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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Chapters 1-5 Summary

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Last Updated April 18, 2023.

The story opens by portraying Gardencourt, an ancient English countryside property, which was bought by a clever American banker named Daniel Touchett. The estate has existed for centuries, and is presently inhabited by Mr. Touchett and his sickly son, Ralph, who is enjoying the company of his retried father.

We first meet Mr. Touchett in the garden, where he is sitting while wrapped in a shawl. He overhears a conversation between Ralph and his friend, Lord Warburton, regarding their shared predicament of being wealthy, unoccupied, and youthful. Warburton, who is charming and refined, presents a stark contrast to Ralph's awkward and skinny appearance.

While conversing, the elderly man jokingly cautions Ralph and Warburton about unavoidable political and social transformations that may disrupt their present way of life. He suggests that Lord Warburton needs a lovely woman to keep him occupied. Warburton responds by saying that he will only get married when he finds a smart and fascinating woman. Eventually, Touchett discloses that his wife is coming back from the United States with her niece, a young lady who none of the men have encountered before. The elderly man teases Warburton, advising him not to fall for his American niece.

In the afternoon, Mrs. Touchett and her niece, Isabel Archer, reach Gardencourt. Ralph is the first one to meet Isabel, and he becomes instantly charmed by his beautiful cousin. Mrs. Touchett, who has not met up with her husband for a year, goes to her room to rest and will not receive visitors until she feels revitalized.

Mrs. Touchett has been absent from her home country for a year, which is not uncommon for her as she doesn't have a strong attachment to her husband or the English lifestyle. Instead, she spends the majority of the year living in Italy and only returns to England for a brief visit with her family before departing again. Recently, Mrs. Touchett traveled to America and discovered Isabel living in her grandmother's residence in Albany, New York.

Ralph and Isabel take a leisurely walk in the gardens together. Ralph attempts to be funny by asking Isabel if his mother has "adopted" her, but Isabel declines the notion, saying she values her freedom. Isabel demonstrates her independence and intelligence. Later, when Ralph introduces Isabel to Lord Warburton, the Englishman becomes immediately interested in her.

When she was a child, Isabel had the freedom to not attend school. After trying out a local elementary school for just one day, she found the strict routine unappealing and decided to read books instead, mostly in the "office" area of her grandmother's house. Isabel is portrayed as highly self-sufficient and always eager to learn. Mrs. Touchett found Isabel reading in the office when she arrived at her grandmother's house in Albany. Although the two women initially had disagreements, they ultimately developed a liking for each other.

Isabel's two sisters, Lilian and Edith, are now married and no longer reside in the Albany house. Edith, who is the most attractive of the three siblings, married a United States Engineers officer and currently lives with him in the Western part of the country. Lilian, the more sensible sister, married a New York lawyer named Edmund Ludlow. They have two young sons and reside in a brownstone in Manhattan. Lilian and Edmund frequently argue about Isabel due to Edmund's disapproval of Isabel's "unconventional" nature. Nonetheless, Lilian stands up for her sister and was delighted when Mrs. Touchett took Isabel with her to Europe to expose her to more of the world.

Isabel's grandmother's home is going to be sold to settle the debts...

(This entire section contains 977 words.)

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of Isabel's father, who was known for his wasteful spending and gambling habits. Although her father's behavior wasn't ideal, Isabel still loved him. Following her father's death, Isabel met Caspar Goodwood, a determined businessman from Boston who traveled a long way to see her in Albany. Although Caspar was interested in her, Isabel didn't reciprocate his feelings and didn't do much to foster a romantic relationship.

As Isabel was growing up in Albany, Ralph Touchett lived in both England and America. He attended school in the US and spent summers in England. Ralph's father, Mr. Touchett, worked in England and became wealthy in the banking industry. Ralph went to Oxford for college, returning to England because of his strong loyalty to his father. After graduating, Ralph briefly worked for his father but had to quit due to a severe lung illness. Ralph does not anticipate living for very long.

Once Ralph has finished walking with Isabel, he goes to his mother's room and inquires about her plans for Isabel, now that she has been brought to England. Mrs. Touchett replies that she intends to travel to four different European countries with Isabel. Upon completing the tour, she will pick two countries, and Isabel will be given the option to decide where she would like to reside.

Mrs. Touchett thinks that her niece, Isabel, needs to experience more of the world. Ralph tells his mother that he finds Isabel attractive, but he wants to learn more about her. Mrs. Touchett characterizes Isabel as candid and resolute like herself, which is why they have a good relationship. Ralph persistently asks his mother for more details about his cousin, but Mrs. Touchett insists that he should discover them on his own.

Ralph shows Isabel around Gardencourt's remarkable art collection. Isabel, who is always eager to acquire new knowledge, is delighted as Ralph explains several exquisite paintings. Although, she is intrigued by the ghost that is said to inhabit her uncle's home. Ralph playfully teases her about it, suggesting that one must go through pain and hardship in life before being able to perceive spirits. He doubts that Isabel will ever see one. Isabel expresses her desire to be content in Europe and that she is not afraid to experience suffering.

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Chapters 6-10 Summary