Frederick receives another letter from Helen and visits Gilbert in order to share its contents with him. In the letter, Helen invites Gilbert to tell his family whatever he likes of her, but she wishes he would put her from his mind. She then goes on to describe her continued efforts to nurse Arthur back to health. It is uphill work. He is constantly working against her, and wants to eat and drink as he did before. The worst of the entire situation, though, is his attempt at showing her affection. She recoils at what she sees as insincere gestures, and she cannot return his love. The two of them come to a wry sort of understanding. It’s too bad that it has come to this: he has a nurse who feels nothing for him, and out of desperation, he is grateful for whatever crumbs of kindness she throws his way.
Having hoped for years that Arthur would become a better man and return her love in an open and honest manner, Helen must now put up with the unwanted physical advances of her ill and libidinous husband. It is an irony almost too much to bear, especially because his overtures seem insincere to her and motivated primarily by lust. For once, Helen finds herself in a place of power, but it’s not the kind of power she wanted.
Helen has the pleasure of seeing Esther during her time at Grassdale, but it’s a mixed pleasure. Esther is no longer the joyful young woman Helen remembers. She has been worn down by her mother’s constant pestering. Mrs. Hargrave wants so much to see Esther married that she continually accuses her of being a burden to the family, and Esther is convinced that Walter hates her for her obstinacy. Esther says she has gone so far as to threaten her mother with running away and making her own living. Helen feels for her. She wishes a worthy man would come along and save her from her sad fate.
Helen was right when she anticipated that Esther would be more difficult to marry off than Milicent. Esther’s forward-thinking mindset is out of step with her family’s views, which, like Mrs. Markham’s, prioritize a man’s happiness over a woman’s, and financial security over real independence. Esther’s desire for work is a threat not just to her mother’s values but the social system in general.
The letter alternately depresses Gilbert and makes him happy. He has less hope for their future, but is consoled by the fact he can now let his mother and Rose in on the fact that Helen is a blameless and upstanding woman. Rose is particularly gratified to hear Helen’s story, as is Mary Millward, whom Helen had always valued, in spite of her plainness. Gilbert is happy to discover that Miss Millward is engaged to Richard Wilson, who is now a student at Cambridge. The two were carrying on a secret engagement, waiting for the Reverend Millward to seek a curate. Now that he has selected Richard as his successor, the unassuming Mary and bookish Richard can finally marry and be open with their happiness.
Gilbert is surprised to find out about Mary Millward and Richard Wilson’s engagement partially because he’d always found Mary plain and uninteresting. Gilbert’s assumption that no one but old people, children, and her own family valued Mary was built on his perception of her unremarkable looks. His understanding of the situation and of Mary was skewed by his tendency to rank women based on their physical attractiveness. This was also what led him into an unwise flirtation with Eliza.
Gilbert flashes forward somewhat in this letter to Halford, updating him on Richard and the former Miss Millward, who are now living in another vicarage where they are both well loved by the parishioners. Meanwhile, Eliza has married a tradesman, who, Gilbert assumes, is too dumb to realize his misfortune, and Jane Wilson, having never received an offer of marriage she thought good enough for her, is living alone in a country village, a small-minded and cold-hearted old maid.
In this novel, the virtuous characters are rewarded and the wicked punished. According to that rule, Mary and Richard are allowed to be happy, but the less worthy Eliza Millward and Jane Wilson must be given their comeuppance: an unremarkable marriage and loneliness respectively.