John thinks that his mission in life is to care for Florence and ensure her heart stays healthy. He constantly optimizes their travel plans around Florence’s health. Although Florence and John are married, they have never had sex because it could be dangerous for Florence’s heart. John’s position in life makes him sympathetic toward Leonora. After all, both are in charge of caring for people with weak hearts. In retrospect, John thinks that it is likely that nothing was wrong with Edward’s heart; Edward just faked the condition to get out of the army and spend time with a girl named Maisie Maiden in Nauheim.
This revelation is a significant moment in the story for two reasons. First, it explains why John is so frustrated in his marriage to Florence and why he didn’t understand her sensual look in a previous scene. Second, it reveals that both Florence and Edward are faking their heart conditions. Although John doesn’t state it explicitly in the case of Florence, it is clear that she is faking because her heart is just fine despite her affair with Edward.
Before explaining the importance of Maisie to his story, John makes a point to discuss Edward’s many affairs. Several years before John met Edward, Edward was caught trying to kiss a servant girl. This incident became public and was a great embarrassment for both Edward and Leonora. However, Edward did not learn his lesson. The following year, he began an affair with La Dolciquita, a woman with expensive taste who convinced Edward to blow a great sum of money over the course of a single week. Edward attempted to hide his actions from Leonora, but she found out almost immediately and took it upon herself to rectify their finances.
Here, John peels back the layers of Edward’s “good soldier” outer appearance. As it turns out, he is not a sentimentalist driven by traditional values; rather, he is a lascivious man who cannot control his urges. Because Edward is so irresponsible, Leonora takes on the traditionally masculine role of financial planning. Additionally, Leonora’s knowledge of Edward’s previous affairs clarifies the events of the previous chapter. Evidently, Leonora was quick to catch on to Edward’s affair with Florence because she’s dealt with similar behavior in the past.
Having taken a financial hit, the Ashburnhams traveled to India, where they could live cheaply. However, before long, Edward began yet another affair, this time with Mrs. Basil, the wife of a major in the army. Because Edward is terrible at hiding his affairs, Major Basil quickly found out and began blackmailing Edward. Realizing his relationship with Mrs. Basil could not continue, Edward decided to pursue Maisie Maiden. Maisie was also married to a soldier, but he was on active duty.
Edward’s image continues to erode as John goes through each of his affairs. Notably, everything John narrates here is second-hand information that he got from Leonora.
By this time, Leonora decided that she could not stop her husband from having affairs and so she must make the best of her situation. As such, she allowed Edward to pursue Maisie because she didn’t think Maisie or her husband would pose a threat to the Ashburnhams’ finances. Despite knowing his intentions, she even allowed Edward to invite Maisie to come with them to Nauheim.
Even if one takes John at his word, there is a question of whether to trust what Leonora says about Edward. In this chapter of their lives, which Leonora relates to John, Leonora comes out looking like the perfect wife. Perhaps this image is justified, but it is impossible to know this for sure because there are multiple layers of mediation between John’s version of the story and what actually happened.
The day the Dowells and the Ashburnhams first met was the same day Leonora found out that Major Basil was blackmailing Edward. Upon discovering yet another of her husband’s errors, Leonora was deeply upset and worried about their financial future. In response, she openly confronted Edward, who was embarrassed that his wife knew so much about what he'd been doing behind her back. Only a few hours after their fight, Leonora spotted Maisie leaving Edward’s room. Although nothing inappropriate occurred, this sight was one step too far for Leonora, and she hit Maisie on the side of the head. Coincidentally, Florence came upon this scene just in time to see Leonora hit Maisie. Not wanting to create another scandal, Leonora befriended Florence, leading to the first dinner between the two couples.
This chapter of the novel reveals that the relationship between the Ashburnhams and the Dowells is not what it seems. Florence and Leonora were never on equal footing because Florence knew information that could harm Leonora’s reputation. Meanwhile, it also becomes clear that Leonora is not handling her husband’s infidelity as well as she would like to admit. Here, she starts to come apart at the seams.