An old man, a collie dog, and two younger men are sitting in the garden of an old English mansion to tea. The narrator attests that the house, and the whole scene, appears to be characteristically English. The manor is called "Gardencourt." The old man, Mr. Touchett, is an American banker who has owned the house for twenty years. Initially he thought it was ugly, but now he feels that it is an aesthetic object. He knows the history of the house very well, it having passed through the hands of many Englishmen until he himself bought it. The man has a very American face, and seems to have an air of having been both successful at life, and also something of a failure.
One of the young men, Lord Warburton, appears to be thirty-five and looks very English. The other of the young men, Ralph Touchett, the son of Mr. Touchett, looks both very clever and very ill.
The men are joking about one another's interest in life: Warburton claims that Ralph is "sick of life," while Ralph thinks that Warburton is bored. Ralph counsels Warburton to take a wife, and Mr. Touchett agrees, believing that such a wife would help make life interesting, and that there is furthermore the benefit that women will be protected from any political and social changes yet to come. The old man then jokes that Lord Warburton may fall in love with anyone but his niece who is slated to arrive very soon.
The old man explains that his niece will arrive from America for the first time, having been discovered by his estranged wife, Mrs. Touchett. The wife has recently sent a telegram informing him of their impending arrival. "Taken sister's girl, died last year, go to Europe, two sisters, quite independent," (8) the telegram informed him. Mr. Touchett wonders over the many interpretations of this cryptic telegram: who is "quite independent" (one or both of the sisters?) and does Mrs. Touchett mean financially or morally independent? Lord Warburton asks to be informed of the arrival of this niece, and Mr. Touchett half-seriously jokes that he will, so long as he promises not to fall in love with her!
Just as Lord Warburton and Mr. Touchett are discussing the arrival of Mr. Touchett's niece, Ralph wanders off and notes a young lady in the distance. Ralph's dog runs up to her, who happens to be the very niece who had been under discussion, Isabel Archer. She delivers a message from Mrs. Touchett that Ralph is to meet his mother at 7pm for dinner. Upon meeting Lord Warburton, she declares: "Oh, I hoped there would be a lord; it's just like a novel!" (13.) She has a pleasurable impression of the house and the entire atmosphere, and she reflects this to her companions in her upbeat nature and smiling countenance. Ralph wonders that he never knew of her existence, and she responds that there was some disagreement between her own father and Mrs. Touchett, his sister. Mr. Touchett then goes off with Isabel alone, to discuss Mrs. Touchett.
Lord Warburton tells Ralph: "You wished a while ago to see my idea of an interesting woman. There it is!" (15.)
A theme of typical Englishness and the encroachment of American-ness upon such a scene are introduced in the tea scene in the garden. The setting is representative of a larger theme in the novel: the Old World vs. the New World (see "Major Themes"). While the narrator claims that the picture appears typically English, it is clear that the Americans are infiltrating the English aristocracy through their money. The house has passed through the hands of many Englishmen, only now to land in the hands of an American banker who originally thought the house ugly. However these men seem pretty well adjusted to English society now, represented in the fact that Mr. Touchett now appreciates the aesthetics of the house, the presence of an English lord in their garden, and the fact that his son was likely born in England.
The chapter foreshadows that Lord Warburton will in fact do exactly what Mr. Touchett counsels him not to: fall in love with his niece. Further, it paints a picture of a degraded state of marriage: while Mr. Touchett believes that women will make life "interesting," his own estranged wife appears to make his own life lonely. She does not come to greet her own family upon her arrival, and he has to ask Isabel Archer for "information" (15) about her. Why do people marry, and why should they marry? The many possible varying motivations people might have for marriage are foreshadowed here: money, an ethereal "idea" (8) of what a woman should be, insularity from political life, a vague notion of making life "interesting."
These chapters also show some authorial irony in the character's awareness of their own fictional circumstances. Generally, characters do not know they are located in a fictional world: that is part of the illusion of reality that novels create. Yet, the author embeds two ironic references to this fictitiousness. First, Isabel Archer believes herself to be in the world of a "novel" when she sees the representative English picture, complete with a real lord. This ironic because little does she know, she actually is in a novel. Second, the Lord believes that his "idea" of a good woman is Isabel Archer, realized in the flesh. This mirror's the author's own approach to the book (discussed in the preface), where he details how his "sense of a character" was the "germ" of an idea, of Isabel Archer. Isabel has appeared out of thin air at the very moment the men have been thinking about her. Will their idea of her conform to her reality?