Mrs. Poulteney’s face is very good at expressing disapproval. She looks rather like a Pekinese, and she always smells a bit like mothballs. After the vicar suggested that she take in Sarah Woodruff, she said she didn’t know her. The vicar wondered what would have happened if the Good Samaritan came upon Mrs. Poulteney. He explained that she was from Charmouth, about thirty years old, and very much in need of charity. She used to be a governess. Mrs. Poulteney demanded to hear her story.
Fowles continues to mock Mrs. Poulteney; he clearly wants the reader to take a critical attitude towards her, too. The vicar, too, is critical of her; he knows full well that she’s not actually a charitable person. The first complete story that the reader hears to explain Sarah is that of a charity case. However, this impression will soon be complicated by other stories about her.
The vicar explained that Sarah’s father was a respected farmer who gave her a good education. When he died, she became governess to the Talbots. Mrs. Poulteney wanted a letter of reference, but the vicar reminded her that this was a case of charity, not employment. When a French ship had been wrecked the winter before, three men were saved, and Captain Talbot took in an officer who spoke no English. Sarah helped interpret for him. Mrs. Poulteney was horrified that she spoke French, but the vicar said that governesses must do so. In any case, the Frenchman hadn’t ended up being very gentlemanly. Nothing improper happened between Sarah and the man, but she did fall in love with him.
Mrs. Poulteney is hostile towards Sarah even before she knows of her supposed improprieties with the French lieutenant. If she’s taking Sarah on as a charitable case, she should accept her deficiencies, not expect her to be perfect. With her suspicion of everything French, which is implied to have a taint of Catholicism and sexuality, Fowles makes Mrs. Poulteney almost a caricature of the close-minded, prejudiced Victorian.
The vicar explained that when the French lieutenant recovered, he went to Weymouth to find passage back to France. Soon after, Sarah quit her position. Mrs. Talbot couldn’t find out why. Sarah joined the Frenchman in Weymouth, though she stayed with a female cousin. Mrs. Poulteney still couldn’t excuse her actions, but the vicar reminded her that the lower classes are not as careful about appearances, and besides, Sarah thought the Frenchman was going to marry her. Eventually he had returned to France, telling Sarah that he would return and marry her. She was still waiting for him. The vicar was of the opinion that the man deserted her when he realized she wouldn’t let him violate her.
In claiming that Sarah stayed with a cousin in Weymouth, the vicar tells a somewhat censored version of the more popular story about Sarah, which contends that she certainly slept with the French lieutenant. Mrs. Poulteney’s dislike even of Sarah staying with a cousin shows just how prudish she is. This version of Sarah’s story also makes her out as a tragic figure who has preserved her virtue and honor at the price of her happiness with the Frenchman.
The vicar went on to say that Sarah was entirely sane and able to work, but she was subject to melancholia in part because she still thought the Frenchman would return, and she haunted the shore waiting for him. She was a bit crazed. When he finished, there was a silence while Mrs. Poulteney calculated her position. She asked how Sarah has supported herself, and the vicar explained that she’d been doing a little needlework and living off her savings. He said that if Mrs. Poulteney took her in, Sarah would surely be saved, and might also save Mrs. Poulteney. Mrs. Poulteney imagined Lady Cotton thwarted.
Victorians used the term “melancholia” to describe what would be called “depression” today. The vicar portrays Sarah as a fundamentally sane person who simply struggles with an obsession; this assessment will later be contested by Dr. Grogan. In any case, the reader can so far see Sarah only through the eyes of other characters. Mrs. Poulteney clearly doesn’t want to help her, but wants to win charity points.
Mrs. Poulteney obtained a letter of reference from Mrs. Talbot, though she disapproved of Mrs. Talbot’s lenient attitude towards Sarah. The vicar brought Sarah for an interview, and Mrs. Poulteney was pleased to see how downcast she was. She was actually only twenty-five, but her sorrow clearly marked her out as a sinner, and Mrs. Poulteney liked her reserved attitude. Mrs. Poulteney dictated a letter and had Sarah read from the Bible, choosing a passage from which she thought Sarah could learn. She was charmed by Sarah’s deep voice and her demeanor as she read.
Mrs. Poulteney unashamedly delights in Sarah’s pain because she feels she’ll get maximum credit for helping a penitent sinner who everyone can see is miserable. Even at the interview, Mrs. Poulteney already tries to moralize to Sarah using a Bible story—stories are often imbued with moral implications in this book. At the same time, Sarah’s ability to charm this monster of a woman suggests that she has some charisma that draws people to her.
When Mrs. Poulteney asked Sarah about the French lieutenant, she refused to talk about him. She owned no books, not even a Bible, though the vicar said he’d give her one. Sarah was already going to church services, and Mrs. Poulteney required her to continue to do so. Although the vicar had asked her not to, Mrs. Poulteney asked what Sarah would do if the Frenchman returned. Sarah simply shook her head, which Mrs. Poulteney took as repentance, so she took Sarah on. She didn’t think to ask why Sarah was agreeing to work for her after refusing to work for anyone else. In fact, it was because the house looked over the bay, and she was almost out of money.
Thus far in the story, Sarah has given no voice to her own story, choosing silence more often than speech and letting others narrate for her. Ironically, it will later become apparent that she’s speaking through all of the people who tell her story, because she’s purposely created the story they tell. By being silent, she lets those around her believe that they understand her truth, when in fact they’re quite far from it. The narrator finally lets the reader into Sarah’s mind for a brief moment at the end of the chapter, and it seems surprisingly practical.