It is teatime at Gardencourt, an old English country manor built during the reign of Edward VI and now owned by an old American banker. The old man now sits on the lawn holding a large teacup; his sickly son and a young Englishman stroll nearby, stopping occasionally to make sure that he is comfortable. The old man tells them lightly that he has always been comfortable. The young Englishman, Lord Warburton, drolly replies that comfort is boring. The old man's son, Ralph, counters by saying that Lord Warburton only pretends to be bored by everything. Lord Warburton replies that the old man's son always seems cynical, but that he is really a fairly cheerful person. The old man says that Warburton would find life more interesting if he found himself an interesting woman to marry; the young men politely keep quiet about the fact that the old man's own marriage is unhappy. Lord Warburton wonders what sort of woman he might find "interesting."
The old man says that his wife, Mrs. Touchett, will soon be returning from her visit to America and that she plans to bring their niece with her for a stay in England. He jokingly tells Warburton not to fall in love with his niece. Mr. Touchett and Ralph joke about the telegram they received from Mrs. Touchett informing them of her intention to bring this niece back to England with her. The telegram is nearly incomprehensible ("sister's girl, died last year, go to Europe"), but it mentions that the girl is "quite independent." Mr. Touchett says that American girls today are all engaged but that they continue to behave however they like regardless. He jokes again that Warburton must not fall in love with his niece.
Ralph strolls away from his father and Lord Warburton. He hears his dog barking near the door of the house and sees that a young woman has just emerged; she picks up the eager little dog, and Ralph notices that she is beautiful. He approaches her, and she introduces herself as his cousin Isabel, saying that she has just arrived with his mother. She compliments the house, and when Ralph points out his father and Lord Warburton on the lawn, she happily declares that having a real lord about the place makes it seem just like a novel.
Ralph introduces this strange young girl to his father, who kisses her and asks where his wife has gone. Isabel says that Mrs. Touchett has retired to her room; Mr. Touchett observes wryly that they will not see her for a week. But Isabel predicts that she will make an appearance at dinner. Looking about her, Isabel says that the old manor is the most beautiful thing that she has ever seen. Lord Warburton offers to show her his own Tudor manor, and he and Mr. Touchett joke with one another about who has the better house. Ralph asks Isabel if she likes dogs and offers to give her his own dog. She agrees to keep it while she is at the house. Ralph asks how long she will stay, and she says that Mrs. Touchett will have to decide that, as they are to travel to Florence after leaving England. Ralph notes that Isabel does not seem like the kind of woman who lets people decide things for her. Isabel agrees that she is very independent. He asks why they have never met, and she says that after her mother died, her father had a quarrel with Mrs. Touchett. Mr. Touchett asks Isabel how his wife is—she has been traveling in America for a long time. Isabel begins to tell him, and Warburton says quietly to Ralph that he has found his idea of a very interesting woman, and it is Isabel.
Mrs. Touchett has been traveling in America for a year, and has only stopped in England on her way home to Florence—she has been separated from Mr. Touchett since the first year of their marriage, though she spends one month with him each year. When Mrs. Touchett went to visit Isabel, she found her reading in the library of her grandmother's house, which she had been given unrestricted access to as a young girl and which formed the basis of her education. Mrs. Touchett invited Isabel to come to Florence, and Isabel agreed, though she warned her aunt that she was not always obedient.
The opening sentence of Portrait of a Lady may not be the most exciting in all of literature ("Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea"), but the novel's opening perfectly prepares the reader for the development of the novel's main themes.
The main theme of Portrait of a Lady is the conflict between individualism (represented here by Isabel Archer's "independence") and social custom. The novel begins with the ultimate social custom, the English tea ceremony, set amid a genteel landscape populated by good-natured, affectionate members of the high upper classes. This well-ordered and familiar scene, which has obviously been acted out by the three men involved a hundred times before, is then disturbed by the appearance of Isabel, who arrives amid a chaos of barking dogs and ruffled expectations. At once, Isabel is at odds with the calm traditions of social convention, and the novel's thematic exploration is off to a strong start.
To say that Isabel's individualism is at odds with social convention is not to say that she is at odds with the conventional people around her; on the contrary, all of the men on the lawn seem very taken with her, especially Ralph, who impulsively gives her his dog, and Lord Warburton, who declares that she is his idea of an "interesting woman." It is important to note that we do not learn a great deal about Isabel herself in this section, virtually nothing of her past, and very little of her personality beyond what we see through the eyes of the other characters. All we are told is that she is an "independent woman," a very vague description that nevertheless piques the interest of Lord Warburton and the Touchetts—in the late 1860s in upper-class English country houses, we can infer, independent women of any sort are in very short supply.
Throughout Portrait of a Lady, James will alternate between showing us Isabel's life from Isabel's perspective and showing it through the perspective of peripheral characters such as Ralph. The use of peripheral points of view casts a great deal of light on Isabel's actions—here, for instance, James uses Ralph's perspective to show us what kind of impression Isabel makes on those around her, giving us the sense that she is different and special, a sense that would have been difficult to impart had we viewed the same scene through Isabel's eyes.
It is also important to note that Portrait of a Lady is set almost entirely among a group of Americans who live in Europe, and the novel's most significant secondary theme is the contrast between the idea of Europe and the idea of America, and how those ideas are negotiated in the minds of the expatriated Americans. In a very general sense, James uses the idea of America to represent innocence, individualism, optimism, and action, while Europe tends to represent sophistication, social convention, decadence, and tradition.
In these early chapters, we are given very little sense of those distinctions; here, Europe is simply a familiar home to the American Touchetts, and an exciting place to visit for Isabel Archer. But as the novel progresses, and Isabel travels deeper into continental Europe, the contrasts will be made very clear, and Gardencourt will emerge as a kind of ideal combining the best of Europe with the best of America.