In London, Aunt Dorothy hires an elocution teacher to improve Queenie’s pronunciation and departure so that she can succeed in “polite society.” Aunt Dorothy runs a sweet shop, which she’s inherited from her late husband, who died in the Great War. Now, Queenie serves the customers while Aunt Dorothy reclines on her lounger, doling out advice and playing with her dog, Prudence. Many men come to the store to win Queenie’s favor, but Aunt Dorothy dismisses most of them as low-class “Cockneys,” advising Queenie to hold out for something better.
In the present, the novel focuses on racial discrimination. However, episodes like this show that Queenie’s life has always been pervaded by classism. Queenie’s aunt has moved a step higher than her family by marrying a London-dweller. Still, she’s intensely conscious of the class status of everyone she meets, and she expresses her love and anxiety for Queenie by conniving to marry her into a higher class.
Aunt Dorothy’s interest is piqued by a tall, thin man who comes to the store to buy The Times; she claims that “no ne’er-do-wells ever read The Times.” The man begins visiting twice a day, and each time Aunt Dorothy makes sure Queenie is dressed prettily before she serves him. The man is always polite, but they never exchange more than pleasantries.
One evening, the man asks her to accompany him on a walk the next afternoon. He introduces himself as Bernard Bligh. For four months, Bernard and Queenie take walks twice a week. They rarely talk much, and Queenie fixates on his small imperfections, like a vein that always moves when he eats and his habit of “dithering over change.” However, Aunt Dorothy says he’s a “gentleman” and approves of him. Queenie wonders why courting girls seem so dreamy and happy, when she finds the process so boring.
Aunt Dorothy is well-intentioned and clearly wants the best for Queenie, encouraging her to court Bernard because he can provide security and upward mobility. However, by imploring Queenie to ignore her own inclinations, she’s harming her niece rather than improving her chances for happiness.
One day, Queenie tries to end her relationship with Bernard, but he begs for another chance and even cries, telling Queenie that he was hoping to be engaged. Touched by this unexpected display of emotion, Queenie agrees to continue their walks.
Throughout Queenie and Bernard’s marriage, long periods of frigidity are punctuated by brief displays of emotion. While these moments are touching, they don’t make for a healthy marriage over time.
When Queenie and Bernard return to the shop that night, she finds that Aunt Dorothy has had a stroke and died on the shop floor, nearly crushing Prudence. At the funeral, Mother reassures Queenie that she can come back to live at home. Panicked at returning to the farm, Queenie announces she’s marrying Bernard.
Just like Hortense and Gilbert, Queenie decides to get married out of fear and self-interest, rather than love. The Blighs and the Josephs begin marriage on similar footing, but their relationships will diverge by the end of the novel.