The Portrait of a Lady is a novel by Henry James, first published as a serial in The Atlantic Monthly and Macmillan’s Magazine in 1880–81 and then as a book in 1881. It is one of James’s most popular long novels, and is regarded by critics as one of his finest.
Like many of James’s novels, it is set in Europe, mostly England and Italy. Generally regarded as the masterpiece of James’s early period, this novel reflects James’s continuing interest in the differences between the New World and the Old, often to the detriment of the former. It also treats in a profound way the themes of personal freedom, responsibility, and betrayal.
“In Florence we should call it a very bad house,” said Mrs. Touchett; “but here, I dare say, it will bring a high price. It ought to make a considerable sum for each of you. In addition to that you must have something else; it’s most extraordinary your not knowing. The position’s of value, and they’ll probably pull it down and make a row of shops. I wonder you don’t do that yourself; you might let the shops to great advantage.”
Isabel stared; the idea of letting shops was new to her. “I hope they won’t pull it down,” she said; “I’m extremely fond of it.”
“I don’t see what makes you fond of it; your father died here.”
“Yes; but I don’t dislike it for that,” the girl rather strangely returned. “I like places in which things have happened—even if they’re sad things. A great many people have died here; the place has been full of life.”
“Is that what you call being full of life?”
“I mean full of experience—of people’s feelings and sorrows. And not of their sorrows only, for I’ve been very happy here as a child.”
“You should go to Florence if you like houses in which things have happened—especially deaths. I live in an old palace in which three people have been murdered; three that were known and I don’t know how many more besides.”
“In an old palace?” Isabel repeated.
“Yes, my dear; a very different affair from this. This is very bourgeois.”
Isabel felt some emotion, for she had always thought highly of her grandmother’s house. But the emotion was of a kind which led her to say: “I should like very much to go to Florence.”
“Well, if you’ll be very good, and do everything I tell you I’ll take you there,” Mrs. Touchett declared.
Our young woman’s emotion deepened; she flushed a little and smiled at her aunt in silence. “Do everything you tell me? I don’t think I can promise that.”
“No, you don’t look like a person of that sort. You’re fond of your own way; but it’s not for me to blame you.”
“And yet, to go to Florence,” the girl exclaimed in a moment, “I’d promise almost anything!”