Summary – Chapters Nineteen, Twenty and Twenty One
During Mr. Touchett’s illness, Isabel and Madame Merle are thrown together and Isabel finds herself confiding in her more than she has with anybody else. In turn, Madame Merle says she wants to see what life makes of her and defies it to break her up: ‘Isabel received this assurance as a young soldier, still panting from a slight skirmish in which he has come off with honour, might receive a pat on the shoulder from his colonel.’ The bad weather means Ralph becomes a prisoner and he watches from the window as the two women walk outside and talk.
Isabel finds herself wanting to emulate Madame Merle and begins to feel influenced by her. She tells Isabel that one day she will unfold a tale about herself, but this will be when they know each other better. At the moment, she prefers to talk to Isabel about Isabel and this flatters her.
Madame Merle criticizes American men, including Ralph, and women for not having a natural place here in Europe. She gives her the example of Gilbert Osmond as an American man in Italy who does nothing but paint. She also mentions how she thinks Ralph does not like her and says that all she wants is justice. Isabel does not probe further because despite her love of knowledge, she also has a capacity for ignorance.
On another occasion, Isabel is startled when Madame Merle says with some bitterness that she would give a great deal to be her age again. Isabel asks what she would have liked to have done and Madame Merle admits she is very ambitious. Another time Isabel tells her that she has refused proposals, but does not name the men, and Madame Merle advises her to not keep refusing for the sake of it as she is not embarrassed with an income.
Less than a week after Madame Merle leaves, the chapter ends with Ralph coming to Isabel to say his father died an hour ago.
Chapter Twenty begins a fortnight later with Madame Merle calling on the Touchetts at their home in Winchester Square in London. She notices it is up for sale and thinks they certainly lose no time. Mrs. Touchett says she thinks her husband came to see her as a good wife as she never showed a preference for anyone else. Madame Merle, her friend, thinks but does not say, ‘for anyone but yourself’.
Mrs. Touchett then explains that the house was left to her but she prefers the one she has in Florence. She also indicates that the will was opened three days ago and that she has been told about having a share in the bank which she intends to take out as soon as possible. Ralph has been left Gardencourt, but she is not sure if he has been left enough for its upkeep as Isabel has been left a fortune. Madame Merle indicates that this was very clever on Isabel’s part. Mrs. Touchett asks what she means as she says whatever Isabel has achieved was done so unconsciously. Madame Merle admits no wrongdoing and goes on to ask what Ralph thinks about this. Mrs. Touchett says he is unlikely to object as he wanted his father to help the people in America. Madame Merle asks to see Isabel and when she comes down she kisses her as if returning her kiss at Gardencourt and makes no other allusion to her inheritance.
Mrs. Touchett leaves for the Continent as soon as possible and Isabel accompanies her. She comes to see her windfall as a virtue and the acquisition of power makes her serious. They first visit Paris and Isabel notes the luxury and inanity of the expatriate Americans, and says so publicly at the home of Mrs. Luce.
Here, she also meets Mr. Edward Rosier whom she had met a long time ago when she was a child. It was Rosier’s father who rescued the small Archers from the inn at Neufchatel when the maid left them and their father could not be found. As a child, Rosier’s maid forbade him to go near the edge of the lake and he remembers that Isabel used to persist in doing this. He sees the same headstrong tendency now, in particular when she commented on the inanity of people’s lives.
Henrietta is also in Paris and thinks Rosier is worse than Ralph and usually reads him a lecture on the duties of the American citizen. She is also alarmed at the amount of money Isabel has been left and thinks it will confirm her ‘dangerous tendencies’. She already thinks she is not in enough contact with reality. She adds that Isabel presumes ‘we can escape disagreeable duties by taking romantic views’ and this is her ‘great illusion’. The chapter ends with an explanation of how Henrietta and Mr. Bantling are spending a lot of time together out of mutual benefit.
In Chapter Twenty One, Mrs. Touchett explains to Isabel how much more freedom she has with the wealth she has inherited and says she is not obliged to be with her now. She does advise her to stay with her, though, and Isabel thinks this is the decent thing to do as a gentlewoman without ‘visible relations’ strikes her as ‘a flower without foliage’.
They visit Ralph in San Remo on the way to Florence and Isabel asks him if he knew his father intended to leave her so much money. He admits he knew and says it was ‘a kind of compliment’. She looks forward to the future and before leaving she grows used to being rich. At times, however, she looks back and thinks of Caspar Goodwood and Lord Warburton.
Analysis – Chapters Nineteen, Twenty and Twenty One
In these chapters, the character of Madame Merle is revealed a little to the readers if not to Isabel. She prefers Isabel to talk to her confidentially about herself rather than expose her own personality and fears. Furthermore, although Mrs. Touchett regards her at this point as a great friend, Madame Merle’s thoughts demonstrate that she is critical of her (but, of course, does not say this out loud). Her uncontrolled reaction to the news of Isabel’s windfall exemplifies that under the mask of sophistication she is concerned with material matters and is not the person Isabel and Mrs. Touchett believe her to be.
In Paris, the meeting between Edward Rosier and Isabel allows for an explanation of how Isabel has always been independent from advice, even when this might lead to potential danger. As an adult, she continues to go to the edge of the shore despite being warned against it.
The Portrait of a Lady: Chapters 19-21
Summary – Chapters Nineteen, Twenty and Twenty One