Mrs. Poulteney’s house stands on a hill above Lyme Regis. Today, no one would put up with the huge kitchen range in the basement, which requires three fires to be burning constantly, no matter the weather. The walls are a hideous green rich in arsenic, though no one knows it. Mrs. Fairley runs the kitchen and always wears black, in fitting with her temperament. Because Mrs. Poulteney maintains ridiculously high standards and bad working conditions, servants never last very long here. One butler, upon quitting, supposedly told Mrs. Poulteney that he would rather spend his life in the poorhouse than work here. It’s a wonder that Mrs. Fairley has lasted so long, but it’s probably because she’s not so different from Mrs. Poulteney.
The unbearable heat of the kitchen fires, along with the personalities of Mrs. Poulteney and Mrs. Fairley, make this house a vision of hell. This hellscape is most prominent for the lower class workers who are mistreated by the wealthy Mrs. Poulteney. The detail about the arsenic reminds readers that in hindsight, people can detect certain physical and societal aspects of a historical period that might have been harmful (such as the treatment of workers), but that were invisible to those living at the time.
Mrs. Poulteney is obsessed with dirt and immorality, and she keeps a close watch over both in her house. In fact, she believes she has a right to punish wrongdoers even outside her house, for instance if any servants fail to go to church or are seen with lovers. One young man tried to approach the house to meet his lover and was caught in one of the man-traps scattered through the gardens. Mrs. Poulteney’s interrogation techniques could have qualified her for the Gestapo. In a way, she exemplifies the arrogance of the British Empire. However, among her class, she’s renowned for her charity because she took in the French Lieutenant’s Woman.
Fowles’s comment about the Gestapo is one of a number of anachronistic comparisons he makes—no matter how much Mrs. Poulteney might fit in with the Nazi secret police, it’s historically jarring to compare her to an institution that won’t exist for another sixty-five years. Fowles constantly reminds the reader that his way of narrating the nineteenth century is influenced by his knowledge of the twentieth, just as the reader’s interpretation of it is.
Mrs. Poulteney made this shocking decision a year earlier. The main secret of her life is that she believes in hell. The vicar of Lyme is very well suited to his congregation and keeps all hints of Catholicism out of his church. He never argues with Mrs. Poulteney about her belief in hell, because she gives so much money to the church. When she got ill one winter, the vicar came to her as frequently as the doctors did. Mrs. Poulteney is very practical about her future, and she’s worried that she might not get into heaven because she hasn’t given nearly one-tenth of her wealth. Besides, while she was sick, Mrs. Fairley read her the parable of the widow’s mite, which bothered her constantly.
Fowles portrays the church as a generally corrupt institution that seeks money more than it seeks the betterment of its congregants. The vicar lets Mrs. Poulteney do what she wants as long as she pays well enough, even though she acts in a distinctly cruel and unchristian way towards her servants under the guise of making them better Christians. The parable of the widow’s mite teaches that poor people’s small sacrifices are more important than rich people’s larger ones.
One day when the vicar is visiting, he tries to reassure Mrs. Poulteney about her security after death, telling her that she mustn’t question God’s understanding of her conscience. Mrs. Poulteney always acts strangely towards the vicar, since he’s both her social inferior, dependent on her wealth, and her spiritual superior. She believes that her husband’s early death was God’s warning to her, and it remains a mystery in her life. She expresses her worry that though she has given money, she has not done good deeds like Lady Cotton has. Lady Cotton has set up a home for fallen women, though Mrs. Poulteney doesn’t know that the home is so strict that most of the women hurry back to their old, sinful lives. The vicar says Lady Cotton is an example to everyone. Mrs. Poulteney knows she should visit the home, but it always distresses her.
Fowles loves to make fun of Mrs. Poulteney. She takes a strangely quantitative approach to faith and status, constantly trying to calculate how she stands in relation to the people around her. She believes herself superior to just about everyone, but also doesn’t want to act in a way that might send her to hell. Lady Cotton is held up as a Victorian ideal of piety and charity, but Fowles points out that this ideal actually harms the people it’s meant to help. Mrs. Poulteney reenacts Lady Cotton’s charity on a small scale by taking in one fallen woman, Sarah, and treating her far too strictly as well.
After a silence, Mrs. Poulteney decides that she will take a companion, someone who has fallen on hard times. She asks the vicar to find someone for her, but demands that the woman be a perfect Christian, not have any relations, and not be too young. The vicar agrees to do so. He heads out of the house, but he stops on the stairs with an idea. Perhaps something like malice makes him return to the drawing room, where he suggests Sarah Woodruff.
Mrs. Poulteney wants to ensure she goes to heaven, but she refuses to sacrifice her personal comforts in any way. She wants to feel charitable without actually putting in any effort to reform someone unchristian. Though the vicar puts up with her hypocrisy, it seems that he wants to see her meet her match in Sarah.