When Charles and Sam arrive in Lyme, Charles goes to Aunt Tranter’s house. Everyone is thrilled to see him, and he finds Ernestina in the back drawing room. She gives him a reproachful look, and he apologizes for not getting her flowers, but he was in such a hurry to get there. She doesn’t let him see her embroidery, and he jokes that he has a rival. He kisses her hand. She says she hasn’t slept since he left, but he teases that insomnia makes her look beautiful. He kisses her mouth, and she lets him see that she’s embroidering a pouch for Charles’s watch. The first line of a rhyme is already on it, and Ernestina makes him guess what the second will be. They tease each other. Finally Charles asks if they can walk together the next morning, and Ernestina finally reveals that her rhyme implores him to remember their love every time he winds his watch.
This scene shows Charles trying to make amends for his wrongs without acknowledging them. His own sense of guilt shows itself when he teases Ernestina about embroidering for someone other than him. Before he left, he resisted her desire for him to kiss her mouth, so now he does it as a kind of proof to himself that he’s over Sarah. The fact that Ernestina is making a pouch for a watch acts as a subtle reminder that Charles’s watch has recently been in the hands of a prostitute’s daughter—the specter of Charles’s unfaithfulness will never leave.
Charles gives Ernestina a small box. When she opens it she finds a brooch, and she kisses him, then it. He says he wishes they could get married the next day. It’s easy to just follow conventions and surrender to one’s fate. Charles admits he has to make a confession about Sarah, saying that “the French Lieutenant’s Woman” is a better name for her than “Tragedy.” He says it’s stupid, but he begins to tell his story.
This brooch will come up again in the true version of the story, but in this clean and conventional Victorian ending, it acts as a symbol of marital peace and harmony. Charles finally comes clean to Ernestina, seeming to place some blame on Sarah for his own infidelity.
The story ends here. The narrator doesn’t know what happens to Sarah, but Charles never sees her again. He and Ernestina have, perhaps, seven children. Sir Robert has two sons, so Charles goes into business and eventually doesn’t mind it. His sons and grandsons take it on after him. No one cares about Sam and Mary; they do what people of their class do. Dr. Grogan and Aunt Tranter live into their nineties.
This is the easy “happily ever after” that many Victorian novels employ. Social conventions are reinforced and the family structure remains sacred. Fowles offers an implicit criticism of this sort of clean ending, as well as of Victorian treatment of lower-class characters. He also simultaneously expands the illusion that these characters are real and makes it clear that he’s in control of their story.
However, Mrs. Poulteney dies soon after Charles returns to Lyme. When she arrives at the gates of heaven with all of her servants, she thinks she’ll need to tell God that his servants should keep better watch for guests. When the butler finally appears, she tells him that she’s come to live there. He says that God’s angels have already sung in celebration of her death. Mrs. Poulteney tries to sweep past him into heaven, but he won’t let her through. He says she’s going somewhere more tropical and slams the door in her face. Everything around her disappears, and she’s standing on nothing. She blames Lady Cotton and falls down to hell.
This conclusion of Mrs. Poulteney’s story is conventionally Victorian in that the evil character gets her just desserts, but distinctly modern in breaking from the narrative form of the rest of the novel by veering into a comedic fantasy scene. Fowles also satirizes traditional visions of heaven and hell; he clearly doesn’t believe that either one exists. Mrs. Poulteney never changes as a character—even in death, facing her greatest fear, she thinks she can do no wrong.