From The Portrait of a Lady on, for the rest of his life, James would be absorbed by the problem of "consciousness." The novel derived great drama from psychological interiority, changing reader's ideas about what fiction can do. In the end Isabel Archer discovers that instead of “affronting her destiny”, as she had hoped, her destiny has affronted her. (See this review in the New Statesman).
An orphaned young American woman, Isabel Archer, visits her rich relatives who have settled down in England, at an estate called Gardencourt. She is a strong and willful person, who knows her own mind and is full of ideals. She has refused an American suitor, square-jawed and boring businessman Caspar Goodwood, who however follows her to England to press his suit again and in fact keeps stalking her until the last pages of the book. But to her family's surprise, she also refuses the soft-spoken Lord Warburton, a friend of the family who lives nearby, and who has both rank and fortune - she thinks him too safe and sure and seeks a man with more inspiration. The third man in love with her is her nephew, Ralph Touchett, but as he is suffering from tuberculosis and does not expect to live very long, he keeps his feelings secret and becomes her best and only true friend. In fact, he persuades his dying father to bequeath a large portion of his inheritance to Isabel - Ralph looks with pleasure forward to what she will do with her life when she is rich and independent. Well, unfortunately there will be no such pleasure...
[Henry James - From: Wikipedia]
After her uncle's death, Isabel embarks on the Grand Tour with her aunt and in Florence makes the renewed acquaintance of Madame Merle, a lady she had already met at Gardencourt. Madame Merle is an intelligent and accomplished woman, an independent socialite mostly living off others, who likes manipulating those around her. Isabel trusts her despite warnings from other friends and swims naively into a wide open net. Madame Merle introduces her to expatriate, indolent dilettante Gilbert Osmond, a widower with a doltish daughter of fifteen, Pansy, who has been educated in a convent. Gilbert leads a quiet and well-ordered life surrounded by antiques and art. Isabel falls in love with him - he has excellent manners and poses as an artist living on a higher plane. Blinded by her idealism, she sees a fellow-idealist in Gilbert, and does not note his faults.
The newly-weds set up house in Rome and here the story jumps three years. As soon as that, the marriage is already a failure, although Isabel and Gilbert keep up appearances for the outside world, they coexist in a hateful truce. Gilbert is a control freak who does not want his wife to have too many ideas (i.a. an independent mind and character) - he would probably prefer her to be an obedient "doll" like his well-trained daughter. Instead of finding freedom with her fortune, Isabel has been caught in a loveless trap. She finds some consolation in Pansy, to whom she feels close.
A visit to Rome by Lord Warburton (who briefly poses as suitor to Pansy, but is in fact still in love with Isabel) and the ailing Ralph, causes a further rift in the marriage. Gilbert accuses Isabel of having sabotaged Pansy's chances with Lord Warburton (Pansy is in fact interested in someone else), and of paying too much attention to Ralph of whom he feels jealous. Both men return to England, Ralph expecting never to leave Gardencourt. Isabel promises to come when the end is near. Gilbert strictly warns her to stay in Rome, but when the dreaded telegram arrives, she disobeys him and quickly travels to England.
However, after Ralph's funeral she feels she has no other option but to return to Italy, even although she now knows the secret relationship that existed between Gilbert and Madame Merle. She loves Pansy and wants to help her, on top of that she feels she cannot run away from the life she has chosen, even if it is full of unpleasantness and discordance - different from today, when mistaken commitments are perhaps all too easily discarded.
Sadly, Isabel is a normal, good person inspired by idealism, but everything she did has led to disappointments: not only has she disappointed Ralph's faith in her, but most seriously of all, she has been wrong to herself. Such is the harsh conclusion of Portrait of a Lady, a novel written in a meticulous literary style that tends to cover up the torments of its characters, which are nonetheless very real.
Available for free at Gutenberg and the Adelaide University Etext Center. I read the novel in the Penguin Classic edition. The Portrait of a Lady has been filmed by Jane Campion, with Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich, Barbara Hershey and Martin Donovan (1996).