Everyone that Gilbert introduced Jack to in his first letter—Eliza, Mary, and the Reverend Milward; Jane, Richard, Robert, and Mrs. Wilson; and Mr. Lawrence—have come to the Markhams to join Gilbert, Fergus, Rose, and Mrs. Markham for the house party. Helen does not come, and Gilbert surmises that her absence actually benefits the partygoers. Everyone is in excellent spirits and behaves according to type. Eliza is flirtatious, Mary retiring, the reverend opinionated, Jane superior, Richard quiet, Robert uncouth, Mrs. Wilson gossipy, Fergus sarcastic, Rose simple and sweet, and Mrs. Markham so anxious for everyone to have a good time that she bullies them into doing so. Mr. Lawrence seems to have been caught in Jane’s web. Otherwise, it’s difficult for Gilbert to get a read on him. He is reserved to a fault.
Gilbert’s rejoicing at Helen’s not being a member of the party suggests that he might be the prejudiced one. He would like to paint her as unfair to him and overly critical, but he seems equally anxious to find fault with her, and in many ways she is treated by the Linden-Car villagers as a kind of “other” at this point. Gilbert and his small circle of family, friends, and acquaintances have a relaxed and easy rhythm they fall into when together. Helen’s presence would disturb that.
Conversation eventually turns to the consumption of alcohol. The reverend refuses wine in favor of beer, and that reminds Mrs. Markham of Helen Graham’s visit and her strong stance against drinking. Everyone in the party agrees with the reverend that drinking in moderation is the most sensible approach to take to the question of consumption, but Mr. Lawrence defends Helen’s side, suggesting that if a person is genetically disposed to intemperance, it might indeed be best that they abstain completely from intoxicants. Mr. Lawrence then takes the opportunity to ask Gilbert what he thinks of Helen Graham, who is Mr. Lawrence’s tenant at Wildfell Hall. Gilbert replies that she is interesting to look at but maddening to interact with, because she is narrow-minded and unable to see the truth in any point that might contradict her own worldview.
Helen is obviously not able to defend herself, being absent, and Gilbert and the others are using this opportunity to further position Helen as an outsider, simply because she has taken a firm stance against alcohol. The reverend’s opinions in the matter are, like his feelings on diet, completely arbitrary, but the parishioners are more than happy to take his side in the debate if it allows them the chance to oppose Helen. And Gilbert continues to insist it is Helen who is narrow-minded, not seeing that the same charge could just as well be aimed at him.
The party ends with dancing. When Gilbert tries to take Eliza’s hand and lead her on to the floor, however, the reverend announces that it’s time for them to leave. Gilbert kisses Eliza when her father’s back is turned and earns a tearful lecture from his mother, who tells him that if he marries Eliza, he will break her heart. Mrs. Markham thinks Eliza a deceitful minx and not at all on the same level as her son. Gilbert agrees not to make any major decisions without consulting his mother first, but he makes the promise reluctantly and goes to bed very much cast down.
Gilbert made it clear from the beginning of his letter that his mother does not think any woman good enough for him. Still, it is just as obvious that his feelings for Eliza are shallow and motivated mostly by a youthful desire for admiration. Eliza does not challenge his preconceived notions like a certain woman living in a gloomy mansion does.