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The Portrait of a Lady | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Portrait of a Lady | Preface–Chapter 1 | Summary




The author, Henry James, began writing the novel in 1879 in Florence, Italy, and was still working on it the following year in Venice. He reflects on how the rich inspiration of his surroundings distracted from (rather than sped up) his writing process, although he thinks any attention the setting stole from his writing made the finished work mysteriously all the better for it. He says the germ of his idea for the novel was the main character rather than a plot. He recalls that the writer Ivan Turgenev began his novels in a similar fashion, with the idea of a single person, from which the personality, setting, motivations, and acts of the novel follow. He concludes that writing fiction is like creating a window, and that fiction itself is like a house with millions of windows, each revealing a different view to the person who looks though it. Each writer may only write of what he has "been conscious."

The foundation of his novel was the "conception of a certain young woman affronting her destiny," and he created the novel around her, calling it "an ado about Isabel Archer." He reminds readers of other great works of literature with female heroines at their center. By making her and her consciousness the sole focus of the novel, James set himself a great challenge, which these other novels have not dared to undertake. He built the whole structure of the novel around Isabel (brick by brick as it were), and he recalls how the other characters seemed to appear to him all of a sudden as the entities that would lead him to the plot if he would but follow them. He mentions Henrietta Stackpole specifically, identifying her character as a device merely to drive the plot forward, while it is the inward reflections of Isabel that are the body of the novel. James seems to concede to his critics that he may have overtreated Henrietta, but that she represented zeal and liveliness in contrast to Isabel's quiet reflection.

Chapter 1

On a summer afternoon three men enjoy teatime on the lawn of an old English country home. One, an elderly invalid, Mr. Touchett was once a successful American banker who bought the historic home and made England, some 30 years earlier, his permanent residence. He sits, covered in his wife's shawl, drinking from a large, brightly painted cup, rather than from the matching tea set on the table. The other two younger men stand conversing casually. Ralph Touchett is an ugly, sickly man, nonetheless described as having a "witty, charming face" who has a habit of pacing with his hands in his pockets. His companion on the lawn, Lord Warburton, is a bearded, 35-year-old gentleman in riding clothes. Ralph shows his fondness and concern for his father, who, in turn, notes his son's own infirmity (calling him his sick nurse) and tendency toward cynicism.

Lord Warburton expresses his intentions never to marry. Mr. Touchett believes marrying a good woman would make Lord Warburton more interesting, and Lord Warburton wonders how an interesting woman might change him. Mr. Touchett tells Lord Warburton he may marry anyone but his niece, whom he has just learned (via telegram from his wife) will be joining them soon from America, having recently become parentless. In her idiosyncratic telegrams, Mrs. Touchett also complains about hotel service. She is an exacting, unpredictable, mostly absent wife who has taken her niece under her wing, although she describes the girl as "quite independent." The men puzzle over the news, speculating that the girl is probably engaged as most American girls are.


Henry James wrote the Preface in 1906 while he was revising the novel, which was first published in book form in 1881, for the collected "New York" edition of his writings. He explains his writing process, how he began with the idea of a character and sought to accomplish the challenge of writing a book with the sole focus of a girl and her inner consciousness, a feat he argues has never been done before. The novel was one of his first real successes as a writer, to be followed by a good measure of fame as he published more novels, so the confidence with which James asserts his methods comes from his position then as "The Master" of American literature. He compares the fairly unique approach he took to writing the novel to building a structure, an architecture, brick by brick. Readers should note that Chapter 1 begins with a description of the architecture of Mr. Touchett's old country home, similarly built of brick. James wrote the preface from his English home. Like Mr. Touchett, James was an expatriate who had been living in his adopted country for over 30 years at the time he wrote the Preface.

In Chapter 1 the author describes the setting, premise, and many of the main characters of the novel. The setting is England, the countryside on the Thames outside of London. More specifically, it is the home of Mr. Touchett, a structure with hundreds of years of history before it was bought by the American banker for a good price. The premise of the novel is that of a young, parentless American girl coming to England. Interestingly enough, the girl, who will be the main character of the novel, does not appear in the first chapter and is not named but is only mentioned in Mr. Touchett's recollection of a telegram from his wife. Mrs. Touchett says the girl is "quite independent," a proclamation over which the three men can only speculate. The other main characters in the first chapter include Ralph, Mr. Touchett's son, who suffers from some unnamed malady, which makes his father note that his son is a sick nurse. The close relationship of father and son is evident in the concern the two express for each other. Mr. Touchett is a humorous, likable old man who jokes with his son and visitor in an unassuming way. Lord Warburton expresses himself with the ease and confidence of a man in a position of privilege, and he seems to enjoy the company of his two neighbors. Apart from Isabel Archer, the as-yet unnamed niece already mentioned, the final main character introduced in the first chapter is Mrs. Touchett, who has been in America. She takes the time and expense to complain in telegrams about hotel service, which tells readers she is blunt and demanding, and the lack of any sentimentality or concern in the telegram for her ill husband and son, which suggests she is not nurturing or affectionate.

Several of the novel's themes appear in Chapter 1, including marriage, and the contrast between England and America. When Lord Warburton declares he intends to remain single, he expresses a view about marriage that reveals his privilege. As a male with wealth and social status, he is in a position to make a personal choice about whether or not to marry, while women, especially women who were not wealthy, had little choice in the matter with few other options to provide for themselves. Men of meager means often needed to marry a woman with money as well, to gain financial stability. The contrast between England and America can be seen in the characters and the setting of Chapter 1. The house itself, steeped in British history, sitting on the Thames River (which leads to the capital, London), is just about as good a symbol of England as readers can find, unless they turn instead to Lord Warburton, a member of the nobility who enjoyed a seat in the Parliament as well as land and title received at birth. The elderly, self-made man, Mr. Touchett, sits in contrast to the English home he has chosen as well as his aristocratic neighbor. He has made his money in banking, rather than through inheritance, and everything from his unconventional marriage to a mostly absent wife to his choice of large colorful teacup indicate to readers he is different from the British around him. The contrast between the customs and expectations of the two countries will become more and more pronounced as the novel progresses.

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