illustration of Isabel Archer with a hand fan positioned between two silhouetted profiles

The Portrait of a Lady

by Henry James

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Chapters 16-20 Summary

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Last Updated April 18, 2023.

Isabel is by herself in her hotel room one night when Caspar Goodwood unexpectedly shows up. He explains that he came to see her because Henrietta had informed him that Isabel would be alone. This news angers Isabel and makes her feel uneasy about Caspar's visit. She had no interest in meeting with him or discussing his affection for her.

Despite Caspar's continuous declaration of love for Isabel and his proposal of marriage, Isabel rejects him just as she did with Lord Warburton. She asserts her desire not to marry anyone and requests Caspar to stop pursuing her and refrain from contacting her for a minimum of two years. She emphasizes that her personal independence is highly valuable to her.

Caspar consents to Isabel's request and expresses his willingness to wait for two years if she wants to travel and enhance herself. Caspar anticipates that Isabel will eventually become weary of her independence. Isabel is gratified to hear Caspar's commitment, but she does not promise him anything in return despite his agreement to wait for her.

Once Caspar departs, Henrietta comes back from having dinner. Isabel expresses her anger towards Henrietta for sending a letter to Caspar and inviting him to the hotel. Henrietta explains that she was only looking out for Isabel's future. While Isabel acknowledges Henrietta's concern, she would prefer if Henrietta refrains from involving herself in her matters in the future.

The next day, Ralph shares the news that his father is seriously ill and he needs to return to Gardencourt immediately. Isabel decides to accompany him. Meanwhile, Henrietta has received an invitation to Bob Bantling's sister's house. Dspite being concerned about Mr. Touchett, she decides to accept the invitation in order to meet people from English high society. Henrietta expresses her desire to become the "Queen of American Journalism" to Ralph and Isabel. Later, when Henrietta is alone with Ralph, she tells him about Caspar's visit. Ralph doesn't seem too concerned when he says, "Poor Mr. Goodwood." Henrietta plans to encourage Caspar to not give up on Isabel.

Ralph and Isabel have come back to Gardencourt and find the house to be calm and still. The family and servants are worried about Mr. Touchett's health. Isabel is left by herself to explore the huge, quiet mansion. While searching for her aunt, she hears music and finds Madame Serena Merle playing the piano. Madame Merle, a mature woman of forty, greets Isabel and explains that she couldn't resist playing her music despite Mr. Touchett's illness.

Isabel initially believes that Madame Merle is of European origin, but later discovers that she is actually a friend of Mrs. Touchett's from America. Although Madame Merle has been residing in Europe for a long time, Isabel doesn't get the chance to gather much information about her because Sir Matthew Hope, the family physician, arrives to attend to Mr. Touchett.

In the upcoming days, Daniel Touchett's health worsens and Ralph spends time by his father's side worried about the possibility of his father's death. During this time, Daniel informs Ralph that he has made plans for his future and promises that he will inherit a comfortable amount of money. However, Ralph isn't interested in wealth and only wants enough to live a simple and content life. Daniel understands his son's desires and revises his will accordingly, ensuring that Ralph will not be overwhelmed with an excessive inheritance.

Daniel wants his son to get married and puts forward Isabel as a potential match for Ralph. Although Ralph has developed a strong affection for his cousin, he refuses to acknowledge his love for her....

(This entire section contains 1440 words.)

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He explains to his father that due to his poor health, particularly his lung condition, he believes it wouldn't be prudent to enter into marriage. However, Mr. Touchett insists that Ralph should still consider getting married as he hopes his son can find some happiness in his life.

Ralph expresses to his father that he would be pleased if Isabel had the financial resources to pursue her various interests. He holds affection for his cousin and wishes to support her, and he is intrigued by the potential outcomes that could arise if this intelligent and self-reliant young woman were to come into a large sum of money. Ralph desires to see how Isabel's life would be affected by great wealth, and therefore asks his father to divide his inheritance of £120,000 in half, and grant half to Isabel. Although Daniel objects, believing that such a significant amount of money would make things too simple for Isabel, Ralph is convinced that she would handle the funds responsibly. After an extended conversation, Mr. Touchett ultimately concedes and agrees to modify his will granting Isabel half of what Ralph was intended to inherit.

Over the upcoming weeks, Ralph is occupied with his father's care so Isabel and Madame Merle develop a strong bond. Madame Merle, an experienced and insightful woman, takes an interest in Isabel and is happy to impart her worldly knowledge to the enthusiastic young American. Despite not having a fixed job, Madame Merle is a skilled painter and musician and has met numerous people in her life. She suggests that Isabel should meet a man named Gilbert Osmond.

Isabel holds the view that Madame Merle is faultless, but Ralph does not share the same admiration for her. Madame Merle, on the other hand, disapproves of Ralph's lack of a purposeful job and his preoccupation with his lung ailment. She informs Isabel that she and Ralph were once friends, but their relationship has deteriorated due to his changed attitude towards her.

Madame Merle is unsure if Isabel will eventually come to dislike her. She believes that her prime years have passed, as she is now without companionship, offspring, and physical attractiveness. Despite this, Isabel is confident that their friendship will endure. During their conversation about America and Isabel's future aspirations, Isabel opens up about many things, but she deliberately withholds information about Lord Warburton and Caspar Goodwood from Madame Merle.

Madame Merle departs from Gardencourt to visit other acquaintances in Europe while Isabel keeps in touch with Henrietta, who is still in London. Henrietta did not receive the invitation she was promised from Lady Pensil to visit Bedfordshire, but she has been exploring London and its surroundings with Bob Bantling. Based on his recommendation, Henrietta is planning a trip to France.

Daniel Touchett's health is deteriorating and he is becoming increasingly ill. One day, Sir Matthew Hope pays him a visit and leaves after several hours appearing very solemn. About an hour later, Ralph informs Isabel that his father passed away that afternoon.

Madame Merle visits the Winchester Square residence in London to express her sympathy to Mrs. Touchett a few weeks following Mr. Touchett's passing. Mrs. Touchett admits that her late husband was a decent man, but she doesn't appear too heartbroken about his death. She is planning to sell the London mansion and accompany Isabel to Paris. Mrs. Touchett informs Madame Merle that her husband bequeathed nearly £70,000 to his niece.

Madame Merle is shocked by the news and suggests that Isabel must have been very skilled in manipulating Mr. Touchett. However, Mrs. Touchett stands up for her niece, stating that Isabel was unaware of the inheritance. Isabel is now grieving her uncle's passing and feeling uncertain and confused about her new financial situation.

Ralph departs for the Riviera, anticipating that the balmy weather will be beneficial to his well-being. Meanwhile, Isabel accompanies her aunt to Paris, where Mrs. Touchett intends to instruct her on managing her newfound wealth. During their stay in Paris, Isabel meets up with Henrietta, who is convinced that the inheritance Isabel received will disconnect her from reality. Henrietta advises Isabel to leave her money to an unsavory individual, believing that it will only result in trouble for her friend.

Afterwards, they go to see Mr. and Mrs. Luce, who are American expats and friends of Mrs. Touchett. Both Mr. and Mrs. Luce are disillusioned with the new French republic. During their visit, Isabel also encounters Ned Rosier, a young American who knew Isabel's family back in the United States. Ned has a strong fondness for Paris and isn't very interested in the United States, which upsets Henrietta.

Henrietta tells Isabel that she went on a trip to Paris with Bob Bantling, and they spent four weeks exploring the city together. Henrietta has developed feelings for Bob and admires his good manners, knowledge, and experience. She informs Isabel that they were inseparable until Bob had to leave and go back to England. Henrietta intends to reunite with him in Italy during her upcoming trip in the spring.

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