The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

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Chapters 16-20 Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Madame Serena Merle: a friend of the Touchetts who meets Isabel at Gardencourt

Edward (Ned) Rosier: a young American, living in Paris, who had been acquainted with Isabel’s family
in the United States

Mr. and Mrs. Luce: an American expatriate couple who are living in Paris

Mr. Hilary: Daniel Touchett’s attorney

Summary
That evening, alone in her hotel, Isabel receives an unexpected visit from Caspar Goodwood. He tells Isabel he’s come to see her because Henrietta wrote to him, informing him that Isabel would be alone at the hotel that evening. Isabel is incensed to hear this and disturbed by Caspar’s visit. She has no desire to see him or to confront him about his feelings for her. But Caspar persists in declaring his love for Isabel, and he asks for her hand in marriage. Isabel replies, as she did to Lord Warburton, that she does not wish to marry anyone. She asks Caspar to leave her alone, and to not contact her for at least two years. “If there’s one thing in the world I’m fond of,” she says, “it’s my personal independence.”

Caspar agrees to her request, but he says he is willing to wait the two years if Isabel wants to travel and improve herself. Caspar believes, however, that Isabel will get “very sick” of her independence. Isabel is relieved to hear Caspar’s promise, but she promises him “nothing” in return, even though he has agreed to wait
for her.

After Caspar leaves, Henrietta returns from dinner. Isabel is angry at her for writing to Caspar and inviting him to the hotel. Henrietta says she is just concerned about Isabel’s future. Isabel appreciates her friend’s concern, but in the future would prefer it if Henrietta would stay out of her affairs.

The following morning, Ralph arrives with the news that his father is quite ill. He must return to Gardencourt immediately and Isabel decides to go with him. Henrietta has been invited to Bob Bantling’s sister’s house, and, although she is worried about Mr. Touchett, she cannot pass up the opportunity to get acquainted with members of English high society. She tells Ralph and Isabel that she wants to become the “Queen of American Journalism.” Later, when she is alone with Ralph, Henrietta tells him about Caspar’s visit. “Poor Mr. Goodwood,” Ralph says, without much conviction. Henrietta says she plans to urge Caspar not to give up on Isabel.

Ralph and Isabel return to Gardencourt. The house is quiet; the family and servants are very concerned about Mr. Touchett. Isabel is left alone to wander through the great, silent mansion. As she roams through the house, looking for her aunt, she hears music and encounters Madame Serena Merle playing the piano. A grand, 40-year-old woman, Madame Merle greets Isabel and tells her that, even though old Touchett is ill, she couldn’t resist playing her music. Isabel assumes the woman is a European, but she soon learns she is a friend of Mrs. Touchett’s from America. Madame Merle has been living in Europe

(The entire section is 2,009 words.)