Summary and Analysis
Charles is still savoring his relief at escaping from the snare of Sarah's attractiveness as he returns to town and finds a telegram waiting for him at his hotel. His uncle at Winsyatt asks that he make an immediate visit to discuss some important matters. Charles is overjoyed for two reasons: First, the message provides a perfect excuse to leave Lyme for awhile, thus saving him from having to explain his activities, should he be asked to do so. Second, he believes that the subject of the discussion will be concerned with his upcoming marriage, and that his uncle wishes to know which of the two houses the young couple will settle in once they are wed.
The sumptuous estate in which Charles' uncle lives is given a lengthy description: We read about the lands, the people, and of Charles' fond memories of them. He is especially charmed at again seeing Mrs. Hawkins, the laundry maid, for she was a substitute mother for the motherless boy. The elaborate treatment given this description of the estate enables the author to comment on the lot of the people who worked on such estates as compared to that of the downtrodden poor of London and other industrial cities. The life of these country people was considerably more pleasant than that of their urban counterparts. Although they were poor, they worked in pleasant surroundings and were often treated quite well by the gentry.
However, our admiration for the country life is cut short when we discover, along with Charles, the reason he has been asked to visit. Instead of seeing his uncle, Charles is greeted by an empty house that has been mysteriously redecorated. Even the bustard, a grouse-like bird which Charles had shot long ago, and which his uncle had cherished and had had stuffed, was missing.
The scene now focuses upon Charles' return to Aunt Tranter's house, and we learn what passed between him and his uncle. As the reader might have guessed, Charles' uncle has decided to marry a young widow, Mrs. Tomkins. Ernestina is enraged on Charles' behalf, or so she says, but Charles is a bit embarrassed by the vehemence of her protests at the unfairness of his uncle's decision. Changing the subject, Charles asks what news has occurred in Lyme, and he is told that Mrs. Poulteney has dismissed Sarah Woodruff, and that she has since disappeared. Charles is stunned. He leaves abruptly, wondering how much of his association with Sarah is known and whether she was dismissed because she was seen with him on Ware Commons. He goes immediately to the White Lion, the inn where Sarah's things were sent.
The White Lion, coincidentally, is also where Charles is staying. Back in his rooms there, his extreme agitation becomes evident. He finds two notes that Sarah has left for him: a sealed one written in English, urgently requesting that he see her one more time, and an unsealed note in French, telling Charles where he can find her. Charles attempts to discover who sent the notes, which arouses Sam's suspicion. He hastily orders Sam to attend to dinner, but then leaves in a hurry without eating anything.
Chapter 26 continues to focus on the effects of Charles' sudden change of fortune. While Sam sits in Charles' sitting room, he contemplates how he can manipulate his employer to his own advantage, for Sam suspects that Charles is more deeply involved with the strange woman, Sarah Woodruff, than he would care to have anyone discover. Sam's ultimate loyalty, however, is to himself and his future wife, Mary. Now that Charles cannot hope with any confidence to receive the inheritance which his uncle had promised him, Sam Farrow must plan his future carefully.
At this point, Fowles provides us with Sam's memories of his and Charles' visit to Winsyatt and Charles' discovery that the heir to his uncle's fortune will be the child of Mrs. Tomkins.
As Charles' financial status has changed, so do his feelings about his relationships with the people around him. He is still cautious regarding his involvement with Sarah, but he is less apt to deny that he is involved with her, at least to himself. We also can see that the attitudes of others towards Charles are also altered.
Disturbed about Sarah, and doubtful about his commitment to Ernestina, Charles goes to see his friend Doctor Grogan again. The doctor suggests that Charles leave Lyme for awhile, and he will attempt to help Sarah if he can. He views Charles' infatuation with the woman as an aberration that could threaten the young man's marriage to Ernestina. He advises Charles to confess to his fiancée that he has seen Sarah, and says further that Sarah's actions appear to be those of a woman who might be mad, and the doctor is convinced that she might have to be incarcerated in an insane asylum. This shocks Charles, for he does not believe that Sarah is motivated by madness, though he does find her behavior strange.
In an effort to show Charles the true nature of Sarah Woodruff, the doctor gives Charles a book that describes the court trial of another French lieutenant: Lieutenant Emile de La Roncière, who in 1835 was apparently framed by a woman not unlike Sarah, in the doctor's opinion. On very slight evidence, the man was convicted of sexually assaulting the woman and served a prison sentence.
This conflict between Charles' love for Ernestina and for Sarah will encompass a major portion of the novel, but the resolution of the conflict will not complete the story, as we shall see. In addition to emphasizing how disturbed Charles is over Sarah, Chapter 27 illustrates still another interpretation of Sarah's actions-that is, Dr. Grogan sees in her puzzling behavior the symptoms of mental illness, as defined by the psychological knowledge of the era. The reader can see here the assumptions held by many people of this time about the nature of the human psyche. A woman who did not fit the established criteria of a contented female member of society — passive, modest, weak, and unsensual — was likely to be labeled insane. There was a close connection between a woman's sexual behavior, or lack of it, and her role in society. It was, in short, believed by many people at this time that a proper woman didn't enjoy sex; if she did, there was something wrong with her.