Ernestina wakes up in an aggravated mood in Chapter Eight and Charles arranges to see her later in the day. He returns to the Cobb in search of petrified sea urchins. He is dressed as recommended, including nailed boots, rather than for comfort and the narrator points out that there is a bone of contention between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: ‘is duty to drive us, or not?’ In defence of the nineteenth-century attitude, the narrator points out that men such as Charles, over-dressed and over-prepared, laid the foundations for modern science. It is also argued that ‘we’ may despise Charles for his lack of specialization, but Darwin’s The Origin of Species may be seen as a triumph of generalization.
Charles refers to himself as a Darwinist, but had not really understood him. Darwin had challenged the Linnaean Scala Naturae (and the narrator thinks it is telling that Linnaeus finally went mad in his attempt to stabilize and fix a ‘continuous flux’). Charles is aware of ‘personal extinction’ but the thought of general extinction was absent from his mind. He does not fully appreciate that if a new species can come into being, old species often have to make way for them. This is so even though he finds an example of it (of lias), which he decides to give to Ernestina.
In his dilatoriness, he has not realized it is now 2 pm and that the tide is approaching. He punishes himself by taking the path too quickly and needs to sit for a minute to recover.
Chapter Nine shifts back to explain the previous year’s conversation between Sarah and Mrs. Talbot, as Mrs. Talbot advised her to take the post with Mrs. Poulteney. Mrs. Talbot would have employed her again and offered to do so even though she knew Sarah could not give sustained attention to her duties. This former employer knows Sarah is poor and memories of the romantic literature she read as an adolescent make her fear for her. Mrs. Talbot particularly remembers a story of a woman jumping from a cliff after being persecuted and this sums up her worst anxieties. Sarah trusts Mrs. Talbot’s judgement and takes the position.
Sarah is described by the narrator as intelligent and this is especially apparent in her ability to assess people: ‘Without being able to say how, any more than a computer can explain its own processes, she saw them as they were and not as they tried to seem.’ This is not a moral judgement she makes, because if morality had been her ‘touchstone’, ‘she would not have behaved as she did’; for example, she did not lodge with her cousin in Weymouth (as was thought) when she visited the French lieutenant.
Her education and insight are both curses on her life. The education had been at a third-rate seminary in Exeter and she paid for it by darning and by doing other menial tasks. She was looked down on by the other pupils and read more fiction to make up for her loneliness. She is described as being between classes and has been made ‘the perfect victim of a caste society’. After her father gave up the tenancy on his farm to buy one cheaply, he struggled to keep up the mortgage payments and the appearance of ‘gentility’. He went ‘quite literally mad’ and died in the Dorchester Asylum a year after being sent there. Sarah had been earning her own living and had suitors, but the curse of seeing people for what they are means she is likely to be ‘inescapably doomed’ to the fate of spinsterhood.
The narrative then shifts to Mrs. Poulteney. If she made a list of good and bad points about employing Sarah, it is a credit to Sarah that no servants have been sacked whilst she has been there. Mrs. Poulteney also likes to hear Sarah’s voice, as it sounds sincere, and the servants are now attentive at the mandatory services. She is also good at sewing and does not get on her employer’s nerves. Furthermore, she has passed the ‘tract test’ as she delivers tracts for Mrs. Poulteney unquestioningly.
On the debit side, Mrs. Poulteney dislikes the fact that Sarah goes out alone. Mrs. Poulteney also thinks her face is too sad for some of the visitors she has and in this context reminds Mrs. Poulteney of a figure on a gibbet. Lastly and most importantly, Sarah ‘still shows signs of attachment to her seducer’. Mrs. Poulteney only leaves the house to visit her ‘equals’, but her ‘spy’ (Mrs. Fairley, who resents Sarah’s presence) informs her of Sarah’s ‘every movement and expression’. Although Mrs. Poulteney is still pleased with her new ‘toy’, she takes her to task for the way she keeps looking out to sea. They strike a bargain of sorts and Sarah restricts her visits to the Cobb. However, two weeks before this story begins, Mrs. Fairley felt it was her ‘duty’ to report Sarah for walking on Ware Commons. Mrs. Poulteney’s mouth fell open at the shock of hearing this news.
Analysis – Chapters Eight and Nine
Chapter Nine explains Sarah’s equivocal position in this highly-divided society and is informative about why she does not feel as though she belongs to a particular group. Her education has raised her from the position she was born into – as a farmer’s daughter – and left her in limbo. Her inability to play along with hypocrisy means she is likewise condemned to be alone.
The dangers of romantic literature are also alluded to in this chapter and both Mrs. Talbot and Sarah have been avid readers in the past. It is specified that Mrs. Talbot’s imagination has been colored by the books she has read, and it is possible to see a suggestion (if not a clear statement) that Sarah has also been influenced by her adolescent reading patterns.