Three suitors and a palace

The Portrait of a Lady is Henry James's finest novel.

Different works by Henry James appeal to different readers. The Turn of the Screw (1898) is a favourite with both lovers of ghost stories and sophisticated souls drawn to its irresolvable ambiguities and the perpetual interpretative controversies between critics about the status of its ghouls. F R Leavis preferred what he saw as the forthright social criticism and irony of The Bostonians (1886), which he called "one of the two most brilliant novels in the language". Leavis also admired What Maisie Knew (1897), James's ironic, unsentimental study of the vulnerability of a child of divorce.

Early James has its admirers - perhaps especially Daisy Miller (1878), with its spare and elegant story of baffled love shading from social comedy to final, sudden seriousness. On the other hand, many initiated Jamesians would plump for one of the three challenging but deeply rewarding late novels of the so-called "major phase" - The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903) or The Golden Bowl (1904) - with their complex syntax, wealth of implications and intricacies of psychological and moral drama.

Yet there is one novel by James which arouses an especially powerful attachment among most readers: The Portrait of a Lady of 1881, an observant bachelor's re-creation of the intimacies of marital breakdown. This is partly because, as a quietly epic novel about the life choices made by its young heroine, Isabel Archer, and their consequences, it transforms itself so much as we read it, shifting in tone from the light and delightful comedy of the opening to a tragic consciousness of entrapment and responsibility. Again, it changes so much when we reread it, coming back to it over the years as our own sense of life, our choices and our understandings alter. It is carefully planned and wrought so as to give a moving sense of duration and mutability, of time passing and relations building up and breaking down, or deepening. The plot has the excitement of melodrama, only made realistic, toned down to the level of the all-too-believable.

Isabel, James's young American heroine from provincial Albany, starts with such a generous wish to see life in its variety (not simply to get married) that, however impatient we may be with her self-preoccupation (which gives her the flawed character of a real person), we suffer with her and for her when she falls into bad - genteel, cultured and insinuating but corrupt - company. Her aspirations are thwarted; she finds the infinite vista of a multiplied life to be a dark, narrow alley with a wall at the end. Instead of leading to the high places of happiness, from which one could look down on the world with a sense of exaltation and advantage, and judge and choose and pity, life rather leads downwards and earthwards, into realms of restriction and depression where the sound of other lives, easier and freer, increases the feeling of failure.

And yet, in James's great dramatisation of the possibility of personal freedom, Isabel takes on moral substance with the disaster of her marriage to the cold, selfish and mean Gilbert Osmond, one of literature's great villains. This American girl becomes a "lady", a true heroine, as she struggles to maintain her ideals in ad­versity, restlessly modern in her search for a place and a life that will satisfy the requirements of her imagination. The free, cosmopolitan questioning of values that informs the whole novel makes it feel quite un-Victorian, a freedom reflected in the movement of the action from America to England, then from France to Florence and, finally, Rome.

I have just had the privilege of preparing a new edition of The Portrait for Penguin Classics. It has been a pleasure. James's magnificent prose has the pleasurable suggestiveness of poetry as it traces psychological processes, but also the tension and immersiveness of a thriller - as well as a constant, sparkling wit that makes it highly approachable. Wanting today's readers to be engaged and stirred as the book's original readers were, I have based the Penguin on the first book edition, rather than the brilliant, but at times mannered and much-revised New York Edition text of 25 years later (the basis of most modern versions).

Every new reading of this dark and humane fairy tale (three suitors, a palace, a kind of sinister spell) yields fresh insights, emotion and comedy. One always wants Isabel not to marry Osmond; maddeningly, she always does. Her gradual piecing-together of the truth of what has happened to her, clue by clue, has the suspense of a detective story. Her final scene with her beloved cousin Ralph Touchett is almost unbearably moving. And the strangely open ending that James gave his masterpiece - which leaves the reader as uncertain as a comparable situation in real life would - ensures that Isabel and her story linger in our minds long after we close the covers, and makes us want to return to her again and again. l

Philip Horne is a professor of English at University College London. He is the editor of "Henry James: a Life in Letters" (Penguin, £19.99). His new edition of "The Portrait of a Lady" will be published by Penguin Classics on 28 July (priced £7.99)