Florence Dowell and Edward Ashburnham are dead, both having committed suicide, and Nancy, the Ashburnhams’ charge, is insane. Leonora remarries, and John Dowell, caring for Nancy, is now the owner of the Ashburnham estate in England. He is in love with Nancy, but her mental state prohibits him from marrying her. He considers the tragic history of the Dowells and the Ashburnhams, which led to the unhappy situation in which he found himself.
It had begun innocently enough with the meeting several years before of the Dowells and the Ashburnhams at the German spa town of Nauheim, where Dowell had taken Florence directly after their marriage in America. Florence was suffering from a heart condition, and they came to the spa for her to rest. Edward was supposedly there for the same reason. The two couples got along and spent most of their time together. Leonora came from a penniless, Irish Roman Catholic family; Edward owned an estate in England and a substantial fortune. So it seemed at the outset of their association. Both couples were in their thirties, and they remained in close association over a period of several years. Then the disaster struck.
What Dowell learns, after the deaths of his wife and Edward, is that his own peculiar relationship with his wife had a part in the sudden tragedy. Dowell, a decent, naïve gentleman, had married Florence, who came from a socially prominent family, without knowing much about her, except that she had a serious heart condition. He took her for an innocent girl, determined to get away from a stifling family, but she was, in fact, a problem to herself and especially to young men, given her enthusiasm for very questionable liaisons. She was not a virgin, as Dowell believed (he, however, was), and she was not particularly attracted to Dowell, although he was besotted with her. As a result of her illness, there was no chance of consummating their marriage, and she informed him that her doctors had forbidden her to chance a further sea voyage, once they reached Europe. They were, therefore, to remain in the pricy European hotels and spas permanently. Dowell was to care for his wife without any hope of a normal married life.
The truth, which Dowell learns only after her death, is that Florence had lied to him not only about her sexual state but also about her health. She was not ill and was perfectly able to have sex, but she had no desire to do so with Dowell, who was a pleasant, normal young man, but without sex appeal. Florence began an affair with Edward. He and his wife, who seemed happy with each other, were living a lie as well. The Ashburnhams were also not sexually compatible. This state had perhaps been caused in part...
(The entire section is 1101 words.)