“This is the saddest story I have ever heard”.
This is the story of the two couples: the Ashburnhams from England and the Dowells from the US. The Ashburnhams and the Dowells meet in a spa in Germany. And this “saddest story” is about their tragic lives.
In the second sentence of the novel, the discrepancy between appearance and reality is introduced: “My wife and I knew Captain and Mrs Ashburnham as well as it was possible to know anybody, and yet, in another sense, we knew nothing at all about them”. And the tragedy starts unravelling…
John and Florence Dowell
At the beginning of the novel, everything a reader knows about Florence is that she is dead at the time of narration. She suffered from a heart disease, which is why she and her husband visited the spas around Europe. Additionally, it is constantly emphasized that Florence was rarely out of her husband’s sight because of her weak heart.
In the midst of a paragraph, John Dowell says: “I don’t, you understand, blame Florence. But how can she have known what she knew”? The reader is not given any other information. The discrepancy between appearance and reality begins…
As the story continues, the reader discovers that Florence was Edward Ashburnham’s lover for nine years and that during that time Florence had long conversations with his wife Leonora trying to make Leonora forgive her husband for his many infidelities. Yes, Edward had many lovers beside Florence. In addition, Florence had a lover even at the beginning of the marriage.
At first, Florence is referred to as “my poor dear wife” and as the story unravels Dowell says that he hates her now. He admits that Florence was a burden to him and that he did not love her. She is referred to as “an unattained mistress” by Dowell.
There was no romance even at the beginning of their marriage. They met each other and soon they got married. Since Florence’s parents were not alive, she told her aunts that she wanted to marry Dowell. Her aunts tried to persuade him not to marry her. “Don’t do it John. Don’t do it. You are a good young man”. Dowell did not pay any attention to this in his determination to marry her: “I determined with all the obstinacy of a possible weak nature, if not to make her mine, at least to marry her”.
After a fortnight of knowing him she told Dowell her simple wants. She wanted to marry a gentleman of an English accent with a specific income. That was the reason why she married Dowell. He could supply these wants, which he did. She found her ideal man in Edward Ashburnham.
She suffered from a weak heart and because of that they had to sleep in the separate rooms. Florence was very nervous while being in her room, she was afraid of thieves, you see… She needed her privacy. Her room was always locked inside.
When Florence discovered that Edward had another lover beside her, she killed herself. She drunk deadly poison from the little flask Dowell always thought was the medicine for her heart. She did not suffer from a heart disease. This affair was used to cover her infidelities. If she had had a heart disease, there would have been no reason for the separate rooms.
How could she have two lovers during that marriage if she was not out of sight of her husband? Dowell perceives himself as a deceived husband who does not know anything about the nature of people around him: “I know nothing-nothing in the world-of the hearts of men”. Because of this he could not possibly have known about his wife’s lovers. He insists that he has been “just a male sick nurse”. “And what chance had I against those three hardened gamblers (Edward, Leonora and Florence), who were all in league to conceal their hands from me”? Florence was open in her relationship with Edward. She would make him kiss her in a middle of the day, which makes it even more bizarre that Dowell did not know anything about this relationship.
Edward and Leonora Ashburnham
The Ashburnhams were English aristocrats and descendants of Charles I.
The first thing Dowell says about them is that they were a model couple. Edward was a devoted husband and Leonora was “too good to be true”. In the same paragraph, Dowell recollects Leonora’s statement: “Once I tried to have a lover, but I was so sick at the heart, so utterly worn out that I had to send him away”. Even though the reader does not know anything about the Ashburnhams except they are the aristocrats from England, the reader understands that Dowel’s statement about them as a model couple is not necessarily true.
Edward came from a rich Protestant family and Leonora came from an impoverished Irish family. Their marriage was arranged. Edward was always admiring Leonora, but he did not love her. He always denied all his infidelities, he wanted to “preserve the virginity of his wife’s thoughts”. On the other hand, Leonora loved him and she lived her life hoping that Edward would come back to her.
According to Dowel, Edward was not a promiscuous man. He was only a sentimental soul and an idealist, “a poor wretch” who really believed that he loved all his former lovers. He believed that women are tender beings, whose main role is to provide a moral support to a husband. Edward spent all his money on lovers. On the other hand, Leonora was the one who was saving him from bankruptcy and who tolerated Edward in a hope that he would come back to her. While Edward was being busy with his lovers, Leonora managed all his accounts and succeeded in earning large sums of money from their estate. She was raised in a traditional way. She believed that a man has a right to be unfaithful to his wife, but a wife’s obligation is to get him back. And the wife needs to do everything she can to prevent the scandal.
Leonora and Edward lived a life of acting. Everyone perceived them as perfect couple. In reality, it was far from perfect.
By the end of the novel we had created an image of Leonora as a devoted Catholic and a victim of her cruel husband. When Leonora discovered that Edward had fallen in love with Nancy, a 22 year-old daughter of her close friend, this image of hers was slowly being tarnished. Even though Edward did not want to do anything with Nancy, Leonora convinced Nancy that she had to save Edward and that she had to be with him; she must save his life. Otherwise, Edward would kill himself. However, Leonora made sure that Nancy knew all about Edward’s infidelities. “You must save Edward’s life; you must save his life. All that he needs is a little period of satisfaction from you. Then he will tire of you… “. All this led to the tragic ends of Edward and Nancy.
Since Dowell plays the role of an unreliable narrator, the reader has to take everything he says with a pinch of salt. Nothing is ever what it seems… Nevertheless, that is the beauty of the novel which has the unreliable narrator. You, as a reader, collect the pieces of a puzzle in order to get the full picture. What matters most are those details that lie beyond the surface.
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