The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James

Historical and Cultural Context

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James was written and published in 1881. The novel reflects the late Victorian era, a time when the societal roles and expectations of men and women were being questioned and transformed.

The cultural setting of the book includes American and European societies. The difference between the more pragmatic, straightforward American culture and the old, complex European traditions is a significant theme in the novel.

The novel highlights the issue of American expatriates living in Europe, a popular theme of James's works. During the late 19th century, many wealthy Americans travelled or even relocated to Europe for its culture, history, and arts.

Henry James uses the character of Isabel Archer to explore the concept of freedom and confinement within the constraints of society. The women's rights movement was gaining traction in the 19th century, which may have influenced the creation of Isabel's character.

The Victorian era was also a time of rapid industrial growth and social change. The tension between the new wealth gained from industry in America and the old, inherited wealth of European aristocracy is another theme seen in the novel.

The late 19th century was a time of great interest in psychological exploration and introspection. James was particularly interested in consciousness and interiority, which is reflected in the psychological depth of his characters.

The novel was written during the peak of the Realist literary movement, which aimed to portray life 'as it is', focusing on ordinary people and their everyday experiences and conflicts. This influences James's detailed and nuanced descriptions of character and setting.

A. 1865

B. 1875

C. 1881

D. 1891

A. Elizabethan era

B. Victorian era

C. Georgian era

D. Edwardian era

A. Fear vs Courage

B. Youth vs Age

C. Pragmatism vs Tradition

D. Love vs Hate

A. An American soldier

B. A European aristocrat

C. An American expatriate

D. A British royal

DISCUSSION:  What freedoms do women such as Idobel Archer get by moving abroad?

Further reading