One afternoon, Mr. Touchett and his son Ralph are entertaining Lord Warburton at tea. Mr. Touchett is infirm and remains in his chair. He and Ralph are busy advising Lord Warburton to interest himself in some woman. Lord Warburton says that he is not interested in marrying until he meets a really interesting woman. Mr. Touchett then warns him not to fall in love with Isabel Archer, Mrs. Touchett's niece, whom she is bringing back to England from America. Mrs. Touchett has wired that she is bringing a rather interesting and independent young niece, but the telegram revealed nothing more.
While the men are discussing Isabel, she happens to emerge from the house. She and her aunt have just arrived, and Isabel is getting her first glimpse of Gardencourt. Ralph goes to meet her, and Isabel explains that Mrs. Touchett went straight to her room and will come down for dinner. Ralph takes his cousin to meet Mr. Touchett and Lord Warburton. Mr. Touchett hopes that Isabel will remain with them for a long time, but Isabel says that his wife will have to arrange that. Mr. Touchett wonders if Isabel is the type of person who likes to have things arranged for her. Isabel tells him that she is, in fact, very fond of her liberty and treasures her independence. After observing Isabel in conversation for a few minutes, Lord Warburton tells Ralph that she is his idea of a very interesting woman.
The first chapter presents the scene upon which Isabel Archer will encounter her first new experience. It is a part of James' technique to place his main character in an unfamiliar setting and then to observe the behavior of this character. We discover that Isabel is a person who, according to Mrs. Touchett's telegram, loves her independence. This quality will be one of her most discussed and most influential qualities throughout the novel.
The setting we encounter is that of Gardencourt. The novel opens and will close on this particular setting. It will initiate Isabel into her many adventures, and in the end will represent all the protection which she needs. It comes to represent the good, solid side of life that is also filled with much of the esthetic. There is a wholesome quality about it lacking in some of the other European houses. In other words, it is substantial and real, whereas Gilbert Osmond's house has a touch of the artificial and the contrived about it.
Like the novels of Jane Austen, many of James' works take the subject of marriage as their central idea. The thought of marriage comes up as Mr. Touchett ironically tells Lord Warburton that he is not to fall in love with Isabel Archer.
It will be a part of James' irony that he makes Isabel's cousin, Ralph Touchett, such a contrast to her. Ralph is sickly and dying, while Isabel is charged with life and activity.
It is often in the delicate shades of conversation that James gives the reader a hint of Isabel's nature. Thus through subtle innuendoes, we discover many small facts about the character. At the end of Chapter 2, we find out that Isabel likes things settled for her, only if they are settled as she likes them. She is very fond of her independence and doesn't like the intimation that her aunt has "adopted" her. James also uses one further technique. We often learn much about the major character from the comments and reactions of the people gathered around him. For example, to the average reader, Isabel is not notably impressive at this first meeting, but she does impress the other people. The chapter ends by Lord Warburton saying that here is his "idea of an interesting woman."
It is of additional interest that Isabel's concept of her independence comes up so early in the novel. It will be ironically reversed later in the novel. At the end of the story, she will be a virtual prisoner who has lost almost all of her independence and freedom. This concept will be fully developed as the novel progresses.