Sarah is the last person to list reasons for her actions. At first she couldn’t decide whether to interview with Mrs. Poulteney, so she went to see her former employer, Mrs. Talbot. Mrs. Talbot was kind and had offered to have Sarah back, and she wanted to help her. She was haunted by an image from the romantic literature of her youth in which a pursued woman jumped off a cliff in terror, lit by lightning. Thus, she advised Sarah to take the job, and though Sarah is intelligent, she trusted the stupid Mrs. Talbot.
Throughout the novel, Sarah often seems impossible to understand, so it’s significant that the narrator suggests that she herself doesn’t always quite know why she acts the way she does. Mrs. Talbot tells herself another story about Sarah, conflating her with a character in an overblown, romantic novel. This imagined story indirectly influences Sarah’s decision, showing the way that stories act in the world.
Sarah’s intelligence would not show up in modern tests, as it is not analytical. Instead, it allows her to fully understand people. It’s as though she has a computer in her heart that allows her to see the truth of people instead of seeing how they present themselves. This ability is not based on morality, seeing as she did not, in fact, stay with a female cousin at Weymouth.
Even though no one seems able to understand Sarah, she understands everyone else, giving her some private power over them. Fowles uses another anachronism here, comparing Sarah to a computer even though they don’t exist in her time. He also suggests that she did sleep with the French lieutenant.
Sarah’s insight, along with her education, have cursed her life. She went to a female seminary in Exeter, which she paid for by working in the evenings. Her fellow students looked down on her, so she read much more in her loneliness than they did. As a result, she sees and judges those around her as fictional characters. Unfortunately, her education made her a victim of the class system; she no longer belongs to her own class, but neither does she belong to a higher one. This makes it difficult to find a husband.
Sarah has never belonged and has always been an outcast. Though education is supposed to improve people’s lives, hers has made her too intelligent to fit in with the lower class, but neither has it raised her up to the middle class. If she sees her fellow humans as characters, then she also sees her life as a story that she can rewrite and manipulate.
Sarah’s father sent her to school because he was obsessed with his ancestry. Many generations ago, the family had perhaps been related to Sir Frances Drake, and definitely owned a manor. When Sarah returned home at eighteen, she quietly watched as he boasted of this ancestry, and her silence irritated him. He made a terrible bargain in buying a farm, and eventually went mad from trying to seem gentlemanly while going bankrupt. He died in an insane asylum, and Sarah went to work for the Talbots. Whenever she’s had suitors, she’s seen all of their faults too clearly, and so she seems doomed to spinsterhood.
Sarah’s family background is reminiscent of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Both Sarah and Tess experience adverse effects when their fathers become obsessed with their supposed noble heritage, just as both become outcasts because they’re seen as fallen women. In any case, Sarah’s father was ruined by the desire to ascend in social status, a pursuit that generally causes strife in this novel.
Let’s imagine that on the afternoon that Charles is walking down the shore, Mrs. Poulteney makes a list of pros and cons about Sarah. First, Sarah has created a happier atmosphere among the servants, as none have been fired since Sarah came to work at Marlborough House a year before. A few weeks after Sarah began, Mrs. Poulteney discovered that a maid had failed to water some ferns, and she tried to fire the girl, who began to weep. Sarah was in the room and, remarkably, asked a question that contradicted Mrs. Poulteney—she asked Millie whether she was all right. She discovered that in fact Millie had been fainting. After Sarah put her to bed, Mrs. Poulteney asked what she should do about Millie, and Sarah gave in to convention by saying she should do what she thought best. Mrs. Poulteney pretended to be kind in the matter, and Sarah began to learn how to handle her.
The narrator steps outside the story here to speculate with the reader about what kind of list Mrs. Poulteney might make about Sarah. This technique helps make the novel feel more like a conscious construction on the part of the writer. Sarah has introduced compassion into Mrs. Poulteney’s house. This is the first time the reader really sees Sarah’s capacity for boldness; while everyone else is completely cowed by Mrs. Poulteney, Sarah, in spite of being dependent on her charity, doesn’t hesitate to stand up to her cruelty. This incident, and Mrs. Poulteney’s submission to Sarah’s opinion, also shows Sarah’s talent for manipulating people.
The second item on the list would be Sarah’s voice. Mrs. Poulteney demands that her servants attend frequent religious services, some of which she presides over. They usually seem frightened and meek in the face of her readings, but Sarah’s beautiful and sincere voice makes the servants actually religious. In the evenings, Sarah reads the Bible to Mrs. Poulteney alone, and her voice has even managed to make the lady cry. The difference between the two women is that Mrs. Poulteney believes in a God that never existed, and Sarah believes in one who does. Sarah speaks very directly of the biblical stories, as though she sees them happening. Once she stopped reading because she was crying, which Mrs. Poulteney feel much more sympathetic towards her. Sarah sees through the trappings of religion as she sees through people. Her essence is understanding and emotion.
Sarah’s voice is one indication of her rather mystic power that was perhaps first glimpsed in that initial scene on the Cobb. Her genuine spiritual feeling counters Mrs. Poulteney’s superficial, self-serving religiosity. The narrator suggests that Mrs. Poulteney’s vision of a strict and calculating God is entirely wrong, while Sarah’s is more accurate. However, it’s difficult to know exactly how Sarah does imagine God. Again, Sarah’s power comes in part from her ability to tell a good story—her readings deeply affect people who haven’t been affected by Mrs. Poulteney’s readings of the same texts.
Sarah is very good at taking on small household responsibilities, and on Mrs. Poulteney’s birthday Sarah gave her a chair covering that she embroidered. Whenever Mrs. Poulteney sees it, she is reminded of Sarah’s good qualities. Finally, Mrs. Poulteney makes Sarah give out religious pamphlets to the poor. Sarah hates doing it, but Mrs. Poulteney believes in the power of the tracts even though most of their recipients can’t read them, and she thinks giving them out will help her get into heaven. As Sarah gives out the pamphlets, she looks in people’s eyes, and they learn more from her gaze than from the tracts.
Mrs. Poulteney’s ridiculous sense of religion shows again—she tries to collect good deeds not for the good they do for others, but for her own good in the afterlife. Besides, she can’t put herself in anyone else’s shoes enough to even consider that the illiterate poor might benefit far more from other forms of charity. The narrator adds to the sense of Sarah as almost saintly or legendary by imbuing her very gaze with spiritual power.
On the other side of things, Mrs. Poulteney is irritated that Sarah goes out alone. She originally had one afternoon free every week, but after she was found crying in bed one morning, the doctor gave Mrs. Poulteney a lecture on melancholia. Doctor Grogan doesn’t like Mrs. Poulteney, and he managed to make her give Sarah every afternoon off while the lady naps.
On one hand, Mrs. Poulteney’s desire to keep Sarah almost as a prisoner demonstrates her cruelty. On the other, it’s important to remember that Victorian women walking alone were often suspect and could even be arrested in certain areas if they were suspected to be prostitutes.
Furthermore, Sarah can’t always be present when there are visitors. Mrs. Poulteney wants everyone to see how charitable she’s being, but Sarah’s sadness and silence make guests uncomfortable. She always forces common sense into conversation that doesn’t want it. When the most important visitors come, Sarah will remain, but with certain visitors she’ll simply slip away. This allows Mrs. Poulteney to talk about her charitable burden, but it also implies some failure on her part, since Sarah isn’t there.
This complaint of Mrs. Poulteney’s emphasizes her self-serving, performative sense of charity. She doesn’t help Sarah because she wants to help her, but because she wants other people to admire her good deeds. Though Sarah has been portrayed at times as overly idealistic or romantic, she’s more down-to-earth than the wealthy visitors who converse according to custom rather than common sense.
The worst thing about Sarah is that she still seems attached to the French lieutenant. Mrs. Poulteney has repeatedly tried to get her to talk about the situation, but Sarah refuses to talk about it. Mrs. Poulteney rarely goes out, so she depends on Mrs. Fairley to bring her reports on Sarah’s outings. Mrs. Fairley resents the fact that Sarah has taken over her duty of reading to Mrs. Poulteney. Sarah has become popular with the servants, and Mrs. Fairley can’t stand not being able to complain to them about her. She begins to hate Sarah, but she pretends to Mrs. Poulteney that she feels sorry for her. She employs her friends and family in helping her keep watch over Sarah, so that before long her every movement is related to Mrs. Fairley in exaggerated terms.
Sarah could minimize her attachment to the French lieutenant, as well as his damage to her reputation, if only she would talk about the situation—but those aren’t necessarily her goals. Since Sarah is seen at this point as a pitiful figure in need of charity, it’s rather ironic that Mrs. Fairley is jealous of her. In fact, it suggests that playing the fallen woman is working somewhat to Sarah’s advantage. Mrs. Fairley becomes another storyteller in this novel of storytelling, fabricating a new narrative for Sarah.
Sarah always used to take the same walk to a terrace overlooking the sea, then go either to the Cobb or to the parish church, then up through grassy fields and back on the road. But she went to the Cobb whenever it wasn’t crowded. It’s assumed that she feels closest to France there. When Mrs. Poulteney heard of this routine, she challenged Sarah, saying that the fact that she looks out to sea suggests that she isn’t repentant. People think that she’s still pursuing sin, and waiting for Satan’s sails. Sarah asked plainly whether Mrs. Poulteney wanted her to leave, which shocked her. She said that she simply wanted Sarah to show that she’s forgotten the Frenchman by walking elsewhere. Sarah agreed with a small smile, the first she’d given Mrs. Poulteney.
Although the narrator relates the thoughts of almost every other character, he doesn’t let the reader into Sarah’s mind nearly so easily. The reason he gives for her walks to the Cobb is only the reason others ascribe to her, part of a story they tell about her, and it’s impossible to know at this point whether it’s Sarah’s real reason. Mrs. Poulteney expects Sarah to be so grateful for her charity that she’ll do anything to keep her place in the house, but Sarah makes it clear that she would be fine without Mrs. Poulteney. Mrs. Poulteney, meanwhile, only cares about appearances.
Mrs. Poulteney allowed Sarah to walk by the sea sometimes, but not always, and not to stare. Sarah generally kept to Mrs. Poulteney’s instructions, though she still occasionally stood at the end of the Cobb. Mrs. Fairley had little to report for months, and Sarah was saved from severe criticism, particularly since Mrs. Fairley and Mrs. Poulteney thought her mad. In fact, Sarah isn’t mad. She was exhibiting her shame for a reason, and she knew she had sufficiently achieved her purpose.
Mrs. Poulteney tries to control Sarah even down to what aspects of the landscape she can look at. Sarah manages to keep the peace even while asserting her freedom by standing on the Cobb. The narrator reveals just enough about Sarah to make her even more of an enigma, suggesting that she’s completely in control even when she seems oppressed by those around her.
But one day soon before the beginning of this story, Mrs. Fairley came to Mrs. Poulteney, saying that she had to tell her something about Sarah because it was her duty. It seemed there was something truly awful to relate. Then she said that Sarah had begun walking on Ware Commons. Though this may seem anticlimactic, Mrs. Poulteney’s mouth fell open at the news.
Fowles again draws attention to the constructed nature of the story, giving it a defined time of beginning before which other events occurred and acknowledging that he’s withholding the information that the reader needs to understand why Mrs. Poulteney is so shocked.