The Portrait of a Lady
Henry James
1880-1881

OK, this is gonna sound pretty lame. Upper class American girl travels around Europe among families that know what class really means, navigating her way between social expectations and individual choice, love and marriage, US-style individualism and Old World etiquette. It’s a glimpse into high society when high society mattered, a reflection on the cultural differences between Europe and America, a study in one young woman’s attempt to find her way in a world that’s rapidly transitioning to ‘the modern’.

Portrait of a Lady sits on every ‘best novels ever’ list you’ll come across. But just cause a book is loved by the critics, read by hundreds of thousands and kept in print for over a century doesn’t mean it enters our collective consciousness in any particular way. But James the author has left a mark, and Portrait… is a fine example of why. It is just damn fine writing, with a depth of character, a realism, and an ability to capture human consciousness and reflection that is largely unparalleled. And it’s impact on some of the greatest writers of the twentieth century was simply massive.

James wrote fiction and non-fiction, short works and long, literature and literary critcism, biography and travel. Huge output across a range of genres and media. And he produced a literature in which the characters were real, complicated, contradictory, and in which the living of daily life was all that was needed to tell a good story. He, more than anyone else, represents the break with romanticism in the English novel, the emergence of a new literature that would define the following literary century.

Writers read Henry James. Writers name their characters after Henry James. Writers (Joyce Carol Oates) and playwrights (Tom Stoppard) and composers (Benjamin Britten) take Henry James as inspiration. And Ernest Hemingway, who reflected on his own weaknesses, his own struggles as a man and a writer: “I better try to be calm like Henry James. Did you ever read Henry James? He was a great writer who came to Venice and looked out the window and smoked his cigar and thought.”

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