On hearing about the scandal, the women of Middlemarch generally feel sympathy for Mrs. Bulstrode, who is well-liked and thought to be remarkably honest. People are not as sympathetic to Rosamond, yet at the same time, while the Vincys are not universally liked they are also thought to be honest and respectable, without any sordid secrets. Rosamond is criticized as “showy” even as she is also seen as a victim. Some of the Middlemarch women believe that the revelation about Bulstrode’s past is enough to give Mrs. Bulstrode reason to leave him. There is speculation that both the Bulstrodes and the Lydgates will leave Middlemarch.
Divorce was not a legal possibility for the vast majority of people in England until 1857. However, when faced with a scandal of this magnitude it may be socially acceptable for Mrs. Bulstrode to separate from her husband. This is due to the idea that Bulstrode misrepresented himself so enormously—including hiding past criminal acts—that Mrs. Bulstrode essentially married him under false pretenses.
Mrs. Bulstrode, meanwhile, has stayed home since the scandal broke and thus is unaware of what is happening, although she senses that something is terribly wrong with Mr. Bulstrode. She asks Lydgate about it, but he gives a vague answer. She then goes to see Mrs. Hackbutt, whose husband was at the town meeting. Mrs. Hackbutt wants to tell Mrs. Bulstrode to leave her husband, but she restrains herself. Although Mrs. Hackbutt doesn’t say anything explicitly, Mrs. Bulstrode is beginning to understand that whatever is worrying Bulstrode is of a very serious nature.
Women’s subordinate position in society means that they do not fully take part in public life and, as such, can be left in the dark when it comes to important matters. This is perhaps why gossip is so prevalent among the women in Middlemarch—rather than a frivolous pastime, it is actually a necessary means for them to understand what is going on in their community.
It is Mrs. Bulstrode’s brother Mr. Vincy who finally tells her everything. He laments that even if Bulstrode is found innocent by a jury, this won’t make much difference—he will still be seen as guilty by most people. He adds that both she and Rosamond would have been better off never marrying. Mrs. Bulstrode cannot say anything in response and requests help to get to her carriage, saying she feels faint. Once home, she tells her daughter that she won’t eat dinner and then locks herself in her room.
Mr. Vincy’s comment that both Rosamond and Mrs. Bulstrode would have been better off having never married shows that a woman’s fortunes in life are inextricably tied to her husband. Although they may feel sympathy for Rosamond and Mrs. Bulstrode, people do not see them as individuals independent from their husbands.
Despite her misery and deep disappointment, Mrs. Bulstrode is a loyal person, and knows that she will stand by her husband. Knowing she is upstairs and guessing what has happened, Bulstrode is highly distressed. Mrs. Bulstrode finally comes down to see him at 8 pm. The two of them weep together, and it is as if Bulstrode is making a “confession” without actually saying the words.
The final scene in this chapter is very moving. It suggests that real love can overcome even the greatest of obstacles, particularly because love involves forgiveness and total, unconditional understanding of another person.