As Mr. Bell and Margaret journey toward Helstone the next day, Margaret finds that “every mile was redolent of associations,” as she’d last traveled this road in the company of her parents. While so much has changed for her, “nature felt no change, and was ever young.”
The journey toward Helstone hints at the complex nature of memory and change. Nature—a reliable refuge for Margaret in the past—has continued to go on as before, yet every sight summons memories of what has been lost to her forever.
As Mr. Bell and Margaret settle at the inn in Helstone, the landlady chats with Margaret about the Hepworths, the new occupants of the Helstone parsonage. The new rector and his wife are teetotalers (people who don’t drink alcohol) and “are stirring people, and have done a deal of good; at least they say it’s doing good; if it were not, I should call it turning things upside down for very little purpose.”
Gaskell sets up the Hepworths in contrast to the Hales—the Hepworths are “doers” where Mr. Hale, by contrast, was a “thinker.” But, if Mr. Hale could overdo his thinking at times, it’s implied that the Hepworths go overboard in their initiatives, too.
Margaret and Mr. Bell begin their exploration of Helstone, and Margaret grieves over cottages that have been torn down in recent years. Mr. Bell tells Margaret that it’s “the first changes among familiar things that make such a mystery of time to the young…the instability of all human things is familiar to me, to you it is new and oppressive.”
The same sights that had once “reproached” Margaret for failing to capture them have since disappeared. Their disappearance symbolizes the disappearance of the younger, more innocent Margaret, too.
Margaret goes to visit Susan, a young girl she had been especially close to, and talks with Susan’s widowed mother. The widow tells her that a neighbor has stolen and burnt her cat, meant to compel the powers of darkness to fulfill her wishes. Margaret walks away heartsick at this “savage country superstition”; even the “soft green influence [of Helstone] could not charm away” her pain.
In a far more shocking way than before, Margaret realizes that the country is not all beauty and refuge—it’s touched by cruelty, ignorance, and death, just as Milton is. The younger Margaret seems to have been blind to this fact. She realizes that her nostalgia doesn’t tell her the full truth.
After a melancholy visit to the village school, Margaret reluctantly accepts an invitation to the parsonage, though she dreads seeing the “improvements” that have been made. The place is so changed, especially by happy signs of children, that it pains her less than she expects. Mr. Hale’s old study is the only room in the parsonage to remain relatively unchanged, where “the green gloom and delicious quiet of the place had conduced…perhaps, in some degree to the formation of a character more fitted for thought than action.” There is a new window in the study, from which Mr. Hepworth, “even during the composition of his most orthodox sermons,” can spot his parishioners making their way to the local alehouse.
The contrast between Hale and Hepworth is amusing; where Hale had perhaps been too enclosed with his own thoughts, Hepworth (who is, by implication, at no risk of becoming a Dissenter), is only too likely to get involved in his parishioners’ lives. There is such a thing, Gaskell suggests, as being too attuned to the issues of the moment.
By that evening, Margaret is too tired for the forest rambles she’d planned, and finds that the visit hasn’t been quite what she expected. Though many alterations in the town are deemed improvements, “Margaret sighed over the old picturesqueness, the old gloom, and the grassy wayside of former days.”
The romanticized picture of Helstone that Margaret has clung to has not matched up to reality, and the so-called “improvements” detract from her cherished memories.
As they have tea back at the inn that evening, Margaret brings up the subject of Frederick and confesses to Mr. Bell that she’s told a lie. Margaret spills out the whole story of Frederick and Leonards at the train station, and her subsequent lie to the police inspector. She explains that in her haste to protect Frederick, she gave Thornton reason to suspect ill of her. She begs Mr. Bell to speak to Thornton about it, if he should have the opportunity, so that she might regain Thornton’s respect.
Mr. Bell is the only person who can readily intercede for Margaret in this matter, the only link between Margaret’s Southern life and her Northern life, and the only confidant Margaret has left. In keeping with her newfound emphasis on humility, Margaret confides in him.
As Margaret sits up late that night, she is “overpowered” by “a sense of change, of individual nothingness, of perplexity and disappointment.” She is weary of “being whirled on through all these phases of my life, in which nothing abides by me, no creature, no place.”
Again, Margaret is humbled by the change around her and the insignificance it makes her feel. There has been no stability for her in life, no place or person upon whom she can wholly depend—including herself.
The next morning, however, Margaret wakes with a refreshed outlook, as “looking out of myself, and my own painful sense of change” adjusts her perspective. Before they depart from Helstone, Margaret sneaks behind the vicarage and gathers a piece of honeysuckle. She finds that Helstone has been “reinvested with the old enchanting atmosphere.”
Margaret realizes that she constantly changes, too, and that after her irritability at finding things different from what she had wished, she finds Helstone even more beautiful than her memories. Nevertheless, she decides that the old associations are too strong; future visits would be too painful.
Margaret sets aside nostalgia, as she realizes, in light of her own ongoing changes, that it doesn’t tell her the truth about reality.