Florence mistakenly aggrandizes her knowledge to a level of cultural authority. I’ve mentioned earlier that Dowell contradicts or undercuts much of her tourguide performances (a trait he carries over to Florence in general), which makes much of her pronouncements both humorous and pathetic. But the cultural assumption is just one part of Florence wanting to exert control. The ironic part of Florence’s schemes to control Dowell is that they backfire—she painted herself in a corner with her “attack” at sea and now can not leave the continent. She can not obtain her wish of English gentry (and possibly even reclaiming her ancestral property from the Ashburnhams) because of her lies. Even more ironic is John buying the property at the end of the book. Dowell’s attitude toward Florence vacillates, with “poor dear Florence” being wished a tormented stay in hell the next moment.
The loss of control, first over Leonora (who, as Dowell puts it, treats Florence "like the whore she was”), then Edward (hearing him pledge his love to Nancy), and finally her cuckolded husband (who found out courtesy of Mr. Bagshawe) is what drove her to suicide.
Leonora is an interesting case, full of contradictions. The priests she has as spiritual advisers lead her to elevate Edward’s failings at fidelity to a universal truth that all men are animals. She essentially tells Edward to go ahead and have his affairs since she knows he can’t help it. She participates in choosing the paramour at times in order to maintain some control and proper appearance. If this weren’t enough to demean Edward, she takes over the finances from him which seems to totally emasculate her husband. Yet she can show kindness, forgiving her husband his dalliances or correctly deciding that Dowell can not handle the truth of his wife’s affair. This kindness can be horribly misguided, as shown by her cruelty in insisting Edward take Nancy’s innocence in order to get the girl out of his mind. Since he does not comply, she destroys Nancy’s worshipful outlook of Edward. While Leonora occasionally blames herself for differences with Edward, she never seriously considers that she has any role in Edward’s errant behavior.
Edward plays the role of the benevolent squire, viewing himself as their protector. He shows a similar chivalric outlook with most of his female conquests, first as a father figure in the Kilsyte case all the way through his tortured denial in protecting Nancy’s virginity. Edward also sabotages his chivalric notions by his self-centeredness. The best quote that highlights just how self-centered he is "He had not any idea that Florence could have committed suicide without writing at least a tirade to him. The absence of that made him certain that it had been heart disease."
One delicious irony is Dowell constantly second guessing Leonora’s actions, even after he knows everything was a sham. “Leonora should have abandoned him so precipitately when she only thought that he had gone yachting with the Clinton Morleys.” And an even more extended condemnation from Dowell:
I don't mean to say that she was doing a wrong thing. She was certainly doing right in trying to warn me that Florence was making eyes at her husband. But, if she did the right thing, she was doing it in the wrong way. Perhaps she should have reflected longer; she should have spoken, if she wanted to speak, only after reflection. Or it would have been better if she had acted--if, for instance, she had so chaperoned Florence that private communication between her and Edward became impossible. She should have gone eavesdropping; she should have watched outside bedroom doors. It is odious; but that is the way the job is done. She should have taken Edward away the moment Maisie was dead. No, she acted wrongly.
For some reason I don’t see Dowell as the best judge of what Leonora should have done. Just as Dowell's comments about Florence vacillate from love to hate, so too does his comments about the Ashburnhams. Florence receives the worst while he is generally kind toward Leonora (even though he is estranged from her at the end). Yet it is Edward that remains lovingly in Dowell’s heart. There is rarely a harsh word said about Edward, and even when doing so Dowell usually follows up with an excuse or qualifier.
Every one of the participants is badly damaged, unable to differentiate between individual failings and a universal standard. The actors betray no anchor—whether moral, spiritual, or civic—to ground or measure their actions. Ford is so consistent on this point with all of the characters that I do not believe that Dowell’s judgments speak for the author.
Next: other themes and motifs, as well as the 1981 TV movie.