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Portrait of a Lady (version 3)

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By: (1843-1916)

Our central character is Isabel Archer of Albany, New York, a young woman of no great means, and no great beauty yet of rich imagination, high ideals and a thirst for knowledge of the world. Carried off by her aunt to England, she quite unexpectedly finds herself the beneficiary of a substantial legacy from her uncle, a very successful American banker in London. It will, her admiring cousin says to his father, allow her “to put a little wind in her sails” and to see the world. Though some American reviewers rather dismissed the book when it appeared in the mid-1880s, for other readers today The Portrait of a Lady has become THE Great American Novel, or at least very close to the top. That is for a number of reasons, including among others the delineations of character and the psychological depths of the work. A few years ago, in a biographical study of James, Michael Gorra drew on it as a central work . James himself tinkered with it over the years, and the text here comes from the so-called New York edition of 1907-09. Much of the action takes place in Italy, particularly n the expatriate communities of Florence and Rome. Without giving anything away, it’s worth noting that James’s ending for the novel has caused some puzzlement, not to say controversy, among readers.

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