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MonkeyNotes-Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
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Notes

Chapter 1 sets up the basic situation of the novel and obliquely introduces all the major players. Henry James always introduces characters obliquely. Notice that he doesn’t actually name the "ugly young man" for the entire scene. This young man, the son of Mr. Touchett, will play a central role in the plot. He is introduced slowly, first by physical description and then by dialogue. It is clear that he is devoted to his father and that he is, as Lord Warburton says, a cynical young man who is also, as his father says, always cheerful.

However, it is not so much the characters who are introduced in this first chapter. It is the situation of Americans in England. This situation is subtly introduced by the description of the history of Mr. Touchett’s house, especially during tea time. The reader might wonder why James would be so long in describing the tea when he hasn’t yet described the characters. In describing the perfection of the afternoon and all its accouterments, James touches on his favorite subject: what he considers the high civilization of English country life. The house is an embodiment of this civilization and its history shows the changes that have occurred here. Built under Edward VI, surviving Cromwell’s wars, repaired during the Restoration of the monarchy, "remodeled and disfigured in the eighteenth century," it is now owned not by a British noble but by an American banker. If the reader is tempted to think this is a devolution, James is quick to show that although Mr. Touchett remains American in his straightforward speech and big tea cup, he understands the value of British tradition in his love for his house.


The characters, therefore, when introduced, have been placed socially. Lord Warburton is an example of the British nobility who have had one of their finest country houses bought by a decidedly non-aristocratic American. Lord Warburton is said to be bored with life. As the new generation of the British nobility, it seems as if he is not going to do much to improve the fortunes of England. The younger generation American is in even worse shape. Lord Warburton has rarely been sick in his life, and he finds life boring. Ralph Touchett is sick, yet he finds life fascinating. Into this mix, the female representative of the next generation is discussed. She is Isabel Archer, but at this point, she is only obliquely referred to as "independent." The subject of independent women was a controversial one in the late nineteenth century. This was the period of feminism called first wave feminism. Women were quite active in the movement to abolish slavery before the Civil War. When it was over, they found themselves in full command of the language of human rights, quite well organized, and without any political rights. They therefore began organizing for the vote. Even though not all women participated in this movement, it affected women’s conception of themselves. Independence was one of the characteristics of the "New Woman." Henry James was not a proponent of suffrage.

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