Ernestina has warned Charles that visitors to Lyme are expected to allow the residents to examine them. He goes visiting with her and Aunt Tranter a few times a week, and the boredom is only remedied by Ernestina’s gratitude when they return to Aunt Tranter’s. It just so happens that the morning after Charles’s adventure in the Undercliff, they go to visit Mrs. Poulteney. Neither Mrs. Poulteney nor Charles have any interest in each other, but due to convention, Mrs. Poulteney would be very offended if he didn’t come to see her. The visits are really more important as social power that people can use against each other by rubbing it in that a visitor has come to one person’s house but not another’s.
The narrator carefully explains the Victorian social customs that rule the characters’ lives, which marks the book as modern—a Victorian author wouldn’t see a need to explain the conventions of their own society. At the same time, the narrator sees through these conventions and denotes them as such, because the characters wouldn’t act the way they do if they didn’t feel like they had to.
When Mrs. Tranter, Ernestina, and Charles are announced, Sarah makes to leave, but Mrs. Poulteney makes her stay. She wants to embarrass Ernestina and Charles. Mrs. Tranter and Mrs. Poulteney have known each other many years and greet with an embrace. Ernestina greets Mrs. Poulteney and asks after her health, then introduces Charles, who compliments her house. Mrs. Poulteney says she only keeps it because her husband would have wanted her to. She points out a painting of him, which makes him look far more important than he actually was. She says that the wishes of the dead must be obeyed.
Mrs. Poulteney’s attitude toward the dead hints at a theme that will become more important later—the Victorians’ reverence for the past. Charles will realize that his actions are restricted because he’s living as though his ancestors are judging him. Mrs. Poulteney’s religious moralism, then, seems to come in part from this same sense that the dead (and the divine) are judging her.
Mrs. Tranter greets Sarah and quietly asks her to come see her after Ernestina has left. Sarah’s reserve and defiance momentarily dissolve, and she smiles and nods. Charles is interested to see how Sarah will deal with his presence, but she entirely avoids him and acts deferentially. Mrs. Poulteney and Ernestina ignore her. Though Charles and Aunt Tranter try to include her in conversation, she will not be drawn out. Eventually Charles realizes that her silence isn’t natural to her character, and she’s only playing a part to disassociate herself from Mrs. Poulteney. As Mrs. Poulteney and Mrs. Tranter make their way through all the normal subjects of conversation, Charles decides that Sarah feels unjustly treated and isn’t trying to hide it.
Mrs. Tranter is one of the only people who is kind to Sarah with no ulterior motives, and it’s clear that Sarah needs this kind of attention. Notably, Charles seems fascinated with Sarah and can’t stop analyzing her character. He wants to see through her inscrutable façade to the real person he senses underneath. The fact that Ernestina aligns with Mrs. Poulteney in her attitude towards Sarah puts her on the side of moralism and convention, more or less opposed to Charles’s open-mindedness.
Mrs. Poulteney asks whether Mary is being troublesome to Mrs. Tranter, but Mrs. Tranter says she’s a wonderful servant. Mrs. Poulteney says that Mrs. Fairley saw Mary talking to a man that morning. Charles points out that it was probably Sam. Ernestina suggests that the two servants shouldn’t be speaking, though Charles and Mrs. Tranter object to this view. Charles speaks in defense of Mrs. Tranter’s kindness to Mary, which displeases Ernestina. Mrs. Poulteney supports Ernestina’s opinion, closing the matter. The ladies all avert their eyes, and they miss the look that Sarah and Charles exchange which indicates that they have a common enemy. Charles decides that he can’t stand bigotry in Ernestina, and he’ll certainly speak to Sam, though not in the way she wants.
The divisions become clear here between Mrs. Poulteney and Ernestina (who crave power through enforcement of convention) and Charles and Mrs. Tranter (who think freedom and happiness are more important). Mrs. Poulteney and Ernestina want to police the private lives of their servants—and indeed of most people around them. Though the conversation centers on Sam and Mary, Sarah is the unspoken secondary subject. Through this argument, Charles moves one step closer to Sarah while disapproving of Ernestina’s attitude.
Sam is sitting in Mrs. Tranter’s kitchen. When he met Mary that morning, he asked if he could deliver the soot in an hour. Now they’re having a very serious conversation. Whenever their eyes meet, they look away shyly.
As Charles and Ernestina grow farther apart, their servants begin to come together. Sam and Mary’s attitude seems far more earnest than any of the interactions thus far between Charles and Ernestina.