Summary – Chapter One and Chapter Two
The first-person narrator describes an afternoon tea on the lawn of an old English country house ‘in what I should call the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon’. There is an old man sitting on the lawn sipping a cup of tea and two younger men strolling to and fro. The old man is looking at the house, which has a name and a history. It had been built under Edward the Sixth and Elizabeth stayed there for a night. It is now in the hands of ‘a shrewd American banker’ (the man who is sitting) who originally bought it because it was a bargain, but 20 years later ‘had become conscious of a real aesthetic passion for it’.
One of the other men is a 35-year-old English man called Lord Warburton. The third man, Ralph Touchett, looks ‘clever and ill’ and is the son of the old one.
The three talk and Lord Warburton says how he finds it difficult to apply Mr. Touchett’s advice to ‘take hold’ of something. His companion tells him he ought to take hold of a pretty woman as he is trying hard to fall in love. Mr. Touchett tells him to ‘make up to a good one and marry her’ and his life will become much more interesting. He then instructs him to fall in love with whomsoever he pleases, but it must not be his niece. Ralph laughs and says this will be a provocation for Lord Warburton and explains how his father has lived with the English for 30 years but has ‘never learned the things they don’t say’.
Lord Warburton asks about the niece and he is told she is the niece of his wife and she is bringing her to England. Ralph expands on this and says how his mother has been spending the winter in the United States and is expected back. Lord Warburton then asks if the girl is interesting and they tell him they hardly know more than he does, but Mrs. Touchett has described her as independent. Mr. Touchett says he hopes she is not coming to England to look for a husband: ‘So many young ladies are doing that, as if there were no good ones at home.’
This first chapter ends with Mr. Touchett smiling and saying again to Lord Warburton not to ‘try’ on his niece and Lord Warburton says, ‘perhaps, after all, she’s not worth trying on?’
In Chapter Two, Ralph wanders away as the other two talk and is unaware that a woman is watching him from the doorway. It is a young lady, a tall girl, in a black dress.
When he sees her they talk and he explains who Lord Warburton is. She says she hoped there would be a Lord and adds that ‘it’s just like a novel’. Ralph notices she is lingering on the threshold and wonders if she expects his father to come over to her: ‘American girls were used to a great deal of deference, and it had been intimated that this one had a high spirit.’ When he tells her that his father is infirm, she agrees to go to him.
She tells Ralph that his mother is in her room and will be down for dinner at a quarter to seven. He says he cannot understand how he has never seen her on visits to the United States and she explains the disagreement there had been between his mother and her father when she was a child. He tells her he does not embrace all of his mother’s quarrels and then refers to the recent death of her father. She explains this was more than a year ago and after this his mother has been kind and proposed this trip to Europe. She blushes when he says he sees that his mother has adopted her. He feels a little alarmed and thinks he has underestimated the effect of his words. She tells him she has been taken up by her and adds that she is very fond of her liberty.
She then goes over to her uncle and Lord Warburton tells Ralph that this is his idea of an interesting woman.
Analysis – Chapters One and Two
The niece of the Touchetts is discussed in Chapter One and arrives in Chapter Two. Although not named yet, this is Isabel Archer and is the central character of the novel. She is also possibly the lady of the title, but it should be remembered that this is left somewhat ambiguous and the title has an element of irony attached.
There is also an introduction of the theme of Americans living in Europe and the contrast between the New and Old World is drawn upon throughout the novel. The Touchetts and Isabel in particular are representative of the expatriates living in a foreign land that is careful of tradition and perhaps too mindful of protocol.
These early stages also give an introduction to Lord Warburton and his apparent desire to find an interesting woman. He notes immediately that this young woman, who we are told is independent, fits the scope he is concerned with.
The Portrait of a Lady: Novel Summary
Summary – Chapter One and Chapter Two