It turns out I am not the only one who has seen similarities between Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady (Signet Classics) and George Eliot’s Middlemarch (Penguin Classics). Apparently James intended his novel to be a reworking of Eliot’s novel.
I read the two novels some years apart, so it only dawned on me later the James’ Isobel is very much like Eliot’s Dorothea. Both heroines are idealistic young women who want to do more than their predetermined roles in 19th century British society will allow. Both want to explore the life of the mind, and both seek out marriage with men whom they think will see their intellectual potential and mentor them. They must overcome the suits of younger and more ardent men in order to make the match they want. After they are married, however, they both realize they have totally misjudged their husbands. Instead of a life of joyful exploration of culture and literature shared with a wise and loving guide,they find themselves stuck in what everyone who reads the novels calls “disastrous” marriages.
Both novels take concentration to read. The vocabulary in each is rich and challenging. I ran across a word in Middlemarch that I had never seen before, and I could not find in any dictionary I had at hand. I finally went to the library BBTI (that is, “back before the internet”) and looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary. They had the word and the sample sentence they gave for its use was the sentence I had read in Middlemarch!
The Portrait of a Lady is mainly about Isobel, while Middlemarch wanders about the village of Middlemarch drawing portraits of many different characters and marriages, though Dorothea is at the center of Eliot’s tale. Both novels are well drawn portrayals of very interesting ladies.
Reason for Reading
Your precocious high schooler could make her way through these novels and might become a little more aware about what naiveté is. The naïve person rarely thinks she is so. Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves as you make judgments about people before you join yourself irrevocably to them. A good book to read in conjunction with this is The Sacred Search: What If It’s Not about Who You Marry, But Why? Go here for my review of it.
Questions to Think About
What were Isobel and Dorothea looking for in a husband? Why did they so misjudge the character of their husbands? Do you think you could make the same kind of mistake? What could they have done to avoid their disastrous marriages?