For the next five days, Charles is occupied with social visits and archery, which is a popular pastime with the ladies. In the afternoons he and Ernestina discuss where they’ll live once they’re married. Ernestina is acting very deferentially to Charles now. He realizes that their small disagreement has made her more aware of the man whom she’s marrying, rather than just the fact that she’s marrying. He finds her new attitude a little confining; he doesn’t like having to plan his days entirely around her. However, he knows that he must do so because it is a husband’s duty.
This change in the relations between Charles and Ernestina gives some reason for concern. First of all, it reveals that Ernestina has been more in love with the idea of marriage than with Charles himself, and second, Charles doesn’t really like the way Ernestina is acting now that she’s more aware of him as a person. But, as Victorians do, Charles bows to duty, which allows him not to think too much and come to inconvenient conclusions.
The evenings are long, and it’s easy for wealthy people to get bored after supper, when convention demands that they spend time with each other. One evening, Aunt Tranter has gone out and Charles is lying on the sofa, watching Ernestina read a poem aloud. The poem is The Lady of La Garaye, which is a very typical sort of poem for Victorians to praise. The author, Caroline Norton, was rumored to have an affair, and was a feminist. The main character of the poem is a noblewoman who has an accident while hunting and founds a hospital. The poem is clearly an homage to Florence Nightingale, which makes the women of the time love it more. Ernestina practically knows it by heart, and she feels morally better for it, even though she’s never even considered nursing anyone in her life.
Fowles continues to poke fun at the upper class, suggesting that they don’t really like spending their free time together but are forced to by the rules of politeness. Besides, Charles and Ernestina’s reluctance to spend time together contrasts sharply with Sam and Mary’s eagerness to do so. Fowles suggests that the Victorians enjoy the idea of tragedy and grand good deeds, as represented in the poem, but they shy away from actually participating in them. Ernestina, at least, seems ridiculous for feeling so improved by someone else’s imagined good deeds.
The modern reader might think that women were stuck in prescribed gender roles at that time. But only a week before, John Stuart Mill argued in Parliament for women’s suffrage. The motion was voted down, and both men and women disapproved of it. But this is the beginning of women’s freedom in England, and as Ernestina herself has giggled at anti-suffrage cartoons, she can’t be seen as blameless.
Fowles doesn’t want the reader to excuse Ernestina’s complacency in her society’s systems of oppression. Writing from the future, he knows as she can’t how significant Mill’s motion in Parliament will be. Fowles wants this to be a feminist book, yet he gives a man credit for beginning the women’s movement (when in fact certain women had been fighting for their rights for years).
Charles encourages Ernestina to continue reading, and she reads about the Lord of La Garaye coming to his lady after her accident. Charles’s eyes are shut, but he nods. Ernestina continues reading about the lord’s love for his wife as she’s in mortal danger. Charles’s eyes are still shut, and he’s too moved to nod. Ernestina finishes the next stanza with an accusation, in meter, that Charles is asleep. He doesn’t react. Finally Ernestina shouts his name and throws the book at him. He awakens and Ernestina points out that she’s caught him.
Charles’s boredom with the poem serves two purposes. First, it acts as Fowles’s criticism of the overblown, romantic Victorian verse that’s made ridiculous by the contrast between Ernestina’s rapture and Charles’s indifference. Second, it suggests that the feelings between Charles and Ernestina are far from matching the passion and loyalty of the lord and lady of the poem.
The next day at lunch, Charles complains when Ernestina tries to discuss furnishings for their imagined future house. He doesn’t really want to leave his current house in London. Finally Ernestina lets him go fossil hunting for the afternoon. He returns to the bluff where he saw Sarah, because he’d noticed piles of flint where he might find fossils. The newly intense love between himself and Ernestina has made him forget about Sarah. He does check the ledge where he saw her before, but she’s not there. Before long he finds an excellent test at the foot of the bluff.
Charles seems to dread many of the changes in his life that his marriage will bring about. Though he believes he’s forgotten about Sarah, it’s significant that, given his freedom, he immediately goes back to the last place he saw her alone. And even though he thinks that the feeling between himself and Ernestina is growing, there have been a number of signs that all is not as well as he wants to believe.
Eventually Charles climbs the bluff again to rejoin the path, and he sees Sarah coming towards him. They stand and look at each other, Charles smiling, Sarah looking suspicious. As she tries to pass him, she slips. He helps her up and she trembles, not looking at him. He leads her up the bluff. Her skin is pinkish, and the wind has blown her hair loose. She seems rather guilty. When she looks at Charles swiftly, he drops her arm. He says he worries what would happen if she twisted her ankle here. Since she doesn’t want Mrs. Poulteney to know she comes here, he’d be the only person who would know where to find her. Sarah says Mrs. Poulteney would guess where she was.
Even if Charles didn’t purposely seek Sarah out, he certainly doesn’t avoid speaking to her, either. Furthermore, he notices certain intimate physical details about her. In bringing up the possibility that she might twist an ankle, Charles seems to vaguely emphasize his particularly masculine power over her, a supposedly weak female. He has the ability to save her from a twisted ankle or to condemn her, if he revealed her secret. Sarah, however, denies this power.
Charles can tell that Sarah wants him to leave, but he’s determined not to. Her eyes show independence, a dislike for sympathy, and determination to be herself. Her eyebrows are strong, but her face is very feminine. Her mouth is sensual. Overall, her face doesn’t go with the fashion of the time. It reminds Charles of foreign women whom he’s slept with. He’s beginning to guess at a darker side of Sarah. He’s slightly repelled by this, as most men of his time would be. However, most men would blame Sarah for this part of her nature, but Charles doesn’t, because Darwinism implies that morality is hypocrisy and duty completely unimportant. Furthermore, Charles has read Madame Bovary. He stays because Sarah suddenly reminds him of Emma Bovary.
Sarah’s eyes, often cited as a cause for Charles’s attraction to her, express a feminist sensibility that clashes with the conventions of the Victorian Age. Sarah’s differences suggest that she’s more evolutionary advanced than the people around her, a harbinger of a more modern time. Charles’s reaction to her is based in his belief in science, which overrules the religious morality of his society; in this way science and religion are put at odds in this scene. Emma Bovary is a scandalous character who has multiple affairs and eventually kills herself.
Sarah says she didn’t know Charles was here, and she turns to go. Charles asks if he can say something he has no right to say. She doesn’t object, so he says that Mrs. Tranter has discussed her story with great sympathy and has told him that Sarah isn’t happy in her current position. Just then Sarah hears something in the trees, and even before Charles hears voices, she’s walking across the meadow to hide behind some gorse. As the voices approach, Charles goes to the path, and two men appear. They’re surprised to see him and run away, whistling for their dog. Charles finds Sarah behind the gorse and says that they were only poachers.
Charles is already taking a deeper interest in Sarah’s affairs than would necessarily be considered normal or proper. Sarah’s acute awareness of her surroundings and her reaction to the sound of voices suggests that she’s used to concealment and secrecy. Charles, on the other hand, walks right out to face the men, indicating that he’s far more used to openness. The presence of poachers adds to the sense of Ware Commons as a lawless place where everyone is hiding something.
Charles doesn’t think it was necessary for Sarah to hide, but she says bitterly that being seen with her could ruin his good name. He says he doesn’t believe she’s truly disreputable, and he doesn’t care what Mrs. Poulteney thinks of him. He feels that his experience of the world is superior to hers, and he says they don’t need to hide when they simply met by chance. They walk out of the gorse, and Charles says that Mrs. Tranter would like to help her, but Sarah only shakes her head. Charles has indeed discussed her with Mrs. Tranter and Ernestina, and he’s decided to tell her what they concluded. He says that she should leave the area, and Ernestina could even help her find a position in London.
Sarah is ironically more concerned about Charles’s reputation than he is himself, probably because she’s been living in the shadow of her own ruined reputation long enough to know the consequences. In a typically masculine way, Charles assumes he’s more worldly than she is, not understanding how much her suffering has taught her. He even presumes to know what’s best for her, though he’s only heard her story secondhand. He thinks she would be better off starting over where people don’t know her as a fallen woman.
Sarah walks to the edge of the cliff. When she turns she looks at Charles very directly, and he smiles. She says she can’t leave Lyme. He feels slightly offended and makes to leave. Sarah says that Mrs. Tranter wants to be kind, but kindness is more difficult for her to deal with than cruelty. Charles wants to shake her; he tells her that tragedy is better suited to the stage than to daily life. She insists that her only comfort is her own stubbornness.
Charles continues to assume that he knows everything about Sarah, and thus he assumes that he knows better than she does what’s best for her. He in part blames her for her circumstances, not because she transgressed sexual norms, but because she seems to want to wallow in her misery. Sarah’s desires appear to be the opposite of everyone else’s.
Charles admits that he’s heard Sarah is mad, but he believes only that she’s punishing herself for her past, and that this is unnecessary. He insists that even if her Frenchman returns, he’ll surely seek her out if she’s left Lyme Regis. There’s a long silence, and Sarah looks very calm. Eventually she says that the French lieutenant will never return. Charles doesn’t understand, and she seems to enjoy his confusion. She says that she’s gotten a letter. Then she hurries towards the path. Charles calls out to her and she turns, exclaiming that the man is married. Left alone, Charles is amazed. He also feels strangely guilty, even though he knows he did his best to help her.
Charles has been basing his interactions with Sarah on the story of the French lieutenant that everyone tells as the basis for her situation. However, Sarah now explodes his assumptions by revealing that she isn’t pining for her lost lover, or at least she doesn’t expect him to come back to marry her. This truth raises more questions than it answers: Why does Sarah remain in Lyme? Why does she look out to sea? And what was the true nature of their relations?