In Henry James' novel, The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel is portrayed as a strong independent woman who defies convention to follow her heart, choosing to remain independent and unmarried as long as she chooses.
After losing her family, Isabel does not lack for suitors: Lord Warburton proposes soon after Isabel arrives in England from America. She refuses, wanting to remain independent. Casper Goodwood, an old suitor of Isabel's from America—who is visiting England—also proposes to Isabel. Once again, she refuses so that she can remain independent. Isabel inherits a large sum of money and can now truly enjoy her freedom.
However, later Isabel meets Gilbert Osmond, who does not have a great deal of money; he is proud and arrogant, and has an innocent daughter named Pansy. Isabel's friends, Madame Merle encourages Gilbert Osmond to pay court to Isabel, although the Touchett family, who took Isabel in when she came to England, does not trust Osmond, believing his is a fortune hunter.
Independent as always, Isabel marries Osmond anyway, and as she had been warned, he does not love her. Years later, Isabel ultimately learns from Osmond's sister that her husband married her for her money—but not strictly for his benefit. Pansy is the illegitimate daughter of Isabel's "good" friend, Madame Merle, and Osmond. Madame Merle encouraged the marriage so that Pansy would be financially provided for.
Isabel is devastated and returns to England to visit Ralph, her dying cousin (against Osmond's wishes). Ralph insists that Isabel can still have a good life. After his death, Caspar Goodwood arrives to encourage Isabel to leave Osmond, as Caspar still loves her.
Isabel, however, is a woman with a strong sense of responsibility, and she returns to Osmond, even though she knows the marriage is a sham.