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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1502

Nicholas Dormer, a handsome young bachelor politician and amateur portrait painter, is vacationing in Paris with his formidable mother, Lady Agnes, the impoverished widow of a Liberal politician, and his two younger sisters, “spinsterish” Grace and lively, lovable Biddy. At an art exhibition, Nick meets an old Oxford friend, Gabriel...

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Nicholas Dormer, a handsome young bachelor politician and amateur portrait painter, is vacationing in Paris with his formidable mother, Lady Agnes, the impoverished widow of a Liberal politician, and his two younger sisters, “spinsterish” Grace and lively, lovable Biddy. At an art exhibition, Nick meets an old Oxford friend, Gabriel Nash, an aesthete and dilettante but sufficiently a gentleman to be introduced to the ladies. Another visitor in Paris is the Dormers’ cousin, Julia Dallow, a rich and politically minded young widow, whose brother, Peter Sherringham, is at the British Embassy there. Nick’s fondness for Julia, her devotion to his political career, Biddy’s friendship with Julia and unrequited affection for Peter, and Peter and Nick’s congeniality unite the family group with particularly close ties. While they are together in Paris, they hear that the member of Parliament for the constituency where Julia’s estate and influence lies died suddenly. Guaranteeing her financial as well as political support, Julia wants Nick to stand for election.

This moment of great promise and family solidarity is threatened unobtrusively by Nash’s introduction of Mrs. Rooth and Miriam. They are, respectively, a widow of limited means and vague claims to aristocratic connections in England, and her beautiful daughter, who was brought up in a succession of continental pensions where living is cheap, superficially cultivated, and multilingual. To promote Miriam’s aspirations toward the stage, Nash arranges an audition with a notable retired French actor whom Peter knows through his passionate interest in the theater. Peter, also invited to the audition, persuades Nick to join him and suggests that Nick should paint Miriam as the Tragic Muse. Although the audition is a fiasco, Peter is sufficiently intrigued to invite the Rooths to a party at his house. There Miriam recites again, meets the ladies of the family, and makes a bad impression on all but Biddy. Julia, disgusted both with Miriam and with what she considers the frivolousness of Nash, returns to England to organize the election campaign, and the Dormers follow soon after. Peter finds himself increasingly involved with Miriam, to the extent of offering to pay for private lessons with the old French actor. At first, he assumes that his interest is in Miriam’s potential as an actor, but he eventually realizes that he was in love with her all along.

At Harsh, Julia’s principal estate, where Nick wins the election, he proposes to Julia and is accepted. To their mutual happiness there is added an undercurrent of brewing trouble in his assurance that he will give up his painting, her incomprehension of what this will mean to him, and her refusal to set their wedding date. When Nick next goes to see his father’s old friend and political ally, Mr. Carteret, he learns that his prospects of being the rich old bachelor’s heir depends on his marriage to Julia.

Peter, meanwhile, returning to Paris after leaving London, finds that Miriam has acquired another patron, an English actor named Basil Dashwood. Peter urges her to give up her theatrical ambition for a greater role as wife of a rising diplomat, but she says that she will accept him only as the husband of an actor. In London, Nick and Julia face similar difficulties as Julia plans to spend the Parliamentary recess on a round of strategic country-house visits, while Nick prefers to use his leisure time painting in his studio. With the wedding date set at last, they separate and Nick retires to his studio, where his first visitor is Nash, whom Nick has not seen since their meeting in Paris. Nash tells Nick that Miriam arrived in London after her first success in Paris and wants Nick to make good his promise to paint her as the Tragic Muse. When Nash brings her to the studio the next day, Nick is excited about her possibilities as a portrait subject. Beginning to paint immediately, he waits until later that night to write Julia about it. Julia fails to get the letter because she returns to London unexpectedly, calls to surprise Nick, and is so stunned to find him with Miriam as a sitter that she leaves without a word and is not at home when he calls that evening. When he finally sees her late at night, she breaks the engagement on the grounds that his preference for the artistic life will never be compatible with her own interest in politics.

The next day, Julia leaves for the Continent. Stopping in Paris to see her brother and tell him what happened, she also urges him to marry Biddy. Although he is determined to forget Miriam, Julia’s account makes him more eager to see Miriam than Biddy. He finds a pretext for a journey to London, where he goes straight to Miriam’s rented villa. Not finding her at home, he then goes to Nick’s studio and there finds Biddy alone. Discussing the break between Nick and Julia with Biddy, who is loyal to and sympathetic with both her brother and her friend, Peter fails to understand either of them; but seeing the portrait of Miriam gives him a deeper understanding of the actor’s beauty and of Nick’s talent. Peter gives Biddy momentary hope by inviting her to the theater that night to see Miriam act. During the rest of his visit, he spends most of his time with the coterie of Miriam’s friends who meet at her house to discuss the theater.

Nick is away from London on a visit to the dying Mr. Carteret, to whom he confesses not only that the engagement is broken but also that he just wrote a letter to his constituency resigning his seat in Parliament. Difficult as it is to disappoint his father’s old friend, who treats him like a son, Nick finds it even harder to tell his mother, who believes that the sacrifice of his political career betrays his father’s memory, while the dual sacrifice of Mr. Carteret’s and Julia’s fortunes betrays his sisters and herself. Only Biddy remains loyal to Nick; she spends more and more time at his studio, where she takes up sculpture.

During Peter’s prolonged stay in London, the central characters revolve around one another in a tantalizing minuet: Nick sees his devoted younger sister tortured by the knowledge that Peter, whom she loves, is in love with Miriam, and Peter is tortured by Nash’s telling him that Miriam is in love with Nick. For the third time Nash, the detached observer of life, precipitates a crisis in the lives of others. Peter tries to maintain his equilibrium by calling on Lady Agnes and accepting an invitation to dinner, but he cancels it at the last minute when he learns that the first night of Miriam’s new play is scheduled. Her superb performance increases his passion so much that he tries again to persuade her to give up the stage to marry him, but she repeats her original terms. Defeated by her determination, Peter accepts promotion to a higher post in some remote country and withdraws.

The next year, while Miriam establishes herself rapidly as a success on the London stage, Nick continues to paint her, although with no interest in her except as a subject. His own artistic career is not successful, and he is worried about debts. Biddy refuses a rich suitor. Julia finally comes back to England accompanied by rumors of romance with a leading politician. At this depressing period, Nash reappears and agrees to sit for a portrait, but after only one sitting he disappears again. His encouragement of Nick’s artistic bent has a lasting influence, but the complications he evokes began to disappear when he does. Julia makes overtures through Biddy with the suggestion that she wants to sit for a portrait. While Nick and Biddy are discussing this proposal, they are surprised by the arrival at the studio of Miriam and her new husband, Basil, both excited about Miriam’s opening that night as Juliet. Although the house is sold out, they manage to get a seat for Biddy as well as for Nick. At the theater, they see Peter, who returns from abroad in time for the first night but too late to declare again his love for Miriam, who married three days before.

With the Tragic Muse established as a public figure, Nick and Peter bring their private affairs to a swift and easy conclusion. Peter arranges for an extension of his leave in order to return to his post with Biddy as his wife. Nick paints a portrait of Julia that attracts the favorable attention of critics at a private viewing. There are also rumors that Julia’s other suitor is worried about her. Whether Nick will ever achieve success in the career for which he sacrificed heavily, as Miriam and Peter achieve it in theirs, remains a provocative question for the future.

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