Portrait of a Lady: About Henry James

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Henry James (born New York, April 15, 1843 - died London, February 28, 1916) was a great figure in transatlantic culture. His father was a prominent theologian and philosopher and his elder brother, William, became famous as a philosopher and psychologist. James was first taken abroad as an infant, then spent his preadolescent years in Manhattan before returning to Geneva, Paris and London during his teens, and acquiring languages and an awareness of Europe that was unusual for Americans of his generation. He entered the Law School at Harvard in 1862 and, in 1864, began to contribute reviews and short stories to American journals. In 1875, after two prior visits to Europe, he settled for a year in Paris, where he met Flaubert, Turgenev and other literary figures. The next year, he moved to London, where he became so popular in society that in the winter of 1878-79, he confessed to accepting 107 invitations. In 1898, he left London and went to live at Lamb House, Rye, Sussex. Henry James became a naturalized British citizen and was awarded the Order of Merit in 1915 and died in 1916. In 1976, a memorial to "Henry James: Novelist" was dedicated in Westminster Abbey.

The fundamental theme in his work is the innocence and exuberance of the New World in contrast with the corruption and wisdom of the Old. THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY is a fine example of this since the characters of Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond seem tainted from the years they have spent in Europe, compared to the freshness and innocence of the recently arrived Isabel Archer.

The novel, first published in three volumes in 1881, is considered the masterpiece of the first phase of James' career, with its shrewd appraisal of the American character and its embodiment of the national myth of freedom and equality hedged with historical blindness and pride. It remains a remarkable study. The other landmarks of Henry James' literary career include "Daisy Miller" (1878). Other film versions of Henry James' works include: "The Europeans" (1979) and "The Bostonians" (1984), Francois Truffaut's "La Chambre Verte" (1978, based on two of his short stories), Peter Bogdanovich's "Daisy Miller" (1974), William Wyler's "The Heiress" (1949) and Jack Clayton's "The Innocents"(1961, the most successful of a number of adaptations of "The Turn of the Screw").

Jane Campion's THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY is the latest addition to the growing list, with "The Wings of a Dove" and "Washington Square" following close behind.


Henry James lived in what now appears to be the last great age of romantic travel, an American in an age when every civilized American felt an obligation to discover and explore his cultural background in the Old World. Every distinguished American writer of the time made his journey to Europe. James wrote to his mother in 1860, during his "Grand Tour" of Europe, talking of such places as Verona and Florence, while comparing the attitudes of the Americans, "a people of character ... with energy, capacity and intellectual stuff in ample measure" with the British who seem "vulgar, vulgar, vulgar," with a "stingy, defiant, grudging attitude towards everything European." Nevertheless, England was the place Henry James finally settled, even becoming a naturalized British citizen yet, Italy always remained very close to his heart.

Just like James, the production of THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY traveled the length of Italy, stopping off in numerous places described in the novel that James was familiar with.

Some scenes in Rome were shot at the Coliseum, the interior of which was described by James as "the depths of some Alpine valley. The upper portions of the side toward the Esquiline look as remote and lonely as an Alpine ridge, and raise your eyes to their rugged sky-line ... with much the same feeling with which you would take in a grey cliff on which an eagle might lodge." Other Roman scenes were shot at the Capitol: "Nowhere in Rome is more color, more charm, more sport for the eye. The mild incline, during the winter months, is always covered with lounging sun seekers and especially with those more instantly obvious members of the Roman population - beggars, soldiers, monks and tourists."

Shooting also took place in Florence where "the heavy air of the past ... hangs about the place forever," notably at the city's cathedral, a jewel of the early Renaissance, that "has conventional grandeur... It has seen so much, and outlive so much, and served so many sad purposes, and yet remains in aspect so full of the fine Tuscan geniality, the feeling for life, one may almost say, the feeling for amusement, that inspired it."

Other Tuscany scenes were shot in Pisa and Lucca, "a charming mixture of antique'character' and modern inconsequence."

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