Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1116
Lilia Herriton, a widow of several years who has been living with her husband’s family since his death, cheerfully leaves Sawston, England, with her friend Caroline Abbott for an extended visit in Italy. The Herriton family encouraged such a visit because of their concern over Lilia’s growing relationship with a man they consider unsuitable for her and also because they welcome a chance to train her daughter during the mother’s absence. The trip, which is Philip’s idea, is quickly agreed to by everyone concerned. Fortunately, Caroline, a woman ten years younger but much more levelheaded than Lilia, is also planning such a trip and needs a companion.
The winter passes peacefully for everyone, and the tour seems to be a success. Lilia is apparently gaining some degree of culture and taste under Miss Abbott’s guidance, and back in England Lilia’s daughter Irma is improving through the efforts of Mrs. Herriton. In the spring, however, Mrs. Herriton hears from Lilia’s mother that Lilia is engaged to an Italian, supposedly someone she met in a hotel. She immediately wires Caroline for details but is answered only by the terse comment that Lilia is engaged to an Italian nobleman. Instinctively recognizing this to be a lie, she insists that Philip go at once to Italy and stop the marriage.
Caroline meets Philip’s train when he arrives at Monteriano, the village in which Lilia and Caroline are staying for a month. Nervously, she agrees to tell him everything. According to her story, Lilia and the man fell in love with each other, so she rather offhandedly suggested marriage. Unfortunately, Signor Carella, who is about twelve years younger than Lilia, is the son of a dentist in that provincial village, and he has no money. His social position, therefore, is little better than that of a peasant. Philip is even more appalled when he sees the man, for everything about him except his physique is extremely vulgar. Philip is, however, too late to stop the marriage, for the couple married as soon as they heard he was coming. He can do nothing but return home, and he takes Caroline with him. The Herriton family refuses to have anything more to do with Lilia, but they keep Irma with them to be brought up as one who bears the Herriton name.
It is some time before Lilia realizes that she does not love her husband and can never be happy with him and that he married her only for her money. She is never able to understand that as an Italian wife she can neither expect nor receive from her husband the things that English wives receive from theirs as a matter of course. By the time she realizes her unhappiness, she is cut off from everything in England and there is nothing she can do. Once, when she is particularly upset, she writes to her daughter, telling of her unhappiness and the reasons for it, but the letter is intercepted by Mrs. Herriton and nothing ever comes of it.
Lilia often thinks that if she can present her husband with a son they might eventually regain some happiness. His one ambition is to be the father of a man like himself. Lilia does finally have a son, but she dies in childbirth. The Herritons decide they must tell Irma about her mother’s death but that it will be best if no one knows about the child, who is, after all, no real relation of theirs.
Irma finds out about the child when she begins receiving postcards sent her by the father. Her childish pride prevents her from keeping such an event a secret, and soon all Sawston knows of it. Much to the chagrin of the Herritons, Caroline, who still considers herself partly responsible for all that happened, begins to insist that something be done for the child, either by them or by herself. Mrs. Herriton, whose pride will not allow anyone else to do something that will in any way reflect on her family, immediately begins negotiations that she hopes will enable her to adopt the boy.
When her letters elicit only polite refusals, she decides that Philip must again go to Monteriano and gain custody of the child at any cost; Harriet is to go along to see that he accomplishes his mission. On their arrival, however, they find that Caroline preceded them and is also intent on seeing that the child be taken back to England. Philip and Caroline soon begin to be affected by the romantic and charming atmosphere. They still mean to carry out their mission, but they quickly lose all feeling of urgency in the matter.
On their second day in the village, they are to meet with Signor Carella. Caroline goes to the house early and alone; she is afraid that Philip will fail. While there, she is completely won over by the father’s devotion to the son, and she finds herself on the Italian’s side and against the Herritons, although she knows she can do nothing to hinder their plans. Philip sees Signor Carella that day; although he will not openly admit that the Italian is right, he finds that he is completely indifferent to the outcome of his mission, and he becomes friendly with his adversary. Success in the affair is left to Harriet, who, after apparently accepting Philip’s failure, prepares to leave the village. Shortly before it is time for them to catch the train, she sends a note to Philip, telling him to pick her up just outside the gate to the village. When he gets there, he finds that she also visited the Carella household and, not finding Signor Carella at home, simply picked up the baby and walked away.
On the way down the mountain to the train, their carriage accidentally overturns, and the baby is killed. Philip has to tell Signor Carella what happened, and the Italian almost kills him. Caroline, whom Signor Carella always revered, is the only person who can calm him and prevent the situation from resulting in yet more pain. By the time the English group recuperates enough to leave Italy, the two men are good friends again.
On the way back to England, Philip receives another disappointment. Because of the romantic atmosphere and their close association, he falls in love with Caroline. He almost proposes to her when they are talking about love and the future, but she, thinking he suspected it long before, tells him of her passion for Signor Carella. Philip for years thought that he understood the world, but he now recognizes that he really understands nothing.
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