On her way back from the Van Osburgh wedding, Lily is forced to bear the subtly mocking comments that people are making about Percy Gryce’s upcoming wedding and its relation to Lily. Frustrated by having to act skillfully to show that she is not personally affected by this event, Lily reaches her aunt’s house, in which Mrs. Peniston has launched a large September cleaning operation. On her way up to her room, Lily has to ask a seemingly defiant charwoman to move and realizes that it is the same woman who works at the Benedick and had given her a provocative stare after Lily had left Selden’s apartment.
The pleasure that people take in gossiping and trying to make Lily feel bad reveals the lack of solidarity and honest friendship that exists in Lily’s social world, where no one comforts her or tries to help her ignore people’s mockery. The fact that Lily sees the same cleaning woman from the Benedick highlights the impression that everyone is conspiring against her, and that she cannot escape her social world, even when she is in the privacy of her own house, since its rumors and unpleasantness follow her even there.
Lily feels angry at the charwoman’s attitude, but also at being forced to stay at her aunt’s house longer than usual, since she has received few invitations this season. She is tired of her boring life and feels a strong desire for something new and exciting to happen, but she cannot possibly picture anything adventurous. Mrs. Peniston, too, would have preferred her family member and friend Grace Stepney’s presence to Lily’s, because Grace is better at helping with domestic affairs such as cleaning.
Lily’s sense of boredom is paradoxical. On the one hand, she wishes she could spend more time at social events but, on the other hand, she wants to escape that world entirely. The tragedy of this confused desire is that Lily is unable to imagine a life for herself outside of trivial activities and social-climbing ambitions—a lack of imagination that shows how little freedom she is able to enjoy, even in her own mind.
One day in October, the doorbell rings, and a woman called Mrs. Haffen asks to see Lily. When Lily sees her, she realizes with surprise that it is the charwoman from the Benedick. Sensing that this conversation might involve confidential matters, Lily takes the woman to the drawing-room. There, Mrs. Haffen reveals that, upon cleaning Selden’s apartment, she found a series of love letters addressed to him that the young man had clearly meant to throw away, but failed to destroy.
This episode highlights the importance of coincidences and chance encounters in the novel: the propitious fact that Mrs. Haffen works both at the Benedick and at Mrs. Peniston’s, that she runs into Lily on two separate occasions, and that Selden mysteriously failed to destroy these love letters. All of these events create a sense of destiny, as though these coincidences were simply meant to happen.
While Mrs. Haffen believes that Lily is the author of these letters and would want to keep them safe and private, Lily recognizes Bertha Dorset’s handwriting. Although Lily realizes that these letters could be a powerful weapon against Bertha, as they would be proof of her adulterous behavior, Lily initially refuses to purchase them. However, she also realizes that Selden’s own reputation is at stake, and thus decides to purchase the letters so that she can keep them safe. After a tense negotiation, Lily finally comes in possession of the packet.
Despite Bertha’s willingness to wreak vengeance on Lily, as she demonstrated when she scared Percy Gryce away at Bellomont, Lily refuses to use such base strategies against her enemy. Rather, Lily demonstrates that what she truly cares about is friendship and moral behavior, since she decides to keep these letters to protect Selden from defamation. This highlights Lily’s superiority to some of the vile practices seen in society.
Feeling disgusted by the idea of reading the letters, Lily resolves to destroy them in her room, but Mrs. Peniston then walks in to talk to her. Although Mrs. Peniston does not take part in social events, she is eager to know all the details involved in the Van Osburgh wedding. When she realizes that Lily can’t remember the particular clothes that people wore and the food that they ate, Mrs. Peniston is disappointed, even though she has already heard two separate accounts of the event. Mrs. Peniston mentions that she heard that Lily was supposed to marry Percy Gryce, but that he left suddenly one morning at Bellomont. Unwilling to discuss the issue, Lily retreats to her room.
Lily’s unwillingness to read these letters stems from her aversion to potentially harmful gossip as much, perhaps, as a lack of desire to know about Selden’s life with another woman. Lily’s inability to recall specific details about the wedding reveals that, paradoxically, Lily is not necessarily interested in material goods per se but, rather, in the excitement that upper-class social life provides. Mrs. Peniston, by contrast, only views social life through the lens of gossip.
In her room, Lily plans to burn Bertha Dorset’s letters. However, after Mrs. Peniston’s mention of the reasons that made Percy Gryce flee Bellomont, Lily remembers Bertha’s role in the situation. Angry and ashamed, Lily decides that, instead of destroying the letters, she will simply keep them in a safe place.
Lily’s decision to keep Bertha’s letters is morally ambiguous, since the only reason she seems to be keeping them is to retain the opportunity of taking her revenge against Bertha, although she does not have any definite plan in this regard.