In May, Pamela learns that she failed her entrance exam to Cambridge, and she admits that she panicked when she found a few questions that she couldn’t answer. She is particularly upset to learn that Maurice is going to get the highest honors, even though she thinks he’s an idiot. Sylvie thinks that “academia [is] pointless for girls,” believing that a “woman’s highest calling is to be a mother and a wife.” She argues that science only invents “better ways of killing people.”
Sylvie’s thoughts again confirm her traditional view of womanhood—that they only belong in the domestic sphere, as wives and mothers. Pamela’s exam shows, in turn, how difficult it can be for girls as compared to boys—she fails not because she lacks the intelligence, but because she lacks the confidence and the support that her brother gets in his education.
Maurice turns up again with Howie in tow, stopping at the house on their way to London. Ursula has thought of Howie frequently, though upon seeing him she realizes he does not know her name. As she climbs the back stairs to fetch something from her room, she encounters Howie on his way down. He pins her to the wall, covering her mouth and “fiddling with her clothes” as “she squeal[s] in protest.” He rams his penis inside her, and Ursula thinks that “the arch that led to womanhood did not seem so triumphal anymore, merely brutal and uncaring.”
While Howie’s previous pursuit of Ursula had been (to her) relatively harmless and fun, now Ursula faces a disastrous escalation of that action. Her recognition that the arch of womanhood is not “triumphal” at all stems from the fact that in this time and place, to be a woman often means to be taken advantage of, or to be subjected to unwanted desires or male expectations.
Howie finishes and bounds down the stairs, completely unphased by what has just happened. Ursula is left to stare at the floral wallpaper—wisteria. She descends a half hour later, once the boys have left. Howie asks if she’s all right, and Ursula can only say yes. Ursula goes over the incident again and again, trying to understand what she did wrong.
In addition to the trauma of being raped, Ursula is also burdened by the flawed logic that the society places on women—that to have been assaulted means that women are the ones who have done something wrong, as opposed to the men who commit the violence.
The summer continues. Pamela is accepted at Leeds University to study chemistry. There are dances in the village hall on Friday evenings, and Fred Smith is waltzing with Ursula when the memory of the back stairs overwhelms her. She steps outside for air, feeling queasy.
Ursula’s rape not only affects her view of womanhood, but also her mental health, as she is deeply troubled by the incident, demonstrating the danger of society’s expectations on girls, particularly as she feels she cannot tell anyone about what happened for fear of being judged.
Maurice had gained his expected first and returns home for a few weeks before going off to train as a barrister. He comments that Ursula looks like a heifer, and a realization dawns on Ursula. She hunts down Sylvie’s copy of The Teaching of Young Children and Girls as to Reproduction, but the book only advises distracting girls from the topic of sex by giving them bread and cake.
The ramifications of Ursula’s rape continue to spiral. The book that Ursula finds in Sylvie’s apartment shows how ill-equipped Ursula was in understanding what sex meant, and its consequences—a lack of knowledge that is instigated both by society and by Sylvie’s attitudes.
Ursula finds a medical encyclopedia, which explains the mechanics of sex and its consequences. Ursula realizes she is pregnant but doesn’t know where to turn. She walks to the train station and finds Fred Smith, who offers her a free ride. She gets on and spends the afternoon walking through London’s parks. She has no money—a mistake, she realizes—but she knows where she is inevitably going. Ursula arrives at Izzie’s apartment and explains her condition, sobbing.
Again, Atkinson shows the societal issues with even discussing sex. Because of the stigma that is placed on Ursula (despite the fact that she is the victim in the situation), she feels unable to go to her parents, and instead turns to the one person she feels will not judge her for what has happened—Izzie.
Izzie phones Hugh, explaining that Ursula had shown up at her door and would be staying with her for a few days, but not telling him anything else. Izzie gently scolds Ursula, telling her “prevention [is] better than a cure,” though Ursula doesn’t know what she means. Izzie says that they must get rid of the baby, and Ursula agrees.
Ursula’s true innocence is confirmed yet again. Though she is sixteen years old, society makes sex a completely undiscussable topic, particularly for young women—so much so that Ursula doesn’t even understand what “prevention” means.
Izzie takes Ursula to a large house in Belgravia, dropping her off and promising that she would return later. Ursula has no idea what is about to happen. Ursula enters the room and a doctor orders her onto the operating table. She is confused that she’s having an operation. The nurse places a mask over her face, and the next thing she knows, Izzie is driving her home, telling her that she’ll feel strange for a while. Ursula wonders how Izzie “know[s] so much about this appalling process.” At Izzie’s apartment, Ursula asks “what happened to the baby” and if “they [gave] it to someone nice.”
While Izzie attempts to help Ursula and to be supportive, she too is susceptible to some of the societal stigmas surrounding rape and abortions, as she cannot bring herself to explain to what having an abortion actually means. Thus not only does Ursula not consent to having a child, she cannot truly consent to having an abortion, either, as she doesn’t understand the consequences of the operation and thinks instead that she put her baby up for adoption.
That night, Ursula vomits and develops a fever. The world blurs until Hugh appears, smiling at her and saying he will get her to a hospital (though Izzie protests that she’ll be prosecuted, to which Hugh says that he hopes that she is thrown in jail). The next thing Ursula knows, she’s in a hospital with Sylvie watching over her. Sylvie says, “How could you?” Ursula falls asleep again, feeling the black bat approaching her, but when she reaches out her hand to the darkness, her hand is rejected, and she wakes up. Hugh smiles at her, saying, “Welcome back.”
The stark contrast between Hugh and Sylvie in this scenario demonstrates how the love that family members bear each other is most critical in moments of crisis. Despite the fact that both parents are concerned with Ursula’s actions, Sylvie is exceedingly cold (sending Ursula to the arms of the “black bat,” or death), while Hugh is warm and supportive, essentially recalling her from death.