Though Charles has learned much since he was at Cambridge, he still finds milk punch and champagne as good a solution to his problems as they were there. His club exists on the assumption that men want to be reminded of their student days. When he enters, Charles sees two men he was at Cambridge with; one the son of a bishop, the other a baronet. Sir Thomas Burgh imitates his ancestors’ pursuit of pleasure. He was the leader of a debauched group at Cambridge, and people have tried to kick him out of club. He’s never ashamed of his sins. He’s also very generous with his money and reminds everyone of their freer days.
The club is a distinctly male, aristocratic environment, and as such, it can get away with endorsing activities that people like Mrs. Poulteney would strongly condemn. Charles is feeling a lack of freedom in his personal life right now, and the club is a place of freedom where he can associate with people like Sir Tom, who don’t respect rules, and remember the days when he wasn’t tied down. The upper class can get away with these sorts of unconventionalities because of their broader power in society.
Sir Tom asks what Charles is doing out of Ernestina’s prison, and Charles jokes that he’s on parole. Sir Tom says Nathaniel, the bishop’s son, is jealous of Charles, and Charles knows it’s because of Ernestina’s money. He usually would have moved on, but tonight he sits down with them. Sir Tom asks after Sir Robert and offers him some hounds descended from a mischievous dog he had at Cambridge. They spend two hours joking and drinking. While Sir Tom and Nathaniel pretend to be drunker than they are, Charles tries to seem sober when he’s actually very drunk. When they head out to take a drive, Charles feels embarrassed, sensing Mr. Freeman’s judgment.
Ironically, Charles is only beginning to realize how much his marriage to Ernestina will, in fact, feel like a prison. Associating with Sir Tom and Nathaniel is Charles’s rebellion against that prison of the Freemans’ conventional bourgeois attitude. Even the fact that Charles is thinking about how Mr. Freeman would judge his drunkenness shows that Charles is losing his free will to the pressure to please his fiancée’s father.
Quite tipsy, Charles is helped into a cab with Sir Tom and Nathaniel. He sees them wink, but doesn’t ask why. He’s glad that nothing seems important, and he almost tells them about Sir Robert’s marriage, but he’s still a gentleman. He asks where they’re going, and Sir Tom says they’re going where lucky men go for a good time. Charles finally comes to understand that they’re going to a brothel. He says this is a good idea, but he thinks he should get out of the carriage. Suddenly he sees Sarah’s face, and he realizes that he needs to sleep with a woman. He looks at Sir Tom and Nathaniel and they all wink at each other.
Clearly, Charles isn’t making great decisions tonight, but he’s rebelling against the society around him in the most convenient way presented to him. He’s heading for the underside of Victorian society, which is the flip side of the sexual repression that Fowles listed earlier. He hopes that sex will help him get Sarah out of his system so that he can feel what he’s supposed to towards Ernestina. His ability to pursue this solution is due entirely to his male privilege.
The carriage heads for the part of Victorian London that everyone seems to forget existed. This area is filled with casinos, cafes, and brothels. They pass famous oyster and potato restaurants, as well as many prostitutes dressed in all sorts of costumes. Their customers, on the other hand, all look the same. Charles enjoys the scene, particularly because it seems so far removed from the Freemans.
This vision of London belies the popular narrative of a repressed Victorian culture focused on morals and religion. Tight-laced bourgeois morality is nowhere to be found in this landscape of pleasure and sin, and Charles finds freedom in it.
Charles and his companions sit with a number of other men in the luscious salon in an alley near the Haymarket. At one end of the room is a stage decorated with nymphs and satyrs making love. A girl is serving champagne, and an older woman assesses the worth of her customers. The things that happen in this house are probably very similar to things that happened in ancient history and in the twentieth century. The narrator recently found a book detailing an eighteenth-century brothel.
This is a very high-end brothel, and its existence proves that the upper class does not always adhere to Victorian practices of sexual repression. Then again, perhaps it is repression that pushes men here, if they can’t find satisfaction in their socially sanctioned relationships.
The author of this old book writes of his characters entering a brothel. A number of beautiful women strip naked and climb onto a table. A man named Camillo is drawn by a woman’s genitals, which she artfully displays. The women place full glasses of wine on their pubic bones and the men drink them. They go through a number of tricks to raise the men’s lust, and Camillo is initiated into the group with a dirty ritual. He starts to feel disgusted with the women, but the other men insist that they continue. Finally the men want to be allowed to have sex with the women, but the women refuse to ever let that happen. Their refusal makes Camillo lustful again.
Fowles uses prostitution to show that history isn’t a linear narrative of change—this practice connects eras. He essentially inserts a selection of eighteenth-century pornography into this novel, making these pages the product of three centuries: the text was written in the eighteenth, Fowles uses it to describe what’s happening in the nineteenth century of the story, and the fact that he can include it in this novel and still get published is the result of the twentieth century.
This is more or less what happens at the brothel where Charles is, but the girls do indeed have sex with their customers. Charles enjoys the show at first, but as the alcohol wears off, he begins to detect despair in the girls’ faces and to loathe the performance. However, he still feels aroused. He leaves the room, gets his things, and goes into the street. He takes a cab and heads for home. Nonetheless, he still feels like he has failed in some way. When he thinks of Ernestina, it’s as though he’s pulled back into prison. The streets are crowded, and Charles watches the prostitutes as the cab passes them. He feels the need for some release or punishment.
The prostitutes put on another story in this book of stories—theirs is one of sexual enjoyment and allure, but Charles can tell that it is false. Again, Fowles likens Charles’s impending marriage to Ernestina to a loss of freedom, an imprisonment from which his debauchery has temporarily relieved him. Charles seeks sexual release, but that same release ironically doubles as a punishment for his own wrongdoing. He’s essentially feeling self-destructive, much like Sarah often has.
On a quieter street, the cab passes a girl who seems less bold than the other prostitutes. Something about her appearance makes Charles stare, and finally he knocks for the cab to stop. The prostitute appears at the door. Charles realizes that she doesn’t actually look like Sarah, but there’s something vaguely similar in her face. He instructs her to tell the driver where to go, and then she gets into the cab next to Charles.
Charles agreed to go to the brothel because he thought it would cure him of his attraction to Sarah, but now he’s seeking out a sexual stand-in for her. It’s significant that both of these women are regarded by society as “fallen” for their real or perceived extramarital sexual experience.
They’re silent until the prostitute asks whether Charles wants her for the whole night, and he says he does. Later she remarks on the weather, and in response to his question, says she’s been working for almost two years. Charles begins to worry that she might have a disease. He feels foolish for picking up someone so common, but he wants this sort of danger. He asks if he should pay her now, and she says she charges a pound for a normal night. He gives it to her. She assures him that she doesn’t have any diseases.
Far from being overwhelmed by his desire for this woman, Charles begins to think more rationally, with rather unfortunate timing. Prostitutes are often seen as nothing more than sexual objects, but Fowles makes it clear from this initial interaction that this woman is a real person with a story and a past. Charles continues to seek self-destruction in the form of a disease, which would also ruin his marriage.