Study Guide

The Portrait of a Lady

By Henry James

The Portrait of a Lady Introduction

The Portrait of a Lady is recognized as one of the greatest of the many great works of Henry James. Why? Well, there are the obvious answers: the novel, which was released in installments in the Atlantic Monthly magazine in 1880, was an instant hit; critics then and now praise its attention to psychological detail and realistic situations. It is widely acknowledged to be the masterpiece of James’s early period and is still one of his top-selling novels, according to sales.

Then, there are the more intimate reasons. The characters are, in a word, unforgettable. It’s easy to find yourself deeply involved in a personal relationship with Isabel or Ralph, or to imagine yourself confronting Madame Merle or Osmond. The novel’s characters so brim with life, they seem like they can step off the page and into our lives. James’s vibrant, living, breathing microcosm of society still feels like an incredible achievement, and it’s what keeps this novel feeling so contemporary and compulsively readable.

What is The Portrait of a Lady About and Why Should I Care?

"OK, we know that The Portrait of a Lady has already been translated to the screen at least twice, but get this: what if we made a weekly TV show based on it? Yeah, you heard us. Come on, it’ll be so popular. We’ll find a gorgeous, young group of unknowns to play our gorgeous, young main characters, and an unusually attractive, moderately recognizable cast of thirty-somethings to play our so-called older characters – that way, we can snag the teenage through early-thirties demographics. Awesome.

"Then, we’ll update it to the modern day, which means that we can
totally get the whole fashion industry in on the fun; we’ll create a really catchy, quirky-but-accessible look for Isabel, so that pretty soon, every girl in America between the ages of eleven and thirty-five will want to have all the same clothes Isabel wears, even if they’re totally ridiculous. Which they will be.

"The name? We’re glad you asked. So,
Portrait of a Lady: The Show just doesn’t cut it, right? We thought we’d try and come up with something a little more edgy, a little more 2000s and less 1880s – then, we had the genius idea that maybe our narrator will introduce every episode – and that narrator will be Henry James! That way, we’ll hopefully rope in the literature fan demographic, too. You laugh, but they’re out there. There are tons of them. We swear.

Anywho, the name: As I was saying, Henry James himself will be our narrator – yes, we’re aware that he’s been dead since 1916, thank you – OK, an actor portraying Henry James will be our narrator, and he’ll comment upon what happens in the story every week in a snarky, charmingly comical, yet somewhat ominous way. You know, like James actually does in the book, except maybe in blog form, like he’s writing for some website, instead of the Atlantic Monthly. And, we’ll get some great brand recognition from him signing off the same way every episode.

"Speaking of which, there’s nothing sexy about ‘xoxo, Henry James,’ right? We were thinking he could have a kind of mysterious alter ego – you know, a catchy nickname. We’ve come up with a little something that we think is pretty awesome:

"Gossip Guy.

"What? What do you
mean, it’s already taken?! Huh? This is an original idea – James came up with this story before television was even invented! What are you thinking of? Gossip What? Gossip Gir – Ah. Oh, yeah. Um… hmm. Well… thanks for your time."

Now, hopefully this pitch isn’t actually happening in a TV production company somewhere in southern California, but let’s learn an important lesson from it anyway – you see, kids, long before Serena van der Woodsen and her glamorous, leggy companions graced the small screen, Henry James had already figured out one of the great marketing schemes of literature: audiences just go gaga over the lives of the rich, beautiful, and eccentric.

Isabel is the original Upper East Side It Girl; she’s captivating, mysterious, simultaneously perfect and intriguingly flawed, with a killer fashion sense to boot. The installments of The Portrait of a Lady, originally published in the popular Atlantic Monthly magazine, were no doubt as highly anticipated as new episodes of Gossip Girl – readers back then were just as fascinated by the bizarre lives of the wealthy and attractive as we TV viewers are today.

The Portrait of a Lady Resources

Movie or TV Productions

The Portrait of a Lady (1996)
Jane Campion’s star-studded 1996 film takes some very contemporary twists – it’s a must see. Starring Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich, Barbara Hershey, Mary-Louise Parker, Aragorn, and Batman… er, sorry, Viggo Mortensen and Christian Bale.

The Portrait of a Lady (1968, TV)
Made-for-TV BBC version, in six episodes.


Or rather, Malkovich vs. Kidman. Very intense scene from the 1996 film.


The very serious 1996 movie poster.

The real Isabel?...
Here’s a famous John Singer Sargent portrait of a real-life lady, Isabella Stewart Gardner, the possible inspiration for our Miss Archer.


SO COOL. Original magazine edition of Portrait of a Lady.
The Cornell University Library provides an online version of the original text of Portrait of a Lady, as printed in the Atlantic Monthly in 1880 – definitely check this out.

More early editions…
Many, many scanned copies of James first editions – including volume 2 of Portrait.


Everything you’ll ever need to link to about Henry James…
This page, the Henry James Scholar’s Guide to Web Sites is, well, exactly what it claims to be.

A little morbidity…
James’s grave and brief bio at – a little creepy, but interesting nonetheless.

The Ladder
A great, very comprehensive all-James, all-the-time website.

Life of James
A timeline of James’s life, courtesy of the U.K. newspaper The Guardian.