Home | Literary Movements  | Timeline  |  American Authors | American Literature Sites

Changes to Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady

1881 and 1908 editions

F. O. Matthiessen, Henry James: The Major Phase (Oxford: Oxford U P, 1944)

  1. James continually readjusted and revised two words: “picturesque” and “romantic.”
  2. James’s dread of vulgarity caused him to sharpen his use of the word “vulgar.”
  3. Overall revisions include the following:
    1. “Pervasive colloquialization” (cannot -> can’t)
    2. More concrete language
    3. Increased verbal movement as James conceived of his scenes more dramatically
    4. Increasing analogies with pictures rather than with the stage.
  4. Changes to Osmond emphasize his physical appearance and his devotion to forms.
  5. Changes to Madame Merle:
  6. Her character is less transparent to Isabel. James makes her character unmistakable to the reader: the change from Beethoven to Schubert, for example.
  7. Changes to Pansy: her character is more completely at the mercy of her father’s will. Example: her face with a “natural” smile becomes “painted with a fixed and intensely sweet smile.”
  8. Changes to the scene in which the Countess Gemini reveals the truth of Pansy’s parentage; James also built up the contrast between the Countess and Isabel.

Anthony J. Mazella, “The New Isabel,” in Portrait of a Lady (Norton Critical Edition)

  1. “Whenever James introduced an important character for the first time, his revisions multiplied.”
  2. James emphasized her freedom and vulnerability—for example, in amplifying the bird imagery associated with Isabel and emphasizing the freedom that Daniel Touchett’s money can bring.
  3. Isabel’s sense of the danger and imprisonment that marriage brings is heightened. For example, in Chapter 16 when Caspar declares his love, Isabel feels marriage to be a trap.
  4. The later Isabel also has a more clearly defined fear of sexual possession and the erotic. She becomes more aware of a physical Warburton—as he kisses her hand, she notes not “his head” but “his handsome, bared head.” She is defined more clearly as fearful of his masculinity.
  5. In the final scene, Isabel is operating at “optimum consciousness through, struggling to maintain the mind’s control in the midst of, for her, destructive emotion.” She understands the danger of the “annihilation of the mind by the erotic.”
  6. In the later version, James links the “very act of living with consciousness.” The first Isabel “exists without much complexity; the second embraces multiple levels of existence.”
  7. “We have, then, in the later Isabel a presence of fears which emanate from, and return to, her remarkable consciousness, thus making the act of ‘affronting her destiny’ a study—sometimes tragic and ironic—of the life of the mind for the later Isabel whereas it was frequently an uneven portrait of a girl’s caprice for her predecessor.”

Nina Baym, “Revision and Thematic Change in The Portrait of a Lady.” Modern Fiction Studies 22.2 (Summer 1976).

  1. “Early Isabel is trapped by her simplicity; late Isabel must be the dupe of her subtlety. Victimized by an appeal to her highest faculties, she is less a fool than a saint.”
  2. In Chapter 29, James omits two pages of description on Osmond and writes the “money in the bank” passage (p. 270).
  3. Madame Merle and Osmond are both better people in the 1881 edition; Isabel is more understandably taken in by them. The other female characters, too, are “treated more harshly”: the Countess Gemini is treated more cruelly, and Henrietta Stackpole undergoes a “systematic vulgarization,” including the patronizing treatment of her newspaper career. Isabel and Henrietta are more alike in the 1881 edition.
  4. Baym: “It is as though the younger James had cared for all his characters and tried to give them an illusion of life and depth, while in 1908 only Isabel was real to him.” Only Ralph Touchett is exempt from this process of diminishment.
  5. “The melodrama of Isabel’s later situation certainly detracts from the novel’s social realism, and makes her story more specialized, less universal, than it appeared at first.”
  6. The “ugly situations and dreadful revelations” in the last third of the book intensify the theme of female independence. Isabel is morally free to leave Osmond, since she has been manipulated into marriage: “Therefore, if she remains with Osmond, it will be for the same kinds of reasons that originally drew her to him—his promise of an escape from independence and its complications.”