At about the same time of Charles and Sarah’s meeting, Ernestina takes out her diary and turns to her bland entry from that morning. She stayed in and didn’t feel happy. Even the flowers Charles sent had irritated her. She had heard Mary flirting with Sam at the front door, and she worried it had been Charles there instead of Sam. Ernestina knows that Charles has traveled and is older than she, and attractive. She believes he’s hiding some woman in his past. However, she’s more jealous of his love than worried that he might have slept with other women. His calmness seems to her to prove that he was once passionately in love, rather than the truth, which is that he never has been.
Ernestina almost seems to sense that this is a dark day for her, though she doesn’t know about Charles and Sarah’s meeting. Though her jealousy of Charles’s past and of Mary is unfounded, her general sense of jealousy is not. Charles has slept with many women in the past, and the fact that he can’t properly tell Ernestina about these encounters, and that their levels of worldly experience are so different, shows one of the sexist weaknesses of Victorian marriage. Finally, Fowles implies that Charles is not in love with Ernestina.
Soon after Sam left, Ernestina rang for Mary, who came in smiling with the flowers. Ernestina frowned at her. The narrator thinks that Mary is the prettiest woman in this story. She’s the liveliest and the least selfish. She has a pure complexion, blonde hair, and flirtatious eyes. Her figure is seductively plump. Mary’s great-great-granddaughter, who is twenty-two at the time of writing, is a movie star and looks rather like Mary.
For the first time, the narrator becomes almost a character in the story, present enough and human enough to have an opinion on the physical appearances of other characters. He demonstrates an almost eerie knowledge of the characters’ future—his present—that makes the story seem real. The reader might wonder which movie star he’s talking about before remembering that this is fiction.
Mary got a job with Mrs. Poulteney because she’s related to Mrs. Fairley, but Mrs. Poulteney fired her when she caught her kissing a stable boy. She then began to work for Mrs. Tranter, where she is happy and Mrs. Tranter likes her. Sometimes Mrs. Tranter even eats with Mary in the kitchen when no one was around, and they get on quite well. However, Mary is jealous of Ernestina, in part because her London fashions make Mary’s clothing seem so inadequate. She also thinks Charles is too good for Ernestina, so she often runs into him on purpose so she can feel triumphant when he tips his hat to her. She knows Ernestina watches from her window.
Mary is the female character least ashamed of, or even self-conscious of, her sexuality. Because she’s lower-class, her expression of sexuality has fewer repercussions—though she did lose her job over a kiss. Mrs. Tranter’s kindness is directly contrasted with Mrs. Poulteney’s harshness, as it often will be. Mary seems to have some aspirations above her class, as shown by her jealousy of Ernestina’s clothes and fiancé. She’s bold and doesn’t mind making her mistress jealous in return.
Mary put the flowers on Ernestina’s bedside table, but Ernestina made her move them farther away. She asked where Charles was, but Mary didn’t know, and she interrogated her about her interaction with Sam. Sam acted very differently than he had that morning with Charles. After handing over the flowers for Ernestina, he whipped out a small bouquet for Mary, with a compliment for her looks. Mary smelled them. Sam said that he would deliver her bag of soot as long as it was paid for immediately. When she asked how much it would cost, he winked at her. She laughed and slammed the door.
Even as Ernestina is feeling distant from Charles—and in fact growing distant from him, though she doesn’t know it yet—Sam and Mary are just beginning to come together. Charles accused Sam of flirting earlier, and it becomes clear that he was right. Sam and Mary’s interactions here focus around their duties as servants, highlighting the ways in which the rituals of love are different for the working class as opposed to wealthier couples like Charles and Ernestina.
Ernestina warned Mary that Sam is a womanizer and demanded that she report it if he made advances to her. Ernestina asked for barley water, and Mary left, though there was a small light of defiance in her eyes. This interaction reminded Ernestina that she’ll soon have to be a real mistress to servants. It will be wonderful to be independent, but servants are so troublesome. Life clearly must be seen as good, but it’s also difficult in the moment. Now, in the afternoon, she takes out her diary and turns to the page where she’s pressed the jasmine.
Ernestina, whose sexuality has always been so regulated and repressed, now tries to exercise her class power by doing the same to Mary’s. Ernestina seems somehow discontented with her life, not truly feeling that life is good but only that she has some obligation to see it as such. She pins all her hopes on her marriage, just as any Victorian woman must, as that’s the major event of her life.
In London, wealth has begun to take precedence over good breeding. Ernestina’s grandfather grew up a modest draper, but he died very rich after founding a large store in the West End. Her father is a gentleman in all ways except by birth, and he gave Ernestina an excellent education. She really has no reason for her worries about her social status, and Charles isn’t concerned about it.
Class in England has long depended on more than just wealth—people could only be aristocrats if they came from old, propertied families. It makes Ernestina anxious that she doesn’t have the heritage that Charles does. Even though she’s wealthier than he is, she’s only bourgeois because her family is “new money.”
Charles met Ernestina the previous November at the house of a woman who wanted him to marry one of her daughters. They all pretended that they were interested in paleontology, but Ernestina simply teased him about his vocation. They liked each other’s intelligence and sense of humor. Ernestina’s parents made inquiries about Charles and were satisfied with what they found. Ernestina had realized that Charles would never fall in love with anyone who threw herself on him. When he began to attend social events at her house, her parents never made any sly suggestions of marriage, and Ernestina carefully ignored and teased him, making it clear that she knew he would never marry.
In some sense, Ernestina woos Charles by going against convention, even though she’s a very conventional character. When everyone else makes every effort to make him like them, she remains aloof. Charles’s attraction to this quality of difference undoubtedly contributes also to his attraction to Sarah. Nonetheless, Charles and Ernestina do come together under pretty conventional circumstances, in the drawing rooms of high society Londoners.
Then one January evening, Ernestina saw an old lady across the room. She went up to Charles and suggested that she could introduce him to the lady so that he could learn from her about the Early Cretaceous era. As they crossed the room, she stopped him and said that if he was going to be an old bachelor, he would have to practice. Her eyes showed an offer as clear as that of the prostitutes in the Haymarket.
Ernestina makes Charles face his options: be an old bachelor and spend his time with boring people, or marry her and have a more enjoyable life. Among the young female characters, Ernestina is the model of Victorian sexual purity. Thus, in likening her offer of marriage to a prostitute’s offer of sex, Fowles smashes conventional ideas about sexual morality.
Charles had, in fact, been growing worried that he would waste his life like his uncle did. Traveling had long substituted for a wife, letting him sleep with women sometimes, but he no longer wants to travel. He feels sexually frustrated and is too moral to travel just for the sake of sleeping with women. One morning everything seemed very simple; he wanted to wake up with Ernestina.
Charles’s reasons for marrying Ernestina are overwhelmingly focused on sex, rather than on some deep love for her. This doesn’t bode well for their marriage, and it can partly be blamed on a society that heavily shames people who have sex before marriage (though it’s far more acceptable for men than for women).
Soon after, Charles spoke with Ernestina’s father, and then went to find Ernestina in the conservatory, where she was pretending to cut flowers. He said he had decided to leave England forever, but when he saw that she was too distressed to realize he was teasing, he said he would stay if someone cared about him. She turned with tearful eyes and they drew together. They didn’t kiss, because they had been too sexually repressed for too long. On the way out of the conservatory, Charles picked a sprig of jasmine and pretended it was mistletoe, and they finally did kiss. Charles led her back to her parents, and Ernestina cried in her mother’s arms while Charles and Mr. Freeman smiled at each other.
The fact that Charles can joke about never seeing Ernestina again while actually proposing to marry her suggests that he isn’t nearly as invested in the relationship as she is. Even once they’re engaged and it’s acceptable for them to kiss, convention keeps them from it. While a Victorian novel might romantically attribute their hesitation to a proper female meekness, Fowles makes no excuses, calling out their denial of natural impulse and blaming it on societal conditioning.