“She’s beautiful, accomplished, generous and, for an American, well-born. She’s also very clever and very amiable, and she has a handsome fortune.’
Mr. Osmond listened to this in silence, appearing to turn it over in his mind with his eyes on his informant. ‘What do you want to do with her?’ he asked at last.
‘What you see. Put her in your way.”
—Es hermosa, cultivada, generosa y, para una norteamericana, hasta de buena familia. Además, es muy inteligente y afable y, por añadidura, posee una bonita fortuna.
El señor Osmond escuchaba todo esto en silencio; diríase que lo estaba sopesando mentalmente, sin apartar los ojos de su interlocutora. Por último se decidió a preguntar:
—¿Qué se propone hacer con ella?
—Ya lo ve. Ponérsela en su camino.
Unaware of this secret match-making, Isabel travels to Italy, where she meets Madame Merle, Osmond and his young daughter. She trusts them, but could she really be happy as Osmond’s wife? Before long, Isabel finds herself feeling manipulated.
“Madame Merle had done what she wanted; she had brought about the union of her two friends [...] There were people who had match-making passion, like the votaries of art for art; but Madame Merle, great artist as she was, was scarcely one of these. She thought too ill of marriage, too ill even of life; she had desired that particular marriage but had not desired others. She therefore had a conception of gain, and Isabel asked herself where she had found her profit.”
Madame Merle había realizado lo que quería: llevar a cabo la unión de sus dos amigos [...] Había personas que tenían la obsesión casamentera como los partidarios del arte la tenían por el arte; pero madame Merle, aunque gran artista, no era de ese tipo. Pensaba con demasiada acritud del matrimonio, incluso de la vida misma; si había sentido el deseo de ver realizada aquella boda, en cambio, no había experimentado el de ver otras. Además, tenía un claro concepto de la ganancia, e Isabel se preguntaba cómo y dónde podía haber hallado con ello beneficio alguno.
According to the author, The Portrait of a Lady began with the concept of a young American woman “affronting her destiny.” He reveals Isabel’s dilemma as she wrestles with the forces of fate and the idea of entering a relationship while still preserving her identity. In 1996, Jane Campion directed a film adaptation of the novel, starring Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer.