This is not an imaging result or any sort of diagnostic report. Rather it’s an account of an American novel more than 140 years old – Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady. Having reached an age approaching that of an Old Testament prophet I realized that I had never read a word of one of America’s most important writers. Accordingly I decided to fill in this hole in the Swiss cheese that is my general education by reading Portrait of a Lady. The only reason I can give for starting with a novel almost 800 pages long is that it was close by.

The plot can easily be summed as follows. Isabel Archer a young American woman is brought to England by her Aunt. Her cousin Ralph convinces his rich and retired banker father to leave her a fortune. Every young bachelor she knows falls in love with her and proposes marriage. She rejects them all. In Italy she meets Gilbert Osmond, a scoundrel who like everyone else in the book doesn’t have a job. He too proposes, mainly because she’s rich; she accepts and their marriage is a miserable failure. Against Gilbert’s wishes, she returns to England to be with Ralph on his deathbed. He realizes that by making her rich he has ruined her life. After he dies Isabel returns to Rome where her future remains ambiguous. There are more characters, but that’s the basic story.

The story’s arc is odd. Some events are depicted in elaborate detail while others just pop into existence with no preamble. One moment Isabel is seeing the world, the next she’s married to Osmond with little explanation why she chose him over the far better matrimonial candidates she had rejected. Osmond has a daughter, allegedly from his first marriage which ended with the death of his first wife. There’s even a hint that he might have murdered her. Pansy, the daughter, is his by an illicit liaison with Madame Merle a shady character who suggested that Osmond marry Isabel. Isabel discovers this parentage near the book’s end from Osmond’s sister, Countess Gemini. The latter is an international class nincompoop who couldn’t keep a secret longer than a green flash. Yet we are to believe that she’s told no one about Osmond’s six year long affair with Madame Merle prior to her revelation to Isabel. We are also to believe that no one else in Italy, a land where every scandal and secret is public knowledge, knows about the relationship. Overall, the book’s plotting is weak. James is clearly no H Rider Haggard when it comes to storytelling.

His cast are all elaborately constructed marionettes encrusted with gold and jewels, but not real people. They speak in sentences that no human ever uttered. Their conversations are reminiscent of Oscar Wilde, only with a bit less wit, though they are no less artful. Their motivations are those of the author – edifices of exquisite literary invention and polish whose behavior was clearly constructed by James. They do not have an independent spirit as do those of Dickens and Trollope.

What qualities make James a major literary figure? It is the crystalline brilliance of his prose that ensures his elevated position in the pantheon of American letters. Every sentence and every paragraph is coated with an iridescent sheen. Hence regardless of his protagonists artificial emotions, actions, or speech the reader is awed by the beauty of his descriptions and the dazzle of the talk irrespective of their remove from life. James facility with prose is on a par with that of Gibbon.

A taste for James’ work has always appealed to a special palette. Oscar Wilde thought he (James) approached fiction as though it were a painful duty. Others have likened Portrait of a Lady to Madame Bovary or Ulysses. I cannot see the connection. Flaubert’s bored and romantic housewife has a real and touching life. There is nothing artificial about her. Her suicide strikes the reader. Similarly, Joyce’s Bloom and Molly are as real as this afternoon. Despite all the literary devices and experimental writing that are larded throughout Joyce’s masterpiece, Bloom and Molly live on the page and stay with the reader long after the volume is back on the shelf.

Isabel Archer, by contrast, is an invention that has never made it past the patent office. Everything she does is contrived and deracinated. She has no idea who she is or what she wants from life. She wanders about three continents and though condemned by her own disordered acts she seemingly consents to a life of misery. It is very hard for the reader to either sympathize or identify with her. Her husband’s abuse is only psychological. She is free to leave him at the time of her choice, but seems unwilling to do so out of fear of publicly admitting the liaison was a mistake to all who were close to her and had warned her to avoid. She’s imprisoned by Victorian chains which are so loosely draped around her that she could drop them in an instant. Basically her problem is that she’s not very savvy.

Isabel’s controlling husband is a total cipher. He’s a heavily discounted version of Iago. He’s too bored to be violent. The rest of James’ players are as opaque as Isabel and Osmond. But they’re encased in prose so original and finely wrought as to give them the illusion of life no matter how artificial they are. There’s no reason to care about them except to admire the exquisite display case in which they’re housed.

Portrait of a Lady has survived for almost a century and a half. There’s every reason to believe that it will endure into the indefinite future. There will always be an audience seduced by James’ prose into granting motive, emotion, and life to his idle characters.