The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

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Chapters 51-55 Summary and Analysis

Summary
Isabel receives word from her aunt that Ralph is gravely ill. If she wishes to see her cousin before he dies, Mrs. Touchett writes, Isabel should come to England immediately. Isabel quickly makes plans to leave Rome, although Osmond disapproves of the trip and would prefer it if Isabel remained in Rome. Ralph, he says, means nothing to him, and he even doubts that Ralph is really dying. Isabel considers Osmond’s attitude loathsome; all Osmond is concerned about is keeping up the appearance of a happy marriage. He cares nothing for Isabel’s feelings.
Terribly upset by Osmond’s remarks, Isabel discusses the matter with Countess Gemini. The Countess is not surprised by the conflict. She knows that relations between Isabel and Osmond are severely strained, and she knows how vicious her brother can be. Countess Gemini then reveals a startling secret: Pansy’s mother was not, as everyone believes, Osmond’s deceased first wife. Pansy is really the illegitimate daughter of Osmond and Madame Merle. The two friends had actually been lovers for several years when Madame Merle became pregnant with Pansy. Osmond concocted the story that his first wife died giving birth to Pansy. At the time, Madame Merle had also been married. In order to avoid a scandal, Madame Merle never revealed that she was Pansy’s mother, but she took an intense interest in the welfare of Osmond and their daughter. She believed Isabel would make a suitable stepmother for Pansy and would be able to provide enough money to allow Osmond and his daughter to live comfortably. Countess Gemini explains that this is why Madame Merle was so upset when Lord Warburton did not propose to Pansy.

Isabel, although stunned by this revelation, finds it in her heart to feel pity for the manipulative Madame Merle. Nevertheless, Countess Gemini urges her to go ahead with her plans to return to England.

Before leaving Rome, Isabel visits Pansy at the convent. Although the nuns are all gentle and friendly, the place still reminds Isabel of a prison. After she arrives at the convent, Isabel is surprised to find Madame Merle already visiting Pansy. Isabel is cool and reserved toward the woman and says little. When Isabel goes up to Pansy’s room, she senses immediately that her stepdaughter is miserable. But, obedient as ever, Pansy is willing to stay as long as her father wishes. Isabel asks Pansy if she would like to come to England with her, but Pansy cannot disobey Osmond. But she does admit her dislike for Madame Merle. Without revealing that Madame Merle is her mother, Isabel gently tells Pansy never to say that or even think it again. Isabel promises Pansy she will return for another visit.

After she says good-bye to Pansy, Isabel encounters Madame Merle again in the waiting area of the convent. It is now obvious to both women that their relationship is at an end. Madame Merle spitefully informs Isabel that it was Ralph, and not Daniel Touchett, who arranged for Isabel to inherit her fortune. Isabel is shaken by the news. She tells Madame Merle that she never wants to see her again and is grateful to learn that the woman plans to move to America.

Isabel arrives in England and is met at the train station by Henrietta and Bob Bantling. Before going to Gardencourt, Isabel stops in London and spends the night at Henrietta’s flat, where she learns that her friend is planning to marry Mr. Bantling. Isabel is happy for them, although she finds it “odd” that Henrietta is giving up America to live in England after the wedding. Bob is taking the whole thing in stride with his usual good nature. Then Isabel tells Henrietta that she is uncertain about her own future. She admits to her friend that her relationship with Osmond has been “hellish.” Henrietta urges her to leave her husband.

In the morning, Isabel travels to Gardencourt to see Ralph. The house is very quiet, and the servants are unfamiliar. Mrs. Touchett, who is sitting with her son, doesn’t come down to greet...

(The entire section is 2,268 words.)