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The Portrait of a Lady

Henry James

Chapters 16–19

Summary Chapters 16–19


Isabel's decision to forbid Ralph from accompanying her to the hotel was not due to a desire to humiliate him, but rather to a realization that she has been taxing his strength by taking up so much of his time since they left for London. She also realizes that she has had very little time to herself, and she looks forward to an evening alone. Shortly after she reaches her room, however, a servant informs her that Caspar Goodwood is waiting for her downstairs. Isabel is surprised and annoyed to realize that Henrietta has set her up to be alone with Caspar.

In the parlor, Caspar says that even though Isabel has asked him to spend a year apart from her, he is too miserable without her to stay away. As always, Isabel is struck by his intimidating physical presence and his aggressive demeanor. She tells him resolutely that she cannot marry him now, that she has no place for him in her life now, and that she will need at least two years to travel in Europe before she will know whether she could even consider marriage. She insists on preserving her independence, and even though Caspar says he will not threaten her independence—he even says that a married woman is more independent than a sheltered girl—she cannot quite believe him. Caspar is visibly hurt and worries that Isabel will fall in love with another man. But he reluctantly agrees to give her two years, even though she says that she does not promise to marry him even then. Caspar strides away; Isabel goes upstairs, collapses next to her bed, and buries her face in her hands.

Isabel is overcome with a curious emotion: she is nearly ecstatic with excitement at having demonstrated her independence by warding off Caspar. She thinks that it is a visible sign of her commitment to her independence. When Henrietta returns, Isabel confronts her and says that she was wrong to arrange the meeting with Caspar. Henrietta disregards Isabel's anger, saying that Isabel is acting ridiculous by allowing her romantic notions of Europe to make her forget her practical American values—she says that if Isabel marries one of her European acquaintances, Henrietta will cease to be her friend. But Henrietta says that she was motivated to arrange the meeting with Caspar by her love for Isabel.

The next morning, Henrietta says that she plans to stay in London and wait for her invitation to Lady Pensil's house—she hopes to use her experience there to gain more insight on the English aristocracy, so that her articles will be a great success in America. Ralph arrives and tells Isabel that Mr. Touchett's health is in decline. He and Isabel agree to visit a great doctor named Sir Matthew Hope that afternoon. While he waits for Isabel before their visit, Ralph talks to Henrietta, who admits to him that she arranged for Caspar to show up at the hotel without Isabel's knowledge. She says that if she really believed that Isabel would never marry Caspar, she would break off their friendship.

Isabel and Ralph arrange for Matthew Hope to go to Gardencourt and then hastily return there themselves. In the parlor, Isabel finds a middle-aged woman playing piano very beautifully. This is Madame Merle, an acquaintance of Mrs. Touchett; she seems very charming and charismatic. Isabel has tea with Madame Merle and Mrs. Touchett and learns that Madame Merle is an American, whose father was a naval officer in Europe. Matthew Hope arrives, and Mrs. Touchett excuses herself to speak to him. The news about Mr. Touchett's health is good, and Ralph is cheered enough to talk to Isabel about Madame Merle, whom he describes as a very clever, accomplished, and popular woman. He also reveals that Madame Merle's husband has been dead for many years and that she has no children.

Despite the promising news about his health, Mr. Touchett declines rapidly, and, fearing that he will soon die, asks to speak to Ralph. Mr. Touchett tells Ralph that he wants Ralph to find more direction in his life and urges him to marry Isabel. Ralph acknowledges that if he were not ill, he would be in love with Isabel but says that he could never marry her as things are. Instead, he urges his father to divide his inheritance equally with Isabel, leaving her with the vast fortune of sixty thousand pounds. This notion perplexes Mr. Touchett, who cannot fathom why Ralph would want to give up half his fortune. Ralph explains that Isabel does not understand that she does not have very much money, and he wants to protect her and to enable her to make her own life without ever having to marry for money. Mr. Touchett agrees.

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