In Henry James' novel, The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel comes to England having lost her family, in order to live with the Touchett family. Isabel is an American woman with a strong, independent streak. Soon after her arrival, Isabel receives proposals from Lord Warburton, and later from Casper Goodwood. She refuses both because she wishes to remain self-reliant.
When Isabel's guardian is dying, her cousin Ralph approaches him and asks him to split his fortune in half so that Isabel will be able to take care of herself. It is in this way that Isabel becomes a wealthy woman, something that allows her to enjoy her freedom even more. Then Isabel becomes friends with Madame Merle, and they travel together. Whereas Isabel is very forthcoming about herself, Madame Merle is not as forthright. (This is foreshadowing.)
Isabel meets Gilbert Osmond, not a wealthy man, but still arrogant and snobbish. He also has a lovely young daughter, Pansy, who Isabel grows to care about deeply. Madame Merle encourages Osmond to pursue Isabel, and though the Touchett family objects, Isabel, still so very much her own person, agrees to marry Osmond. The marriage, as the Touchetts had worried, does not work out well for Isabel. Osmond is a tyrant and tries to control her at every turn. Their marriage is very unhappy, though they give the appearance of being well-matched.
Years later, Isabel learns that Ralph Touchett, her cousin, is dying. Against Osmond's wishes, Isabel insists upon returning to visit him. Before she departs, Osmond's sister, Countess Gemini, reveals a relationship between Osmond and Madame Merle many years before, when Pansy was conceived. Though Pansy is illegitimate, Osmond has taken the child in to raise her, and despite her father's character, she is a lovely young woman. (Isabel also learns that Merle encouraged her marriage to Osmond so that Pansy and Osmond would be able to "live comfortably" with Isabel's money.)
Isabel is devastated by this betrayal. She leaves Rome and returns to visit Ralph one more time; while dying, Ralph assures Isabel that if she wants it, she can still have a wonderful life. Caspar Goodwood arrives in England to plead with Isabel to divorce Osmond and marry him because Caspar still loves her. However, Isabel refuses and goes back to Rome.
Isabel is a strong woman with a genuine love for her step-daughter. Although Osmond and Madame Merle have betrayed and used her, and even though her marriage to Osmond is a sham, Isabel cares a great deal for Pansy.
Besides her devotion to Pansy, Isabel believes that being a "lady" comes with its own responsibilities, and that she must expect more of herself for this reason rather than giving in to what would be easier or more pleasurable for her. It is for these reasons that Isabel returns to Rome.