Harcourt Talboys lives in a “prim, square, redbrick mansion.” Though he is a country squire, there is nothing rustic or hearty about him. No trees offer shade from the harsh sunlight that shines upon his mansion. He views matters of right and wrong as black and white, with no grey area or exception. He cast off George, his only son and would just as soon cast off Clara, his daughter, if she violated his rules. He is proud of his inflexible nature, and his vanity caused him to separate completely from his son when George married the impoverished Helen. Harcourt is described as being Roman-like in his strict adherence to justice and punishment, reminding Robert of the historical figure Junius Brutus.
Harcourt’s rigidity represents a moral weakness of the upper-class. He works so hard to keep lower-class individuals out of his family that he instead destroys the very family he seeks to protect. Junius Brutus is the founder of the Roman republic known for executing his own sons for treason, just as Harcourt punished his own son for “betraying” the family. He practices a harsh, detached form of justice that contrasts with Robert’s merciful justice based upon love for George.
Harcourt declared his son dead to him from the day of George’s marriage, and George knew better than to try to ask for forgiveness. When Helen suggested that George ask his father for help, he said it would be easier to starve. At the time, Helen openly expressed her disappointment at their poverty, saying she expected men of George’s rank in the army to be rich. George did not see any selfishness in this speech because he was so in love with Helen.
This scene adds necessary backstory revealing Helen’s motivations for marrying George, suggesting she married him for his money rather than because they fell in love, as George believed. George’s ignorance of this shows how love can blind one to the reality in front of them—and Michael Audley is not the first man tricked into assuming Helen’s affection for him is pure.
Robert travels to Harcourt Talboys’ mansion. Outside, the landscape is sharp and cold, surrounded by snow. Robert’s heart sinks as he passes through the iron gate. He is admitted into the house by a servant, who is terrified of Harcourt’s “extreme aversion to disorder.” Robert gives the butler his card to bring to Harcourt and waits for his response in an undecorated hallway. The butler returns and says that Robert can enter, even though he has interrupted Harcourt’s breakfast.
Just as the appearance of Audley Court represents the personality of the lady living inside it, the harsh landscape and sparse decoration of the Talboys’ mansion reflects the strictness and formality of Harcourt. Harcourt’s name literally sounds like “Hard Court,” as in a rigid physical structure or a strict upper class.
Mr. Harcourt Talboys sits at the table dressed in grey, perfectly ironed clothes. Robert sees no resemblance between Harcourt and George. When Robert sees Harcourt, he understands how such a man could write the harsh letter that Harcourt wrote in response to Robert’s first letter.
Not only does Harcourt’s home express his strict personality, his appearance also suggests formality. The reader can infer from all appearances that the coming conversation will not be pleasant for Robert.
A woman also sits across the room from Robert and all he can tell about her is that she “was young, and that she was like George Talboys.” He realizes that it is George’s sister, Clara, whom George was fond of and who surely will care about George’s fate.
To Robert, Clara’s resemblance to George is the first and most notable aspect of her character, thus initially attracting him to her.
Clara stands up to greet Robert, dropping her needlework. Harcourt tells her to sit down without even looking at her, as if he has eyes in the back of his head. Robert picks up the needlework and hands it back to Clara. Harcourt glares at Robert, but Robert is not easily embarrassed. Robert begins to explain that he is there about George. Clara listens quietly, and Robert suspects that she is “as heartless as her father…though she is like George.”
Robert falsely assumes that Clara doesn’t care for George because she does not outwardly express her emotions. This adds to the theme of deceptive appearances. Again, however, Robert cannot help but note how she resembles her brother, further complicating his feelings for her.
Harcourt says that he no longer has a son. Robert says that he believes that George is dead. Harcourt tells him that he must be mistaken, and that this must be George’s trick to get forgiveness from his father. Harcourt states that when George inevitably returns, Harcourt will prove his generosity by forgiving him.
Harcourt suffers from vanity, just as Lady Audley does, though his vanity takes the form of inflating his sense of his own importance. Vanity in the upper-class is common and can take many forms.
Robert tells Harcourt that he has evidence that George is dead, but he does not want to say it in front of Clara. Harcourt tells him to go ahead, and Robert decides that maybe this evidence will move Clara to concern, since she seems so unmoved now. Robert begins presenting his evidence by saying that George was his close friend and he, in turn, was George’s dearest friend, since George’s father abandoned him and his wife died.
Robert emphasizes the special intensity of his relationship with George, which replaces both the family and the marriage George has lost. This relationship seems to be outside the norm in terms of the Victorian society’s emphasis on heterosexual, patriarchal families.
Robert states that if George had died of a broken heart, Robert would have grieved far less than he grieves now. Robert states that he knows that George has been murdered. Harcourt accuses Robert of being either mad or commissioned by George to play a trick on him. Robert says he wishes that were true, and if Harcourt doesn’t believe that George is dead after hearing all of Robert’s evidence, he will abandon his investigation.
Robert’s statement shows how deception and mystery can wear upon a person’s mind, keeping one from moving in their grief. Still, Robert longs for his formerly carefree life and seems to want Harcourt to give him an excuse to give up his investigation and possibly maintain hope that George is alive (although he believes this is unlikely).
Robert recounts the details of George’s disappearance. Neither Harcourt nor Clara show any emotion during his story, and Robert specifically leaves out the names of Sir Michael and Lady Audley. He then asks Harcourt if his opinion has changed. Harcourt says no. Robert asks Harcourt if he should continue with his investigation. Harcourt says only if Robert himself wants to, because he does not care. Robert declares he will give up his investigation.
Clara’s appearance is deceptive, as she reveals in the next chapter that she felt intense grief and anger while Robert spoke of George’s likely death. Robert gets what he wished for—a reason to give up his investigation, to stop thinking about such a grim subject and not bring disgrace onto the Audley family.
Robert looks one last time at Clara, whose expression has still not changed. Robert says that he hopes Harcourt is right about George being alive, but he suspects that Harcourt will one day regret his apathy towards his son. Robert determines that Clara is as unfeeling as her father and leaves the house.
Robert remains fixated on Clara, most likely because of her contradictory resemblance to George in appearance but not in personality. At this point in the novel, Robert appears to be regressing to his former idle life.