The Portrait of a Lady Summary
by Henry James

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(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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.

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.

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...

(The entire section is 2,355 words.)