Summary of Chapter XXVIII: The Ironmaster
The Dedlocks are entertaining at their country estate and have invited all the cousins, including Volumnia Dedlock, an old woman from Bath, and the Honorable Bob Stables who would like a government job with no responsibility. These cousins are poor relations that Sir Leicester entertains every so often.
Sir Leicester appreciates the loyalty of his housekeeper, Mrs. Rouncewell, because she upholds the honor due to the upper classes that, in his opinion, is declining. An example of this new ethic is the fact that Mrs. Rouncewell’s son, an ironmaster, has been invited to run for Parliament.
The ironmaster suddenly appears asking to see the Dedlocks. His son Watt wants to marry Rosa, Lady Dedlock’s maid. Mr. Rouncewell is willing to go ahead with the engagement if the Dedlocks agree. Sir Leicester and Mr. Rouncewell bandy about some sentiments about the intermingling of the classes, for Rosa is beneath his son’s rank. He is willing to overlook that if she is educated properly, for “unequal marriages” happen regularly in the middle class that he represents. The Dedlocks promise to let the girl make up her own mind.
Lady Dedlock asks Rosa in private about her feelings for Watt. She tries to be motherly to the girl and says she will try to make Rosa happy “if I can make anybody happy on this earth” (p. 304). All this time, the tapping is heard on Ghost’s Walk.
Commentary on Chapter XXVIII
This chapter highlights class differences and the ways in which the class structure is changing in England at this time. Sir Leicester likes the merry old England of the past with its great families and houses and servants who knew their places. The evidence that the country is running to wrack and ruin in his eyes is that his poor cousin, the Honorable Bob Stables, is unable to get a cushy government job with no responsibility. Once upon a time, it was rank that determined all things. Now, with a business and industrial economy, there are the successful Rouncewells, who are actually invited to stand for Parliament!
Mrs. Rouncewell is the old-fashioned housekeeper, who is always aware of serving a great family. Her boys were raised at Chesney Wold. But this elder son became an industrialist, an engineer inventing power-looms, and is a solid middle-class man with power. The irony of this is too much for the baronet, especially when Mr. Rouncewell says the maid Rosa is beneath his son’s class and will have to be educated to be raised enough to marry Watt. Class pride is something Sir Leicester has felt reserved for the upper class.
Rouncewell however speaks of the “leveling” of the classes when he says that unequal marriages can be remedied by education. This is a new principle--- education superceding bloodline. Sir Leicester rejects that, but is polite to Rouncewell, who reminds him that the honor of the upper class is maintained by people like his mother, for there must be “high worth on two sides” (p. 302). Sir Leicester considers this incident the “cracking of the framework of society, manifested through Mrs. Rouncewell’s son” (p. 305).
The scene between Lady Dedlock and Rosa is telling, for we have never seen Lady Dedlock kind to anyone before. It is hinted that she is trying to be motherly, to connect to another human being, perhaps remembering something from the past. That past is revealed in the next chapter.