On the lawn of an old English country estate, three gentlemen are drinking tea together on a beautiful summer afternoon. A collie dog is also present. The ageing gentleman is Mr. Touchett, an American banker who has lived in England for three decades. Now an elderly invalid, he is very fond of his country home and stares at its architecture while reflecting on the home’s history and its name of Gardencourt.
The first character that James describes in detail is Mr. Touchett, who is typical of The Portrait’s cast in that he is an American expatriate living in Europe. The entire opening scene oozes English sophistication and wealth at the country estate. Touchett’s reflections on his home and its architecture foreshadow the importance of architecture as a symbol throughout the novel. His memories also suggest that American self-made wealth can buy English social status and sophistication.
The two younger men interrupt Mr. Touchett’s contemplation to engage him in conversation. One is Mr. Touchett’s son, Ralph, who has a “witty, charming face” despite being sickly from long-term consumption. The other is a bearded nobleman named Lord Warburton, who is wearing riding clothes.
Again, witty conversation and characters’ manners and dress suggest sophistication and financial prosperity. The presence of a nobleman is also indicative of the social hierarchy that is embedded in English tradition.
The three gentlemen discuss Lord Warburton’s boredom with life, with the Touchett men encouraging him to marry a good woman. This would make life much more enjoyable and exciting. Lord Warburton imagines how an interesting wife might change his life. Mr. Touchett instructs Warburton to fall in love as soon as possible, as long as it is not with his American niece (later to be revealed as Isabel Archer) who is expected to arrive to visit Gardencourt soon. There is also banter about the differences in American and English cultures, with Ralph laughingly commenting on his father’s inability to practice English courtesy despite his thirty years residing in England.
The very masculine scene turns to discuss women. The three gentlemen speak of the benefits of marriage, suggesting that a wife is a commodity that can enrich a man’s life. Certainly, women of the day were expected to adhere to their husband’s desires. Touchett’s instructions for Lord Warburton to refrain from falling in love with Isabel foreshadow that very occurrence. In this scene a clear difference in American and English values is also highlighted, as Touchett has retained his American manner of forthright conversation.
The three gentlemen discuss the details surrounding Ralph’s cousin Isabel’s surprising visit. Mrs. Touchett, who has spent the winter living in the United States, discovered the girl in New York and took a liking to her, inviting her to visit England. Mrs. Touchett sent an abrupt and baffling to telegram to announce their incoming guest; all that the Touchett men can understand clearly is that Mrs. Touchett’s niece is an “independent” young woman. There is still confusion as to whether she is financially or personally independent, or both.
Isabel is not yet present in the scene but she already makes an impact, with her unconventional character (women are usually dependent on the men around them) drawing all three men’s interest. Her expected arrival to Gardencourt signals the theme of Americans exploring Europe, a in keeping with concerns in James’s time regarding America’s increasing wealth.
Despite Lord Warburton’s questioning Mr. Touchett further about his soon-to-visit niece, Mr. Touchett and Ralph can offer no further details about Isabel; they are as much in the dark as the nobleman. Having earlier bantered about getting married, Warburton muses aloud as to whether this niece might be worth “trying on” as a romantic partner; his interest is aroused by the mysterious circumstance of this independent young woman.
An aura of mystery adds suspense to Isabel’s expected arrival. Warburton objectifies Isabel with the ease of a privileged male, wondering if she is a commodity worth testing out. In fact, he likens her to a piece of clothing he may “try on” to see if she is a good fit. Warburton’s patriarchal attitudes are typical of Victorian English aristocracy and society at large, where women were treated as inferior to men.