Charles suggests that Neptune won’t mind if they leave now, but Ernestina is surprised that he doesn’t want to take his chance of holding her arm without impropriety. She wants to walk to the end of the quay, so they continue on. Ernestina asks what happened when Charles saw her father the week before, because her mother sent her a letter about it. Charles admits that he and Mr. Freeman had a disagreement about Darwin’s ideas. Mr. Freeman said he didn’t want Ernestina to marry a man who thought his grandfather was an ape, but Charles believes that his grandfather’s title makes a difference to Mr. Freeman. Ernestina has always been concerned about the fact that, in spite of her father’s wealth, her grandfather was a draper, and Charles’s a baronet.
The first words the reader hears between Charles and Ernestina foreshadow the eventual fate of their relationship: Charles wants to leave, and Ernestina wants to continue (when Charles references Neptune, he means the god of the sea). Fowles also introduces the thematic struggles with class and evolution. Mr. Freeman, the ultimate bourgeois man, wants his daughter to move up the class ladder by becoming a titled aristocrat through marriage. Also, Charles supports the theory of evolution even though it’s a contentious topic.
Charles reassures Ernestina that his scientific disagreement with Mr. Freeman doesn’t matter. She points out that he hasn’t even noticed the fossils they’ve been walking over. He kneels to exclaim over them, but Ernestina commands him to get to his feet. She points out the steps on the quay that Jane Austen mentions in Persuasion, remarking that gentlemen used to be romantic.
Both Charles and Ernestina reveal their allegiance to the past in this scene. Charles literally kneels to the relics of past ages, while Ernestina wishes that he would act more like the romantic gentlemen of fifty years earlier. Fowles will characterize this tendency to look to the past as particularly Victorian.
Charles suddenly realizes that the figure at the end of the quay is a woman. Ernestina guesses that she must be the woman nicknamed Tragedy. The fishermen call her the French Lieutenant’s Woman. Ernestina wants to go back, because the woman is a bit mad, but Charles is interested now and asks for more details. Ernestina explains that the woman fell in love with, and slept with, a French lieutenant, who then abandoned her. She’s waiting on the quay for him to return. She works for Mrs. Poulteney. Charles insists that they continue on towards her.
The first story the reader hears about Sarah is also the most widely circulated one, and it sounds almost like a legend, as though Sarah is a ghost rather than a real person. This suggests that there must be more to the story and that the townspeople have made Sarah into a trope or a symbol of some kind, rather than recognizing her full humanity. From the beginning, Charles is drawn to her.
The woman is holding her bonnet and wearing something that looks like a man’s riding coat. Charles speaks loudly to warn her of their presence, but she doesn’t react. When the wind gusts, she holds onto the post in front of her. Charles steps towards her and expresses concern for her safety. She looks at him, and he immediately feels like he’s trespassing. Her look is not demure in the way of most women of this time. Her face isn’t beautiful, nor is it mad, but it’s tragic and authentic. The only thing that seems mad is the lack of reason that the surrounding landscape provides for sorrow. Charles feels pierced by her gaze until she turns away. Ernestina pulls him away, and he says he wishes she hadn’t told him the woman’s story, since it took away her mystery and romance.
Sarah’s coat suggests that she doesn’t abide by conventions of gender. Charles exhibits the conventional concern of a man for a woman’s safety, and Sarah’s rebuff seems to speak volumes about her place outside of society’s structures. Furthermore, Charles feels from this first moment that Sarah makes him see the surrounding world in a different light—whereas others might think her sorrow to be insanity, he sees her as the only sane one in a mad world. Though he will falter on this point in the future, his initial reaction to her will also be his most enduring one.