Summary – Chapters Forty Nine, Fifty and Fifty One
The last time Madame Merle visited Isabel, she asked about Lord Warburton and said how she had hoped to congratulate Pansy. She also says she will ask her what Isabel has said to her. Isabel now feels it is acceptable to be critical of Madame Merle and sees more clearly that she has been ‘a powerful agent in her destiny’ and has been mistrustful since the time she saw her alone with her husband.
Madame Merle says Osmond came to see her the day before and does not want information about Lord Warburton, but sympathy that Pansy is not going to marry him. She adds that Osmond judges Isabel severely, and Isabel now feels dishonored by him.
The conversation continues and Madame Merle says she just wants to know the truth: if Lord Warburton changed his mind of his own volition, or because Isabel recommended it. Isabel grows pale and asks, ‘who are you – what are you?’, and ‘what have you to do with my husband?’ It comes over her like a wave that Mrs. Touchett had been right in that Madame Merle ‘had married her’.
Isabel goes out alone and asks herself if the epithet ‘wicked’ may be applied to Madame Merle. She wonders what she had hoped to gain by bringing her together with Osmond and supposes it is the money she inherited.
The narrative shifts to Osmond and Madame Merle talking at her home and he is assuming an air of cold indifference. She says he has made her as bad as himself, and he says she is ‘quite good enough’. She responds and argues that he has made his wife afraid of him and he denies this. He adds that she sees too much into everything. When he leaves, she vaguely wails, ‘have I been so vile all for nothing?’
In Chapter Fifty, Isabel, the Countess and Pansy visit the Coliseum and while Isabel is alone, Rosier approaches. He tells her he has sold all of his bibelots and has had the ‘magnificent’ result of 50,000 dollars. He asks if Osmond will think him rich; she replies that he will think him not wise, but adds that he deserves to succeed.
Her companions appear and she tells him to leave, but he insists on talking to the Countess and Isabel and Pansy return to the carriage. They are told that the Countess will leave by cab and are expected to go without her.
A week later, Pansy tells Isabel she is going back to the convent because her father thinks it is for the best. He told her half an hour ago, and Isabel knew nothing of it. At dinner, and once Pansy has left, Isabel refers to how she will miss her (having decided she will not ask Osmond a question). He says the convent is a great institution and, ‘it corresponds to an essential need in the family’.
Isabel believes he has done this partly ‘to mark the difference between his sympathy and her own’. The Countess claims he has done it because she knows she takes Rosier’s side and she is ‘dreadful company’ for Pansy. The chapter ends with Osmond saying if he thought she might interfere with his convictions, it would be ‘much simpler to banish you’
A week later, in Chapter Fifty One, Isabel receives a letter from her aunt saying that Ralph cannot last many more days and would like to see her if possible. She tells Osmond why she must go to Gardencourt and he says he does not see the need for it. He says he will see it as revenge and ‘calculated opposition’ if she disobeys him. They reach a crisis when she says his opposition is ‘malignant’. He says he takes their marriage seriously and argues that she only likes Ralph because he does not. He values honor more than anything.
After she leaves the room, she talks to the Countess about it and then goes to her room. The Countess rejoins her there and asks if she may try to comfort her. She plays with Isabel a little and then reveals that her first sister-in-law had no children and Pansy arrived after her death. Isabel asks if she is Osmond’s, and the Countess says yes. Isabel finally realizes who Pansy’s mother is without the Countess mentioning the name.
She asks the Countess why she is telling her this and she replies that she is bored with her not knowing. This, she claims, is an ‘aid to innocent ignorance’. The Countess then asks if it has not occurred to her that he was ‘her’ lover for six or seven years. She then explains that Monsieur Merle was away for too long for Madame Merle to pass Pansy off as his. It fitted to say the girl was poor Mrs. Osmond’s and he only had to move from Naples to secure the story.
Isabel cries for the first time in a long time and feels sympathy (for Madame Merle, it is implied). She then wonders if Osmond has been faithful to her and is told he was no longer Madame Merle’s lover when they married. Isabel cries, ‘poor woman – and Pansy who doesn’t like her’ and the Countess says she knows this and that is why she wanted somebody for Osmond that Pansy would like. She also explains that Osmond and Madame Merle never married because she is ambitious, and if they were together someone might work out their secret.
As Isabel rises, she asks how she knows all of this and the Countess says to assume she invented it. She asks if Isabel will give her journey up now and in infinite sadness Isabel says, ‘ah, I must see Ralph’.
Analysis – Chapters Forty Nine, Fifty and Fifty One
These chapters are crucial for the explanation they give of the longstanding connection between Madame Merle and Osmond. Finally, the secret is exposed when the Countess Gemini reveals that Madame Merle is Pansy's mother. The claims to being honorable, that Osmond has made earlier, become null and void. His position of superiority, or at least his desire for superiority, is now made questionable as his hypocrisy about trust is made apparent.
With this news, the extent to which Isabel has been manipulated is revealed to both her and the readers. Madame Merle has attempted, and failed, to use her drive for ambition to secure a ‘fortunate’ marriage for her daughter. This failure means that her questionable morality has been punished
The Portrait of a Lady: Chapters 49-51
Summary – Chapters Forty Nine, Fifty and Fifty One