Part I, Section V
Dowell says that his entire life's mission was to keep a heart patient alive. He constantly feared for Florence's safety and ease of travel. Dowell explains that in Florence he had both a wife and an unattained mistress; their marriage had never been consummated. He feels similar to Leonora, because he thinks it is her job, too, to care for a heart patient. But Dowell adds, he now realizes there was nothing at all wrong with Edward's heart, and he merely used it as an excuse to escape his army position and follow a young girl, Maisie Maidan, to Nauheim.
Dowell describes the immediate history of Edward and Leonora. Several years before, Edward had been caught attempting to kiss a young servant girl in the back of a carriage car. Though he claimed his actions were innocent, Edward's political enemies brought it into the public eye, called it the Kilsyte case, and caused him extreme embarrassment. Afterward, Edward left servants alone, but became more interested in women of his own class. The next year, in Monte Carlo, Edward had an affair with a "harpy," La Dolciquita, who passed for the mistress of a Russian Grand Duke. He ran away with her for a week, bought her an extremely expensive tiara, and lost an enormous fortune at the gambling tables. Though he tried to hide these events from Leonora, she found out about it and went straight to England to take control of the money and pay off Edward's debts. Now in control of the Ashburnham finances, Leonora insisted that they go to India in order to save money. While in India, Edward started another affair with the wife of another army officer, Mrs. Basil. When Major Basil found out about the affair, he started to blackmail Edward. Edward's romantic attentions then moved to a young girl, Mrs. Maisie Maiden, a submissive woman whose young husband was away serving in the army. Leonora, who by now has become embittered about her husband's liaisons, decides that the best thing to do is to provide him a safe mistress with whom he is not likely to get into trouble. She agrees to humor Edward and they bring Mrs. Maidan with them to Nauheim.
On the afternoon before the dinner when the Dowells and the Ashburnhams first met, Leonora had been opening Edward's mail when she found a blackmail letter from Major Basil. Leonora was horrified. She thought that finally she had gotten all of their financial affairs in order, but this letter led her to suspect that Edward was hiding an even greater number of debts. She and Edward had a terrible argument, and Edward was mortified that his wife should know so much of his indiscretions. Two hours later, Leonora saw Mrs. Maidan emerging from Edward's bedroom and it was too much for her; she suspected the worst. Leonora lost control and violently boxed Mrs. Maidan's ears, what Dowell describes as 'striking the face of an intolerable universe." Unfortunately for Leonora, Florence witnesses this scene. This gave Florence power over Leonora, because she now realized that the Ashburnhams were not merely "good people." Leonora attempts to befriend Florence in order to cover up the situation. Together, they meet Dowell and Captain Ashburnham for their first dinner together.
Part I, Section VI
Dowell reflects on his own position in this drama. He explains that he was merely a "male sick nurse" for all those years, and that, deceived, he was extraordinarily happy. He anticipates the question how does it "feel to be a deceived husband?" and he can only respond with the answer: "Heavens, I do not know. It just feels nothing at all."
Dowell then reflects on Florence. He admits that sometimes he pities her and longs to comfort her in the afterlife, but then he remembers that he hates her so much that "he would not spare her an eternity of loneliness." Dowell concludes that Florence took advantage of people who were weaker than her.
Dowell next recounts a story he has been told by Leonora of a conversation which took place between the two women. Florence had tried to convince Leonora to reconcile with Edward. Leonora will not hear of it; she knows that Florence and Edward will just continue their affair in private and in hotel rooms. When Florence brings up Maisie Maidan, Leonora gets very angry and coolly retorts that Florence is never to bring up Mrs. Maidan's name again, because the two of them are responsible for her death. Florence denies responsibility.