In the farming country of Franklin County, Pennsylvania, her family had prospered as merchants. Orphaned at the age of eleven, she was cared for by her uncle, who was her legal guardian. Buchanan supervised her education in private school, completed by two years at the Visitation Convent in Georgetown. By this time, "Nunc" was Secretary of State, and he introduced her to fashionable circles as he had promised, "in the best manner." In 1854 she joined him in London, where he was minister to the Court of St. James. Queen Victoria gave "dear Miss Lane" the rank of ambassador's wife; admiring suitors gave her the fame of a beauty. In appearance "Hal" Lane was of medium height, with masses of light hair almost golden.
After the sadness of the Pierce administration, the capital eagerly welcomed its new "Democratic Queen" to the White House in 1857. As sectional tensions increased, she worked out seating arrangements for her weekly formal dinner parties with special care, to give dignitaries their proper precedence and still keep political foes apart. Her tact did not falter, but her task became impossible--as did her uncle's. Seven states had seceded by the time Buchanan retired from office and returned with his niece to his spacious country home, Wheatland, near Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
From her teenage years, the popular Miss Lane flirted happily with numerous beaux, calling them "pleasant but dreadfully troublesome." Buchanan often warned her against "rushing precipitately into matrimonial connexions," and she waited until she was almost 36 to marry. She chose, with her uncle's approval, Henry Elliott Johnston, a Baltimore banker. Within the next 18 years she lost her uncle, her two fine young sons, and her husband.
Thereafter she decided to live in Washington. She had acquired a sizable art collection, largely of European works, which she bequeathed to the government. Accepted after her death in 1903, it inspired an official of the Smithsonian Institution to call her "First Lady of the National Collection of Fine Arts." In addition, she had dedicated a generous sum to endow a home for invalid children at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. It became an reknowned pediatric facility; the Harriet Lane Outpatient Clinics serve thousands of children today, and the widely-used manual for pediatric house officers, The Harriet Lane Handbook, bears her name.