The next day, Dr. Donaldson, the doctor Mrs. Thornton has recommended, pays a visit. Margaret is excluded from Mrs. Hale’s room while he is there. After the doctor finishes his examination, Margaret summons all the grandeur she can and asks the doctor to share the news with her, since Mr. Hale is not home. Dr. Donaldson argues that Mrs. Hale had specifically requested that Margaret not be told, but Margaret overrides him with an appeal to his own wisdom and experience. Quickly taking the measure of her character, he relents and tells her the diagnosis in two short sentences. Margaret is briefly stunned into silence.
Margaret assumes leadership in her father’s absence, mustering all the confidence and dignity she can to persuade the doctor to confide in her. Though the nature of Mrs. Hale’s illness isn’t revealed in the book, the diagnosis is clearly devastating.
Margaret sheds just a few tears before gathering herself and questioning Dr. Donaldson about Mrs. Hale’s prognosis. He explains that the degree of suffering is difficult to predict, but that alleviation will be possible, although there is no hope of recovery. He promises to return as a friend, not merely as a doctor. As he leaves, he thinks of Margaret, “What a queen she is!... it’s astonishing how much those thorough-bred creatures can and do suffer. That girl’s game to the back-bone.”
Dr. Donaldson is accordingly impressed by Margaret. His reference to “thorough-bred creatures” is to upper-class women, though, unlike Mrs. Thornton, he readily sees Margaret’s capacity to bear great suffering, suggesting that toughness can be found in all kinds of women, even if they’ve enjoyed privileged backgrounds.
After Dr. Donaldson leaves, Margaret laments and prays in private for a few moments, wondering how she will bear to watch Mrs. Hale’s suffering and Mr. Hale’s corresponding agony. She decides that her father must not be told the news just yet. When she joins Mrs. Hale, her mother is displeased at first that the doctor has broken his word to conceal the news from Margaret. In response to Margaret’s pleading, however, she eventually relents to let Margaret become her nurse.
Margaret quickly and resignedly assumes the mantle of guiding her family through the suffering to come. Far from leaning on her father, she even decides to shield him from grief for the time being and to share in the heavy physical burden of nursing her mother. She is the stronghold of the family both practically and emotionally. The year before, she had quailed at difficult conversations; yet now, steeled by the changes in her family’s circumstances, she proactively steps into burdensome roles.
Mrs. Hale reflects that she will never see Helstone again, and that this is a just punishment for all her discontentments and complaints while living there. At the thought of her firstborn, Frederick, however, her relative calm is shattered, and she dissolves into violent hysterics. With Dixon’s help, Mrs. Hale is finally calmed enough to sleep, and Margaret and Dixon discuss Mrs. Hale’s fate. When Margaret apologizes for her crossness lately, Dixon admits that she likes seeing Margaret’s spirit, “the good old Beresford blood.”
Mrs. Hale shows a deeper reflectiveness than previously, in keeping with the way that illness has sobered her, and it’s clear that Frederick’s exile has weighed heavily on her over the years.
After Margaret leaves, Dixon says to herself, “Bless her!...There are three people I love; it’s missus, Master Frederick, and her. Just them three.” She supposes that Mr. Hale was born in order to marry Mrs. Hale, but Dixon doesn’t love him because “he should ha’ made a deal more on [Mrs. Hale], and not been always reading, reading, thinking, thinking. See what it has brought him to!”
Despite Dixon’s gruffness, she bears a deep affection for Mrs. Hale and the children. She doesn’t think much of Mr. Hale, however—blaming his preoccupation with study for the family’s straitened circumstances and his wife’s suffering. She sees his scholarly bent as indulgent and his lack of success as proof of its pointlessness.