That evening, Charles, Ernestina, and Mrs. Tranter go to the Assembly Rooms. The Assembly Rooms are pleasant, and will one day be replaced with a public bathroom. Mrs. Poulteney and her kind object to the place because people have a good time there, and people should only congregate in churches. When the Assembly Rooms are torn down, the heart of Lyme is torn out.
Fowles often criticizes the Victorian Age, but in the instance of the Assembly Rooms, he criticizes the so-called “progress” that allows them to be destroyed in a more modern time. At the same time, however, he criticizes the Victorian backwardness that finds all sources of pleasure reprehensible.
Charles is there for a religious concert, though some of the more conservative residents are shocked even by this, because it’s Lent. Concertgoers come as much for the company as for the music; it provides an opportunity for the ladies to show off their dresses. Ernestina enjoys the glances at her fashionable clothing. While Mrs. Tranter explains who everyone is, Ernestina makes snide comments about them, calling many of them “gooseberries.” This word correlates to “square” in 1969—boring and old-fashioned.
The most religious citizens of Lyme have quite extreme views, disapproving even of an explicitly religious concert because it might provide too much pleasure. The narrator’s translation of “gooseberry” into “square” suggests that the same pretentiousness of the young exists in both time periods, and again reminds the reader that the narrator is telling the story from a time in the characters’ future.
Eventually the concert begins, and Charles can examine his conscience. He’s become rather obsessed with the mystery of Sarah. He meant to tell Ernestina and Aunt Tranter, in strict secrecy, about his meeting with Sarah, but he never found the right moment. He’s beginning to feel that he shouldn’t have spoken at such length with her, and now it’s very hard to explain the situation to the jealous Ernestina. Mrs. Tranter would be more understanding, but he couldn’t ask her not to tell Ernestina about it.
Charles is beginning to regard his relationship with Sarah as improper, or at least, he’s beginning to see that other people could easily see it as such. He’s becoming trapped in secrecy, and the very fact of concealing his meeting with Sarah from his fiancée automatically gives it an air of impropriety and betrayal. Charles feels that Ernestina’s natural jealousy would make her jump to conclusions.
Ernestina’s humor seems rather artificial tonight, and Charles’s smiles in response are equally fake. He keeps glancing at her as though he’s never seen her before and finding something lacking in the monotony of her face. For a moment he thinks that she’s essentially just selfish, but he dismisses the thought. Ernestina compares well in character to the other women of London society, but what if one might find a bride elsewhere? Charles prides himself on being different from his peers, and he thinks English society is too constraining. He realizes he’s done the conventional thing in proposing to Ernestina, and perhaps he should have waited.
Notably, Charles is beginning to be aware of Ernestina’s faults at the same time that he’s becoming more obsessed with Sarah’s mysteriousness. He’s beginning to compare the two women and find his fiancée lacking. In her adherence to society’s norms, Ernestina takes on a falsity that Sarah, in her position outside of society, doesn’t have. Charles begins to doubt that he really wants to marry Ernestina. The fact that he prides himself on being unconventional makes Sarah’s unconventionality more interesting to him.
Charles begins to feel sorry for himself, and his mind conjures up images of Sarah. He realizes that he’s attracted to her, specifically to some emotion or possibility that she symbolizes. She has reminded him that his future is now set. Ernestina elbows him to get him to applaud. She pouts at him, and he thinks that she’s very young, and only a woman. She can’t understand how complicated life is for men. Everything will be all right when they’re married.
Here in the Assembly Rooms, the center of Lyme society, Charles recognizes an attraction that breaks all the rules of this society—and in fact, his attraction is in part an attraction to breaking the rules of society. At the same time, however, he puts faith in one of the most fundamental institutions of this society, marriage, to make him happy.
At that moment, Sam is marveling at how much Mary does understand. Their backgrounds are incredibly different, one coming from London and one from a remote village. But in this age before technology, people are able to be more individual, as they can’t access the entire world, and strangers are more exciting. The narrator thinks that the isolation of the past is enviable. Sam often pretends to know everything about London, but he’s actually much less confident than he seems. Mary admires his cultural knowledge, but she has the basic self-confidence that he lacks. She can also judge people’s values better than those in society can.
Fowles again contrasts the superficiality of Charles and Ernestina’s relationship with the deep feeling of Sam and Mary’s. In looking back, modern readers can appreciate aspects of the past that those who lived them couldn’t, because they didn’t know anything different. The narrator argues that Sam and Mary have some individuality that modern people lack, though the lower class is often seen as a faceless mass. Mary’s ability to judge people is similar to Sarah’s.
Sam has fallen for Mary because she’s so different from the prostitutes he’s slept with before. He’s physically attractive, though he sometimes tries to imitate Charles’s gentlemanly gestures. He’s drawn to Mary’s innocence, and he wants to be entirely himself with her, and find out who she is. On the morning that Charles and Ernestina visited Mrs. Poulteney, Sam and Mary discussed the jobs they’ve had, and Sam confessed what he’d never told anyone—that he wants to be a haberdasher. He thinks he has a talent for fashion. However, he needs money and education. Mary listened closely and understood him.
Like Charles, Sam has plenty of sexual experience already. However, unlike Charles and Ernestina, Sam and Mary bring out each other’s true selves. This is what love should do, but Charles and Ernestina continue to play parts in their relationship that society has assigned them. Sam’s attempts to imitate Charles show his desire to rise in the class system, as does his ambition of being a haberdasher (someone who sells men’s clothes). Owning a shop would be a big step up from being a servant.
When Sam had to leave, he felt that he had never told anyone such personal things before. He asked whether Mary had a suitor, but she said she didn’t. He said he’d never known anyone like her before, and he’ll show her around London when Charles and Ernestina get married. Mary was thrilled. Sam bowed to her and said to meet him the next morning. He kissed her hand and left.
Whereas Charles and Ernestina got engaged through a combination of Ernestina’s scheming and Charles’s lust, Sam and Mary have a real connection. Charles and Ernestina are never quite satisfied with each other, but Sam can make Mary happy just by showing her around London. This is partly a difference of class as well.
The narrator doesn’t know whether Sam and Mary met the next morning. But when Charles came out of Mrs. Tranter’s house that day after talking to her about the servants’ romance, he made a sign of mercy at Sam, who was waiting across the street, and Sam grinned. On the evening of the concert, Sam is in the kitchen with Mary again. Mrs. Tranter’s cook is asleep by the fire, and Sam and Mary sit in a corner, holding hands silently. Nonetheless, Sam feels that Mary understands everything.
The narrator again claims that he isn’t completely in charge of the story; although he’s technically omniscient in that he can see into the minds of all the characters, his occasional ignorance makes the story seem more like real life. Sam and Mary’s romance proceeds with the approval of their masters, something only the working class could need.