One summer evening at Harley Street, Edith, looking for Margaret, complains to Dixon that “I’m always expecting to hear of her having met with something horrible among all those wretched places she pokes herself into…They’re not fit for ladies.”
Margaret has apparently carried on with her independent plans among the poor, to her relatives’ chagrin.
When Margaret comes in, Edith informs her that Henry has invited Thornton to dinner. Margaret tries to get out of the dinner-party, but Edith insists that she’s needed to keep the conversation going with Mr. Colthurst, a visiting member of parliament. Henry explains to Margaret that Thornton has failed and needs to sublet Marlborough Mills. It’s the first time in more than a year that Margaret and Thornton have seen each other. Margaret sees that Thornton looks careworn but noble. He greets Margaret like an old friend, but she is quiet throughout the evening.
Margaret is still sensitive on the subject of Thornton, even though she had earlier given up hope of clarifying matters between them.
Later that evening, Lennox hears Mr. Colthurst asking questions that might embarrass Thornton and tries to intercept the conversation. But Thornton doesn’t shrink from acknowledging that he’s been unsuccessful. He explains that he is seeking an employer who would let him explore some experimental practices, involving relationship with workers “beyond the more cash-nexus.”
Thornton isn’t ashamed of his failure and doesn’t scramble to proudly defend his own reputation. Rather, he’s now eager to experiment in ways he probably would have scorned early in the story.
Thornton explains his newfound conviction that “no mere institutions, however wise…can attach class to class as they should be attached, unless the working out of such institutions bring the individuals of the different classes into actual personal contact.” He feels, for example, that workers should have a stake in the development and execution of masters’ plans, rather than receiving them blindly, as if they were a piece of machinery. He believes that such acquaintance and common interest should help masters and men to understand and even like each other better.
When questioned, Thornton explains that he doesn’t expect such practices to prevent strikes, but merely to “render strikes not the bitter, venomous sources of hatred they have hitherto been.” Thornton suddenly approaches Margaret and tells her that he’s received a round-robin letter stating the wish of some of his men—likely including Higgins—to continue working for him, when he is in a position to employ them again. Margaret speaks approvingly of this development, but is silent once again. Before Henry leaves, Margaret stops him and asks if they might meet tomorrow. Henry delights in the thought that Margaret seems to be depending on him more and more.
Thornton isn’t naïve about the potential for conflict, but hopes that personal relationship will provide a basis for navigating conflict better. He also genuinely wants Margaret to be pleased about the ways he’s changed.