The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

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Book reviews are subjective. I tend to rate books not according to how “perfect” they are, seem to be, or are said to be in general but rather to how perfect they are to me.

The Portrait of LadyThe Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

(Click the title to find the book description/blurb.)

She had turned away, but in the movement she had stopped herself and dropped her gaze upon him. The two remained a while in this situation, exchanging a long look–the large, conscious look of the critical hours of life.

This is the first novel I read by Henry James, and I was utterly fascinated by it. Not only by Isabel’s complex story, which I did enjoy, but by the way in which James told the story with such a command of English. To an extent which I hadn’t experienced before reading James’s writing, I became unafraid of words, even ones that are woven together in lengthy sentences, multiple-page-long paragraphs, or coupled with a number of adverbs. The detail of ideas was engaging, and I found nothing dull or drudging about learning these characters in-depth.

I understand the importance of brevity in literature where brevity is required, but in a society of increasing sound bites and 140-character limitations, I also appreciate the chance to be able to delve into the breadth and magnificence of words, in writing like James’s, to realize something beyond life’s surface layers.


The Adverb: A Necessary Modifier


As I stated in an interview with Wendy Van Camp at No Wasted Ink, “I’m a poet and a lover of words… I understand the importance of concision, of not being redundant or wordy for the sake of wordiness, but we live in a media-driven culture of quick sound bites and 140-character limitations, where ‘idk,’ ‘smh,’ and ‘lol’ have become what we frequently fall back on to express ourselves in writing on a regular basis. I believe there should still be books where readers can delve into the magnificence, the depth and height and breadth, of language. Sometimes taking the scenic route and enjoying the ride in literature is a great way to paint a compelling, lasting picture for reading audiences and thinkers, something I find and appreciate in much of the classic literature I read—something I don’t want our society to lose. I don’t yet have the command of language I’d like to have one day, but I’m working on it.”

I can’t tell you how many articles, tweets, and blogs I’ve come across that have warned writers about using adverbs, since I’ve gotten involved with social media. (No, really–I can’t tell you how many, not because I’ve come across a literal million, but because I didn’t tally the articles, tweets, and blogs as I read them. I have indeed read several, though, rest assured.) The running sentiment has been that nouns and verbs are what tell a story and that adjectives and adverbs–especially adverbs–should be used as little as possible, since they tend to be fluffy and unnecessary.

Yet, ever since I got a clear picture of what adverbs are (by way of watching “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here” on Schoolhouse Rock! as a child), I’ve been convinced that adverbs must be an important part of reading, writing, and speaking, otherwise they wouldn’t have been invented. What’s more, how pedestrian would the English language become without the modifying grace and efficacy of adverbs?


From books I’ve read, by writers I esteem: quotes that would lose their full meaning, and therefore their full power, without modifiers.

The Portrait of Lady“It had come gradually–it was not till the first year of their life together, so admirably intimate at first, had closed that she had taken the alarm. Then the shadows had begun to gather; it was as if Osmond deliberately, almost malignantly, had put the lights out one by one.” ~The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, published in book form in 1881.


“They would feel that they could trust him; that the nephew, who had done rightly by his father, would do rightly by them; for they know, as well as he does, as well as the world must know, that he ought to pay this visit to his father; and while meanly exerting their power to delay it, are in their hearts not thinking the better of him for submitting to their whims.” ~Emma by Jane Austen, published in 1815.

Emily's Quest“She knew that a hard struggle was before her; she knew that she must constantly offend Blair Water neighbours who would want her to write obituaries for them and who, if she used an unfamiliar word, would say contemptuously that she was ‘talking big’… she knew there would be days when she would feel despairingly that she could not write and that it was of no use to try… days when the echo of that ‘random word’ of the gods, for which she avidly listened, would only seem to taunt her with its suggestions of unattainable perfection and loveliness beyond the reach of mortal ear or pen.” ~Emily’s Quest by L.M. Montgomery, published in 1927.

The Great Divide

“Faces turned in unison toward the cemetery. Today was the first time Marcus had actually laid eyes on the place, and part of him understood perfectly why New Horizons had found it so offensive. The cemetery was not only large, it had a ramshackle air that defied orderly profit-driven thought.” ~The Great Divide by Davis Bunn, published in 2000.

The Small Rain“She smoothed the pages down very carefully, and when she came to one that still had little wet spots on it like rain, left there by Manya’s tears, she knew that the short verses with the title heavily underscored were what had made Manya cry. Softly she read to herself: Western wind, when wilt thou blow, The small rain down can rain?” ~The Small Rain by Madeleine L’Engle, published in 1945.

I’ve had this on my mind for a year or longer, so what prompted this post today? My agreement with recent points made by Robin Black: that adverbs aren’t “bad,” that they fulfill a need in the English language that would go wanting if adverbs didn’t exist. By no means should these modifiers be driven into the ground and be made ridiculous with excess, but they are as legitimate a part of speech as nouns, verbs, etc. and should be respected and utilized accordingly.

(“Accordingly”–to end my thoughts with an adverb!)