Exeter has a disreputable area on the slope down to the river. There are brothels, dance halls, and gin palaces, but also ruined women of all sorts who hide in inns and lodging houses from the moralism of the rest of the country. On one edge of this area is a row of run-down Georgian houses. A central block of five of these houses makes up Endicott’s Family Hotel, owned by Martha Endicott, who is distinguished by her lack of interest in her visitors. She charges people according to how much she figures they’re used to paying for a hotel, and doesn’t care about them beyond what they’ll pay her. Simply by maintaining high rates, she keeps her hotel on the upper end of what’s available.
Fowles positions Endicott’s Family Hotel in an area socially removed from mainstream Victorian culture; a place that defies the expectations of the era. Mrs. Endicott sees people as their class status—as how much money she can get out of them—which specifically functions here to obscure their sexuality. If she’s paid enough, she ignores what might be happening in her hotel. Fowles also points out the ridiculousness of capitalism: the hotel gains respect just because it’s expensive, not because it’s pleasant.
It’s almost night, and there are lights on inside the hotel. Mrs. Endicott is looking through her accounts. Through a dark window on the top floor lie a sitting room and a bedroom badly decorated with a worn carpet, a table, two armchairs, a chest of drawers, and a couple paintings. The only nice part about the room is the white marble around the fireplace, carved with nymphs. They seem surprised at the way the room has changed for the worse.
Though most of the characters in this novel are complicated, Mrs. Endicott is almost Dickensian, a caricature of the money-obsessed business owner. This scene gives the impression of change over time in the hotel room just as the book emphasizes historical change; the marble figures are a relic of a better time.
The door opens, and Sarah enters. She arrived several days before. The name of the hotel was joked about at the school in Exeter where she’d studied. When she arrived in Exeter, a porter asked her where to take her box, and Endicott’s Family Hotel was the only name she could think of. When she arrived, she wasn’t terribly pleased with its appearance, but she was glad no one questioned her staying there alone. She paid to stay for a week.
The name of the hotel is rather ironic considering that it will become a location for sex that spurs the final break between Charles and Ernestina—not very family-friendly. In this time, a woman alone is automatically suspicious, perhaps even assumed to be a prostitute. The fact that Sarah isn’t questioned suggests that the hotel isn’t so respectable after all.
Sarah lights a lamp and loosens her hair. She lifts her bag onto the table, removes a number of wrapped objects, and unwraps them, revealing a teapot and a jug. The jug is cracked and will crack again, which the narrator knows because he bought it recently. Sarah doesn’t know that it’s valuable, but she has the sense that many people have used it before her. She puts it on the mantelpiece and stares at it, thrilled that it belongs to her. There are footsteps in the hall, but they pass by. Sarah unwraps some tea, sugar, and milk. She brings the rest of the packages into the bedroom. One is a nightgown, the other a shawl. She seems hypnotized by the shawl, probably because it was so expensive. In her first really feminine act, she lays a piece of her hair against the fabric, then tries it on. Finally, she unwraps a roll of bandage, which she puts in a drawer.
The narrator inserts himself into the story here by revealing that he owns the jug that Sarah is holding, making it a physical connection between her time and his and paradoxically suggesting that her story is real, even though he has previously discussed his own process of fabricating it. The narrator allows the reader to intimately observe Sarah here, but doesn’t penetrate her thoughts, preserving the air of mystery around her. This is a rare tender moment in which Fowles portrays how bereft Sarah has been in her life by showing the great pleasure she takes in these simple objects she’s bought, and in having bought them herself.
Charles has given Sarah ten pounds, and it has changed her attitude towards the world. She counts the money every night just for the pleasure of it. Initially she didn’t spend anything, but only looked at everything for sale that used to seem to taunt her. She has waited to buy because she couldn’t live luxuriously after being poor for so long. She’s been enjoying her first vacation as an adult. Now she makes tea. She hasn’t heard from Charles, but she seems quite happy. The narrator refuses to find out what’s happening in her head. Eventually she pours her tea, unwraps a meat pie, and begins to eat indelicately.
Though Sarah has tried to claim power in the world however she could, she has never been able to claim the power of money, which is more potent than almost anything. Now that she’s happy for the first time in the novel, the narrator seems to want to respect her privacy, furthering the illusion that she’s more than just a product of his own mind and can have thoughts that exist outside of his own thoughts.