illustration of Isabel Archer with a hand fan positioned between two silhouetted profiles

The Portrait of a Lady

by Henry James

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1502

Upon the death of her father, Isabel Archer had been visited by her aunt, Mrs. Touchett, who considers her so attractive that she decides to give her the advantage of a more cosmopolitan experience. Isabel is quickly carried off to Europe so she might see something of the world of culture and fashion. On the day the two women arrive at the Touchett home in England, Isabel’s sickly young cousin, Ralph Touchett, and his father are taking tea in the garden with their friend, Lord Warburton. The young nobleman, who had just been confessing his boredom with life, is much taken with the American girl’s grace and lively manner.

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Isabel had barely settled at Gardencourt, her aunt’s home, when she received a letter from an American friend, Henrietta Stackpole, a journalist who is writing a series of articles on the sights of Europe. At Ralph’s invitation, Henrietta comes to Gardencourt to visit Isabel and obtain material for her writing. Soon after Henrietta’s arrival, Isabel hears from another American friend and a would-be suitor, Caspar Goodwood, who had followed her abroad and learned her whereabouts from Henrietta. Isabel, irritated by his aggressiveness, decides not to answer his letter.

On the day Isabel receives the letter from Goodwood, Lord Warburton proposes to her. Not wishing to seem indifferent to the honor of his proposal, she asks for time to consider it, but she decides finally that she will not be able to marry the young Englishman because she wishes to see considerably more of the world before she marries. She is also afraid that marriage to Warburton, although he is a model of kindness and thoughtfulness, might prove stifling.

Because Isabel had not seen London on her journey with Mrs. Touchett and since it is on Henrietta Stackpole’s itinerary, the two young women, accompanied by Ralph Touchett, visit the capital. Henrietta soon makes the acquaintance of a Mr. Bantling, who begins to squire her around. When Caspar Goodwood visits Isabel at her hotel, she again refuses him, though when he persists, she agrees that he could ask for her hand again in two years.

While the party is in London, a telegram comes from Gardencourt, informing them that old Mr. Touchett is seriously ill of gout and his wife much alarmed. Isabel and Ralph leave on the afternoon train. Henrietta remains under the escort of her new friend.

During the time Mr. Touchett lay dying and his family is preoccupied, Isabel spends a great deal of time with Madame Merle, an old friend of Mrs. Touchett, who had come to Gardencourt to spend a few days. She and Isabel are thrown together a great deal and exchange many confidences. Isabel admires the older woman for her ability to amuse herself, for her skill at needlework, painting, and the piano, and for her ability to accommodate herself to any social situation. For her part, Madame Merle speaks enviously of Isabel’s youth and intelligence and laments the life that has left her, at middle age, a widow with no children and no visible success in life.

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Isabel’s uncle dies, leaving her, at his son’s instigation, half of his fortune. Ralph, impressed with his young cousin’s brilliance, had persuaded his father that she should be given the opportunity to fly as far and as high as she might. Ralph knows he cannot live long because of his pulmonary illness, and his own legacy is enough to let him live in comfort.

As quickly as she can, Mrs. Touchett sells her London house and takes Isabel to Paris with her. Ralph goes south for the winter to preserve what is left of his health. In Paris, the new heir is introduced to many of her aunt’s friends among American expatriates, but she is not impressed. She thinks their indolent lives worthy only of contempt. Meanwhile, Henrietta and Mr. Bantling have arrived in Paris, and Isabel spends much time with them and Edward Rosier, another dilettante living on the income from his inheritance. She had known Rosier when they were children and had been traveling abroad with her father. Rosier explains to Isabel that he cannot return to his own country because there is no occupation there worthy of a gentleman.

In February, Mrs. Touchett and her niece visit the Palazzo Crescentini, the Touchett house in Florence. They stop on the way to see Ralph, who is staying in San Remo. In Florence they are joined once more by Madame Merle. Unknown to Isabel or her aunt, Madame Merle also visits her friend Gilbert Osmond, another American who lives in voluntary exile outside Florence with his art collection and his young convent-bred daughter, Pansy. Madame Merle tells Osmond of Isabel’s arrival in Florence, saying that as the heir to a fortune, Isabel would be a valuable addition to Osmond’s collection.

The heir who had already rejected two worthy suitors does not refuse the third. Isabel is quickly captivated by the charm of the sheltered life Gilbert Osmond has created for himself. Her friends are against the match. Henrietta Stackpole is inclined to favor Caspar Goodwood and convinced that Osmond is interested only in Isabel’s money, as is Isabel’s aunt. Mrs. Touchett has requested Madame Merle, the good friend of both parties, to discover the state of their affections; she is convinced that Madame Merle could have prevented the match. Ralph Touchett is disappointed that his cousin should have fallen from her flight so quickly. Caspar Goodwood, learning of Isabel’s intended marriage when he revisits her after the passage of the two years agreed upon, cannot persuade her to reconsider her step. Isabel is indignant when he comments that she does not even know her intended husband’s antecedents.

After they marry, Isabel and Osmond establish their home in Rome, in a setting completely expressive of Osmond’s tastes. Before three years pass, Isabel begins to realize that her friends were not completely wrong in their objections to her marriage. Osmond’s exquisite taste has made their home one of the most popular in Rome, but his ceaseless effort to press his wife into a mold, to make her a reflection of his own ideas, has not made their marriage one of the happiest.

Osmond succeeds in destroying a romance between Pansy and Edward Rosier, who had visited the girl’s stepmother and found the daughter attractive. Osmond does not succeed, however, in contracting the match he desires between Pansy and Lord Warburton. Warburton finds Pansy as pleasing as Isabel had once been, but he dropped his suit when he saw that the girl’s affections lay with Rosier.

Ralph Touchett, his health growing steadily worse, gives up his wanderings on the Continent and returns to Gardencourt to die. When Isabel receives a telegram from his mother telling her that Ralph would like to see her before his death, she feels it her duty to go to Gardencourt at once. Osmond reacts to her wish as if it were a personal insult. He expects that his wife would want to remain at his side and that she would not disobey any wish of his. He also makes it plain that he dislikes Ralph.

In a state of turmoil after that conversation with her husband, Isabel meets the Countess Gemini, Osmond’s sister. The countess, who is visiting the Osmonds, sees how matters lay between her brother and Isabel. An honest soul, she feels more sympathy for her sister-in-law than for her brother. To comfort Isabel, she tells her the story of Gilbert’s past. After his first wife had died, he and Madame Merle had had an affair for six or seven years. During that time, Madame Merle, who was then a widow, had a child, Pansy. Changing his residence, Osmond was able to pretend to his new circle of friends that the original Mrs. Osmond had died in giving birth to the child.

With this news fresh in her mind and still determined to go to England, Isabel stops to say goodbye to Pansy, who is staying in a convent where her father had sent her to get over her affair with Rosier. There she also meets Madame Merle, who with her keen intuition immediately perceives that Isabel knows her secret. When she remarks that Isabel need never see her again, that she will go to America, Isabel is certain Madame Merle will also find in America much to her own advantage.

Isabel arrives in England in time to see her cousin before his death. She stays on briefly at Gardencourt after the funeral, long enough to bid goodbye to Lord Warburton, who has come to offer condolences to her aunt and to reject a third offer from Caspar Goodwood, who knows of her marital problems. When she leaves to start her journey back to Italy, Isabel knows that her first duty is not toward herself but to put her house in order.

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Chapter Summaries