The Portrait of a Lady
by Henry James
Where It All Goes Down
1870s – Gardencourt, England; Florence and Rome, Italy; various other European locations; Albany, New York
The novel opens and closes at Gardencourt, the Touchett family’s gracious English country estate. This place is particularly significant to our characters, and to our understanding of the novel as a whole. By framing the dramatic events of Isabel’s European adventures with the two Gardencourt sections, James makes this space reflective and calm. However, don’t confuse these things with happiness – both Gardencourt sections are darkened by deaths, first Mr. Touchett’s, and then Ralph’s.
When Isabel arrives in England, fresh from her trans-Atlantic voyage, Gardencourt is a kind of restful middle-ground; it’s a very English landscape with American inhabitants, and provides a space for her to adjust to her new life as a jet-setter. By the time she returns to Gardencourt at the end of the novel, it again plays the role of a retreat – Ralph himself has returned to the house to die in peace, while Isabel flees to it to escape from her imprisonment in Osmond’s house.
Sandwiched between these two Gardencourt episodes, we see Isabel in a variety of more exotic European settings – most importantly, in Italy. First, she settles for a short while in Florence at the home of her aunt, Mrs. Touchett, then Isabel and Osmond move to Rome following their marriage. Italy is a problematic and fascinating setting – it is neither England nor America, and our characters are oddly foreign in it. Isabel, most importantly, is in a kind of exile in her Roman castle; she’s removed from her friends and family, and, although she is something of a famous hostess, she’s still outside of Italian society. Interestingly, the characters that feel the most at home in Italy, Mrs. Touchett and Osmond, are both the most removed from society as a whole.
Finally, Albany, New York, is a setting that is briefly seen, but quite significant – we first meet Isabel at her grandmother’s house here, and, for the rest of the novel, the spectral presence of America is very important. We are constantly reminded of the fact that Isabel is an American, and Henrietta Stackpole and Caspar Goodwood both bring an aura of American-ness with them wherever they go.