The narrative jumps to a villa in Florence, six months after Mr. Touchett’s death. The architecture of the building is of special interest, with the villa set upon a hill and fronted by a deceptive façade that masks that real house behind it. The windows are also peculiar in that they are tasteful in proportion, yet “defy the world to look in.”
Inside the Florence house are two nuns, a gentleman (later revealed as Osmond) and a young girl (later revealed as Pansy). Luxurious artworks, books, and furnishings litter the villa’s interior. The young girl stands silently before an easel that holds a painting of her own likeness, while forced conversation takes place between the adults.
The villa is draped in rich furnishings that speak to a sophisticated European style. This is further enhanced by the books and paintings that decorate the room. Meanwhile the atmosphere between the people in the room is one of forced politeness.
The narrator pays great attention to the gentleman’s physical features. Forty years of age, he has a lean figure with a fine and angular face that is emphasized by his pointed beard. His foreign look is completed with a flourished moustache and intelligent eyes. He is like a “a fine gold coin” that is not found “in the general circulation.”
Gilbert Osmond is the narrator’s subject of attention. Osmond is an American expatriate (as previously revealed by Merle to Isabel) who appears European in his dark, sophisticated physical features. Osmond is therefore represented as an individual who has embraced European culture over that of his home country, just like Madame Merle. His comparison to a rare “gold coin” suggests that he is a unique man of great value. Readers later learn that this representation is a sham, for Osmond is financially and morally bereft.
With a perfect Italian accent, the gentleman asks the girl what she thinks of the painting. She tells the gentleman, who is her father, that she loves it. She has just returned home with the two nuns from a convent, where she has been educated for some time.
Osmond seems very self-centered, asking his daughter to comment on his artistic talent rather than asking her about her life now that she has returned home. It also seems strange that Pansy has been educated at a convent, a very different upbringing from that of independent women such as Isabel.
The sisters elaborate on the child’s education—now fifteen, the girl has received a well-rounded education ranging from the Romance languages, to gymnastics, to painting. One of the nuns remarks that she thinks the child has stopped growing; the gentleman replies that this suits him, stating “I prefer women like books—very good and not too long.” When he asks one of the sisters what she makes of his daughter, the nun replies that she is “A charming young lady—a real little woman—a daughter in whom you will have nothing but contentment.” Both sisters appear to genuinely care for the girl and will greatly miss her presence at the convent.
Again, Osmond privileges his own desires above his daughter’s, treating Pansy as though she is an object in his book collection.
As the nuns say their goodbyes to the girl, the gentleman opens a door to let them exit the villa. He is surprised to see one of his servants admitting a lady in “shabby” clothing. He allows her through to the next room, where the girl identifies the new visitor as Madame Merle. Merle names the young girl as her friend, Pansy, whom she had regularly visited at the convent.
Osmond’s surprise at his new guest’s appearance shows that Madame Merle’s visit is unexpected. Her “shabby” dress suggests that she is not enjoying the wealthy lifestyle which readers know from previous chapters that she aspires to.
The nuns leave the villa, and Pansy is obedient but disappointed to the point of tears when Madame Merle instructs her to wait with her while Pansy’s father shows the sisters out. Madame Merle asks Pansy if she will miss Madame Catherine, who is clearly the girl’s favorite sister. When Pansy replies that she will, Merle suggests that one day Pansy might have a new mother.
Pansy is closer in temperament to the meek Misses Molyneux than the headstrong Isabel and Henrietta. Merle’s suggestion that Pansy might one day have a new mother is weighty for two reasons: firstly, it hints at her own identity as Pansy’s mother, and secondly, it foreshadows the close bond that will grow between Pansy and her future step-mother, Isabel.
Pansy’s father, Gilbert Osmond, returns to the room. Osmond and Merle talk to one another about Pansy and her education, their aggressive undertones hidden by layers of charm and civility in the presence of Pansy.
James now reveals that Pansy’s father is Gilbert Osmond, the friend that Madame Merle mentioned to Isabel at Gardencourt. Clearly there is tension between the two adults that they want to hide from Pansy, putting on a façade of courteous friendship.
Osmond sends Pansy outside to pick flowers for Madame Merle, which the young girl happily agrees to. Osmond then addresses Merle’s unheralded visit, while she labels him as being idle and uncaring. Osmond simply agrees with her descriptions.
Pansy again demonstrates her obedient nature. Osmond reveals himself to be a surprising character who makes no argument against Madame Merle’s assertions that he is an unproductive person. Indeed, he seems the very definition of an aesthete (an individual appreciates tasteful art and nothing more).
Madame Merle reveals that she has come to Florence not only to see Pansy, but to present an opportunity to Osmond. She wants him to meet Isabel, who is also currently in Florence. He does not want to meet a stranger, but Merle explains that Isabel is a great catch, and that she thinks he should marry her. Osmond is confused by her plan, but begins to be interested in the young woman whom Merle describes as “beautiful, accomplished, generous […] very clever and very amiable, and she has a handsome fortune.”
Madame Merle has to work hard to pique Osmond’s interest in her proposal, but once he learns that Isabel meets all of his criteria for an ideal woman, he begins to pay attention to Merle’s plan. Clearly, he is a social predator like Merle and is primarily interested in Isabel’s wealth.
Osmond tells Madame Merle that she looks well, recognizing this is likely the result of her “idea” of matchmaking Osmond with Isabel. He is frustrated by her meddling in his life, trying to match him with Isabel, and he is even more disgruntled when Merle states that she doesn’t value his paintings after he points out his most recent work. Osmond contrastingly believes that his artworks are a great deal better than many other painters’. Merle states that she wishes he had carried out other ambitions than his painting—something she has told him numerous times.
Osmond keeps up with Merle’s wit and although he is intrigued by her proposition, he is also vexed by her failure to recognize his talent as an artist. Once again, James highlights Osmond’s need for artistic validation. Madame Merle is forthright in her opinion that Osmond should have done something more with his life than pursuing his passion for painting.
Osmond checks again with Madame Merle whether Isabel is wealthy. He then agrees to meet Isabel, as long as Ralph Touchett won’t bother him, for Osmond considers Ralph “a good deal of a donkey.” Merle tells Osmond that Ralph dislikes her, and follows this up by calling attention to Pansy’s failure to appear with flowers for the woman, making Merle think that Pansy dislikes her too.
The unconventional Madame Merle reveals one of her few vulnerabilities: despising others’ dislike of her character. She has mentioned it before regarding Ralph Touchett, and she is even more concerned that Pansy—her illegitimate daughter—does not like her. Certainly, Pansy has no knowledge of her true parentage and regards Merle as a family friend rather than family.