the Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (1881)
"Most women did with themselves nothing at all; they waited, in attitudes more or less gracefully passive, for a man to come that way and furnish them with a destiny. Isabel's originality was that she gave one an impression of having intentions of her own. "Whenever she executes them," said Ralph, "may I be there to see!"
Isabel Archer is a young American who has been lucky to be picked by her wealthy English aunt to be her new project. Her aunt's plan is to bring her into society and find her an English man. When her uncle dies, he leaves her most of his fortune, so Isabel suddenly becomes a rich lady who is in charge of her own destiny. She quickly turns down two marriage proposals, but the third one, to an American artist living in Italy, she says yes to. The marriage surprises both her family, friends and her former suitors because they do not like her husband, Mr Osmond.
The characters surrounding Isabel is the strength of this book. You have Ralph, Isabel's cousin, who has a very ill health, but is enormously fond of Isabel. Henrietta Stackpole is Isabel's American friend, who comes over to Europe to be a journalist and is very modern. Madam Merle is a woman of the world who doesn't live anywhere, but spends her time visiting friends in all countries. Her two suitors, Caspar Goodwood and Lord Warburton are very decent men.
Although the book is good, it is way too long and it seemed to never end. In the first part, you get to know the characters who observe Isabel, but you never get to know Isabel herself. In the second, Isabel is finally letting us now some of her feelings and thoughts. And here you start to understand that when Isabel sets her mind to something, she follows it through, even if it's bad for her and all her friends advise her to escape.
One thing which hit me is that all women, except Isabel, are living in very open marriages or are single. Her aunt spends only a couple of months in England with her husband, the rest is spent in Italy or travelling around. Henrietta is never going to get married, but have male companions. Countess Gemini is married, but dislikes her husband so much that she spends most of the time away from him.
Should you read it or not? Yes, if you like the good old classics and have no problems with a very slow plot and love characters. If not, I would steer clear. Unless you plan to cross of all the 1001 books you should read before you die. Then it's not a choice.