Ernestina has the kind of delicate face that’s considered most beautiful in her time. Though she can look very demure, there’s something about the tilt of her eyelids and her lips that suggests she’s not entirely obedient to men. This makes her irresistible to Charles. When Charles leaves Aunt Tranter’s house, Ernestina goes to her room. Through the window she admires Charles as he walks down the street, and she resents the way he raises his hat to Aunt Tranter’s pretty maid. Then she turns back to her room, which has been decorated to her taste in a French fashion. The rest of the house is full of heavy furniture belonging to an old style.
Charles is most attracted to the part of Ernestina that’s rebellious, so it makes sense that he’ll be even more attracted to Sarah’s stronger and more open rebellion. It’s clear that Ernestina is prone to jealousy, and this characteristic suggests that she already doesn’t feel entirely secure in Charles’s love for her. The way she’s decorated her room indicates that she’s modern and fashionable, and she has the leisure and the money to decorate well.
Aunt Tranter is persistently likable and optimistic. Even so, Ernestina tries to be angry with her about the furniture, her concern for Ernestina’s reputation, and having Ernestina in Lyme at all. Because Ernestina is an only child, her parents have always worried about her too much. They’ve indulged her every whim, but they’re also convinced that she’s consumptive, though no doctor has ever found anything wrong with her. Her parents never allow her to stay in damp places or overexert herself. Little do they know that she’ll live until the beginning of World War II.
Ernestina is essentially spoiled, and her upbringing contrasts sharply with that of Sarah, whose father went mad and died. Only a wealthy family could afford to constantly invent illnesses for their daughter. Fowles again reminds his reader that he’s writing from the future and knows his characters’ futures—although the narrator’s knowledge of Ernestina’s death contrasts with his later uncertainty about the futures of Charles and Sarah.
Ernestina’s parents always send her to Aunt Tranter’s house to recover from the social season in London. She hates going to Lyme, because it’s so behind the times and there’s nothing to do, so she feels very mutinous towards her aunt. Luckily, Charles agreed to share her exile. Though Ernestina is more strong-willed than people realize, she respects convention. She and Charles share a sense of self-irony, and it prevents her from coming across as spoiled.
Although Ernestina is engaged, she acts rather like a child, going where her parents send her and then rebelling in small ways against their power over her. At the same time, she’s established here as a conventional Victorian woman who feels no need to question society because it more or less caters to her, although it does make her subservient to both her parents and her fiancé.
Ernestina takes off her dress and admires her looks. She loosens her hair, feeling vaguely sinful. Then suddenly she looks at the ceiling, moves her lips, and puts on a dressing gown. She has had a sexual thought, and she feels frightened by her ignorance in this area and the feeling that sex requires brutality. She’s haunted by the violence of animals mating. As a result, whenever she finds herself thinking about sexuality or childbirth, she thinks, “I must not.” She wants a husband and children, but she doesn’t want to endure this ordeal. She can’t understand why her innocent desire requires such a harsh duty. Most Victorians feel the same way, and duty is key in the way modern people understand the Victorians.
Ernestina’s attitude towards sex exemplifies that of most middle- and upper-class Victorian women. Though she’s eager to be married and wants a conventional family, she knows little about what the sexual part of marriage involves. Her ignorance breeds fear, and so she tries to avoid even the thought of sex. Ironically, Victorian women are expected, even required, to have families; yet they’re also required to pretend sex doesn’t exist. Charles, on the other hand, already has plenty of sexual experience.
Ernestina takes out a diary and turns to the back, where she has written out all of the dates leading up to her marriage. She’s drawn lines through the first two months, and about ninety days remain. She crosses out today, even though it’s not over yet. Then she turns towards the front and finds a piece of pressed jasmine. She smells it, remembering the most joyful day of her life. When she hears Aunt Tranter’s footsteps, she quickly puts the diary away.
Even though Ernestina fears sex, she’s counting down the days until her marriage, when she’ll also be required to sleep with Charles. Her state of mind involves a great deal of cognitive dissonance. Her desperate excitement emphasizes the fact that marriage is perhaps the most important event for a Victorian woman.