Chapters 1-5 Summary and Analysis

The Portrait of a Lady cover image

New Characters:
Mr. Daniel Touchett: a wealthy American banker who now resides in England

Ralph Touchett: Mr. Touchett’s ailing son

Lord Warburton: a wealthy English aristocrat and close friend of Ralph Touchett

Mrs. Touchett: Mr. Touchett’s wife and Ralph’s mother. She has arrived from America with her niece, Isabel Archer

Isabel Archer: a young American woman who is visiting England for the first time. She is Mr. and Mrs. Touchett’s niece, and Ralph’s cousin

Lilian Ludlow: Isabel’s sister who lives with her husband and children in New York City

Edmund Ludlow: a New York lawyer, married to Lilian

Edith Archer: Isabel’s other sister. She lives in the American West with her engineer husband

Caspar Goodwood: a young American businessman who is in love with Isabel

Summary
The novel begins with a description of Gardencourt, an historic English country estate. Gardencourt is centuries old and was purchased by Daniel Touchett, a “shrewd American banker.” Mr. Touchett is retired now and is an elderly man, enjoying his old age living at Gardencourt with his son, Ralph. We first meet Mr. Touchett in the garden where he sits, wrapped in a shawl, listening to Ralph and a friend, Lord Warburton, discuss their mutual problem of being young, bored, and rich. Warburton, handsome and elegant, stands out in sharp contrast to Ralph, who is thin and ungainly.

As the conversation continues, the old man playfully warns Ralph and Warburton that political and social changes are inevitable, and these changes may upset their current lifestyle. He suggests that what Lord Warburton needs is a pretty woman to occupy his time. Warburton replies that he will settle down only when he finds an intelligent and interesting woman to marry. Then old Touchett reveals that his wife is returning from America with her niece, a young woman none of the men have ever met. The old man teases Warburton, warning him not to fall in love with his American niece.

Later that afternoon, Mrs. Touchett and the niece, Isabel Archer, arrive at Gardencourt. Ralph meets the young woman first and he is immediately captivated by his charming cousin. Mrs. Touchett, who has not seen her husband for a year, has retired to her room and will not see anyone until she is rested and refreshed. We learn that Mrs. Touchett had never met her niece before; the old lady had had a falling out with Isabel’s father, who was Mrs. Touchett’s sister’s husband. Consequently, Mrs. Touchett never visited Isabel’s home in the United States. Mrs. Touchett’s sister died when Isabel was very young, and Isabel was raised by her father and her grandmother. After Isabel’s father died last year, Mrs. Touchett decided to visit her family in America.

Mrs. Touchett has not been home for a year, and it is not unusual for her to be away from England for long periods of time. She is not overly fond of her husband, or of the English way of life. She lives abroad, in Italy, for 11 months each year and only returns to England to visit her family for a month before she leaves again. Her last trip was to America, where she found Isabel living in her grandmother’s house in Albany, New York.

Ralph strolls through the gardens with Isabel. Trying to make a joke, Ralph asks her if his mother has “adopted” her, but Isabel insists that no one will adopt her. “I’m very fond of my liberty,” she tells him. Isabel quickly reveals herself to be an independent, intelligent young woman. When Ralph introduces Isabel to Lord Warburton, the Englishman takes an immediate interest in Ralph’s attractive cousin.

We learn that, as a little girl, Isabel was not forced to go to school. She had attended a nearby elementary school for one day and then decided the strict regimen wasn’t for her. She chose instead to spend her time reading books in the “office” room of her grandmother’s house. Isabel is described as being very independent and having an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Mrs. Touchett discovered Isabel in the office, reading, when she arrived at the house in Albany. The two women were immediately at odds, but decided they liked each other anyway.

Isabel’s two sisters, Lilian and Edith, are both married...

(The entire section is 1773 words.)