It’s a beautiful day at the end of May when Charles arrives in Chelsea. Montague had received a name and address in the mail, and Charles told him not to give Sarah any reason to flee. A clerk investigated and found that the woman living there looked like Sarah and went by Mrs. Roughwood, a name similar enough to Woodruff that it had to be her. She was clearly only pretending to be married. Montague suspected that she had sent the address herself, but Charles didn’t think so. He suspects that Sarah must be a governess at the fine house where she lives. He doesn’t realize that Montague is withholding something. Charles couldn’t figure out how he felt, but he knew he must speak to her, though Montague warned him to be careful.
The fact that Charles thinks Sarah might try to flee from him, and wants to keep her from doing so, doesn’t indicate that he’s necessarily going into this interaction with her with her freedom foremost in his mind. He assumes that she’s trying to live a conventional lifestyle for her station, working as a governess and pretending to be a widow. These assumptions prove that Charles still doesn’t really know Sarah as well as he thinks he does—when has she ever taken the conventional route?
Charles approaches Sarah’s house. He doesn’t know much about this area. The Thames is disgusting and smelly, so it’s not so wonderful to live right next to it, but Charles can tell that the houses are good. He feels embarrassed that he’s essentially about to call on a servant, but he goes up the path to the house and knocks. Eventually a maid opens the door and he asks for Mrs. Roughwood. The maid isn’t wearing the usual cap of her kind, and she doesn’t address him as “sir.” He realizes she’s not a maid after all. He gives him her card. A man appears at the end of the hall, and the girl tells him why Charles is there. The man seems slightly haughty, but he tells her to take Charles up to Sarah.
Even now, Charles clearly clings to many of the cultural niceties that confine Victorian England—he’s about to see the woman he’s been seeking for years, and he still manages to worry that calling on her will lower him in the eyes of whoever else is in the house. Furthermore, he expects to find a conventional Victorian household here, and so he tries to fit the people he meets into his idea of what that looks like, even though they don’t fit. Even as Charles goes to meet the one for whom he denounced convention, his denunciation is questioned.
Charles follows the girl up the stairs, noting the walls crowded with painting of a modern style, many signed with the name of an artist who had caused an uproar about twenty years before. Charles assumes the man he saw must collect art. He asks whether Mrs. Roughwood is working as a governess there, and the girl, amused, says she is not. She goes into a room. Charles sees two men standing in front of a painting on an easel. One of them glances at him, and Charles is stunned to find that he recognizes him from a lecture he once gave. He forms hypotheses about who lives here and realizes that he’s been wrong to assume that fallen women can only descend further.
Charles’s “cryptic coloration”—his ability to change his demeanor according to the situation—fails to work here, because he’s so unaccustomed to the kind of social group that he’s finding in this house. He finally begins to realize that Sarah might not be living any life he’s imagined for her, and she might not actually be suffering as much as he figured she was. In fact, Sarah might be doing pretty well for herself and not need him to save her.
Sarah appears at the door. Her clothing makes her seem like a stranger; she’s dressed like a New Woman, wearing a blue skirt, a belt, and a striped blouse. Her hair is tied with a bright ribbon. Charles thinks she looks younger than before, and he feels like he’s back in America, because many women there dress in this sensible way that hints of freedom. Charles liked it there, but now he flushes, suspecting much. However, he’s relieved to find that she still has the air of defiance that attracted him to her.
The Victorian New Woman was someone who defied gender conventions, was usually educated, and often supported freer sexuality. She’s essentially a forerunner of the modern-day feminist. Just from her dress, Charles begins to suspect that she’s having sex with at least one person in this house. He’s already tempted to try to restrict her freedom.
Eventually, Sarah asks how Charles found her, and he realizes that she didn’t send the address, and she’s not grateful to see him. He says someone told his lawyer where she was, and he reveals that he never married Ernestina. She clearly didn’t know. He says he’s searched for her everywhere. She says she has had good fortune and confirms who the man Charles saw is. Charles asks who owns the house. He’s heard gossip about the man he saw downstairs. Sarah leads him upstairs, into a studio filled with unfinished canvases and painting supplies. Sarah says she’s the artist’s assistant, and sometimes his model. Charles sees a sketch of a partly nude woman and wonders if it’s her.
In all the time that Charles has searched for Sarah, he has clearly expected her to be overjoyed to have the opportunity to marry him. This is rather foolish, though, since she clearly told him after they had sex that she didn’t want to marry him. Sarah has fared much better than Charles has since they last met, and perhaps it’s because she hasn’t been obsessed with finding him and has instead continued living her life. The artist they’re discussing is Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a famous Pre-Raphaelite artist.
Charles learns that Sarah has lived here for a year. He wants to ask what her arrangement is. He watches her and hears sounds from below. They are divided. He’s come to save her, but she’s showing no despair from which to do so. He asks whether the artist knows Sarah isn’t married, and she says she pretends to be a widow. Charles asks about the artist’s wife, and she says the woman died. The artist’s brother and another man also live there, but Charles knows this other man is a poet whom respectable people disapprove of for the sexual nature of his writing. And Charles has heard that the artist takes opium. He imagines them all having an orgy, but Sarah’s attitude makes this seem unlikely. Part of Charles tries to stop being so suspicious.
Charles feels strongly suspicious that Sarah must be sleeping with at least one of the men in this house, which suggests that he believes that a woman, once fallen, just keeps having sex with everyone. He doesn’t consider that Sarah might have other qualities that would make her useful to the artist. He wants her to be his damsel in distress, but she’s not cooperating. The social circle described here is the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of artists and poets who attempted to imitate the classical art of Raphael and were known for being socially unconventional.
Charles explains what has happened to him since he last saw Sarah, but she only stares out the window. Finally she says she’s so moved that she doesn’t know what to say. However, she still shows no gratitude. Charles points out that she said she loved him. She acknowledges this, but she never thought she’d see him again, and she doesn’t let herself regret what she thought could never happen. Finally she insists that she’s not the artist’s mistress. Charles doesn’t understand why she seems so embarrassed to see him, but she must have more interesting friends now. He realizes he has become the one who hates people now.
Charles is essentially telling Sarah how she has ruined his life, and he clearly wants some appreciation for sacrificing everything for her. But she never asked him to do any of this for her. She seems to have truly moved on from their love affair, unlike Charles. Charles has essentially become Sarah as she was at the beginning of the book: a social outcast for flouting sexual mores, hating the society that refuses to allow him happiness.
Sarah says that she wanted to do what was best after deceiving and hurting Charles. She didn’t realize until their meeting in Exeter that she had been mad the whole time he knew her. She has learned that artists must judge their work harshly, and she’s glad she destroyed their relationship. She thinks that her impurity ruined Charles’s purity. Charles realizes that his formality has always grated against her directness. He thinks he’s been the artificial one, while she’s been straightforward. He asks whether they can take up the pure part of their relationship again, but she says they can’t. He says her words are insufficient when he’s traveled four thousand miles to find her.
Ironically, Charles has more than once had to convince himself that Sarah was sane, and now she says that she was, in fact, insane when he knew her before. However, this doesn’t seem to be a definitive judgment that can be used to understand her earlier actions. Sarah regards their affair like a work of her art, suggesting the degree to which she planned and plotted it. Charles’s artificiality, which he feels comes between them, is a direct result of living unquestioningly in Victorian culture for so long.
Sarah denies she’s saying that she never loved Charles, but he insists that she’s saying she never saw him as anything more than something to use and she doesn’t care what he’s gone through. He touches her shoulder, but she stiffens. He takes this to mean she loves someone else, and she confirms this. Charles is angry and moves to leave, but Sarah insists that the person isn’t whom he thinks, and he stops. She says an artist wants to marry her, but she won’t do it. If she had to choose between them, she’d choose Charles, but she doesn’t want to marry at all. She’s discovered that she likes being alone and wants to be free to be herself. Furthermore, she’s happy here, with this work, among these people. She feels like she belongs, and she can’t turn her back on this good fortune.
Sarah’s declarations of freedom are very feminist, particularly for her time. It’s unusual for a Victorian woman, particularly one who’s sexually compromised, to be offered the chance to marry and refuse it. In an era when marriage essentially means that a wife must answer to her husband in everything and has no rights of her own, Sarah will certainly be more free alone than if she married. After being the quintessential outcast for the entirety of the book, Sarah finally belongs somewhere, while Charles no longer does.
Some part of Charles admires Sarah for this speech. He can tell that her time in London has anchored her more securely to the philosophy that she’s always had. He insists that he can’t let her work get in the way of a woman’s purpose in the world. He doesn’t want to change her, but only to make her happier. She says she isn’t meant to be understood, even by herself, and she can only be happy as long as she doesn’t understand. Charles finds this ridiculous, but Sarah says she’s refusing him because he can’t understand that this state is not ridiculous to her. Charles says she can be as mysterious as she wants, but she says his love interferes with everything.
Though Charles has changed over the course of the book, Sarah has remained essentially the same person, though her circumstances have changed. In spite of the changes in Charles, he starts to spout sexist Victorian beliefs about a woman’s role as a wife and mother that are directly in opposition to Sarah’s way of life. Finally, Sarah declares that it’s actually fruitless to try to understand her, which the reader might be feeling, too. Her fundamental unintelligibility adds to the refusal of absolute truth in this book.
Charles decides to be more sentimental, so he asks whether Sarah has thought about him. She says she did at first, and she did when she saw his notices in the newspaper and had to hide from him. She found out that he hadn’t married Ernestina. She seems rather smug at keeping this information from him. Charles is frightened by her indifference, and perhaps begins to understand her mystery. A change in sexual relations has begun, and he’s only a pawn in a battle over territory. Sarah doesn’t hate men, but she acts as she does to achieve some larger purpose. Charles sees that she’s not as happy as she says, but she doesn’t want him to know that she still suffers.
Sarah now reveals that she actually did know that Charles hadn’t married Ernestina, though she denied it before. This falsehood shows that she’s still acting towards Charles as she did before, when she lied outright about having slept with Varguennes. Fowles positions Sarah here as a forerunner of the feminist movement, acting as she does to tip the balance of power in the world away from men and towards women. She’s driven more by ideals than by personal happiness.
Charles remarks that Sarah has enjoyed ruining his life. He accuses her of sending her address to his lawyer just to torture him one last time before turning to a new victim. She calmly denies this, but he insists it’s true and that she’ll one day be punished. Charles is despairing, but Sarah is outraged. He turns to leave and she runs after him, so he stops. She blocks the door, saying she can’t let him believe what he’s said. She wants him to see a woman in this house who understands her better than anyone and will explain much. Charles manages to control his anger and refuses to see the woman. They engage in a battle of wills, and Sarah seems curious to see what Charles will do. He knows he still loves her.
Although Sarah clearly isn’t above telling lies, the reader knows that Charles’s rage in this instance is unjustified, since Sam actually sent Montague her address. It’s rather ironic that he has never recognized her other lies, but thinks he’s caught her out in this one, when he’s actually wrong. It makes sense that another female would be the only person who could really understand Sarah, as her experiences of the world are based on gender even more than the average woman’s are.
Finally Charles asks what he’s supposed to understand from Sarah’s request, and she says someone less honorable would already have guessed. He wonders if there’s a faint smile in her eyes. She moves to a bellpull. He wonders at what she’s said about a woman who understands her, at her hatred of men, but he can’t admit what he’s thinking. Sarah rings the bell and asks him to respect the woman given her age, then leaves. Charles realizes he’s about to meet the artist’s sister, Christina Rossetti. He’s always found her poetry confused and mystical. He opens the door and sees Sarah enter another room as someone comes up the stairs.
It seems that Charles begins to suspect, though he can’t admit it to himself, that Sarah is in a lesbian relationship with Christina Rossetti, who is a well-known Victorian poet who wrote at least one poem with definite lesbian overtones. However, it’s difficult to imagine, as Fowles has said earlier, that a Victorian would even imagine a woman in a relationship with another woman. Thus, perhaps Fowles is playing with his modern readers, knowing that they will jump to this conclusion from the details he provides.
Charles returns to the studio. He now understands that Christina Rossetti has formed Sarah’s way of looking at the world. He wishes he hadn’t come to find her, but since he’s here, he won’t let Rossetti triumph. He hears a sound and turns to find the girl from before carrying a small child. He assumes she was on her way to the nursery. Charles tells her a lady is coming to speak to him. The girl sets the child down on a carpet and gives her a doll. Then she moves to leave. Charles asks whether the lady is coming, and the girl says she’s already there.
Just as Charles has begun to think of Christina Rossetti as his rival, each of them trying control Sarah (though Sarah is really in control of herself), he finds that the lady Sarah has spoken of is actually just a child. This is Charles’s own daughter, so the fact that he practically ignores her at first makes him seem particularly clueless. Apparently only a product of Sarah’s own body can even hope to understand her.
Charles stares at the little girl. She tries to give him her doll, and he kneels and helps her stand, examining her face. She seems unhappy with him, so he takes out his watch to cheer her up. He carries her to a chair and she sits on his knees. Watching her, he begins to think again about his conversation with Sarah. He hears the door open and someone put a hand on the back of his chair. In another house, someone starts to play the piano, and only that sound indicates the passage of time; in every other sense, history has halted. When the girl gets bored, Sarah picks her up. Charles rises and sees that she’s smiling, taunting him. She picks up the doll and stares at Charles’s feet.
Charles’s interaction with his daughter is strongly reminiscent of his interaction with the prostitute Sarah’s daughter, as he lets both of these children play with his watch. Furthermore, the watch acts as a symbol of how Charles’s interactions with children seem to reshape time, perhaps because children are not yet aware of how society envisions the passage of time, or because the interaction of a parent with a child somehow transcends questions of history.
Charles asks the girl’s name, and Sarah says it’s Lalage. She explains that Mr. Rossetti saw her in the street and asked to draw her, all before Lalage was born. He’s her godfather. She knows it’s a strange name. Charles can’t believe she’s asking his opinion on this matter, but he says the name is Greek. He feels like he’ll never forgive Sarah. She asks whether he doesn’t like the name, but he says he does. Charles stares at Sarah and Lalage as though they’re the embodiment of some escaped danger. Finally he asks Sarah why she didn’t tell him about Lalage, and she says things had to be this way. He understands that their fate depended on God forgiving their sins. He asks about their earlier confrontation, and Sarah says it had to happen.
Sarah and Charles are finally communicating in a straightforward and peaceful way. Charles seems to think that he and Sarah had to go through trials before God would let them be together again; they had to pay in this way for the pain they caused. This is a rather conventional, religious view of things. Furthermore, Sarah almost implies that their conflicts were predestined, that they were necessary in order to reach the inevitable understanding that they now have.
Finally Sarah looks at Charles, and she’s crying. Her look is naked, the kind of look that changes lives and shows that love holds everything together. Charles asks whether he’ll ever understand her. She shakes her head, and he kisses her hair. The piano music stops. Lalage bangs her doll on Charles’s cheek.
This is essentially a happy ending. It’s unclear whether Charles and Sarah will get married, but they and Lalage have nevertheless come together in a traditional family structure, which makes this ending the less subversive of the two. Charles accepts a state of bewilderment.