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The chapter starts out with a quote about the social conditions of the British upper and middle classes. The chapter introduces the reader to Mrs. Poulteney who is well known in Lyme Regis and dreaded for her taskmaster attitude. Her domestic staff is overworked and underpaid and Mrs. Fairley, her maid, acts as her spy. Anyone caught shirking his or her duties is immediately reported to Mrs. Poulteney.
Mrs. Poulteney likes to think of herself as a morally upright and religious woman. Her spy pretends to be religiously virtuous for her mistress’ sake. In reality, both are hypocrites. Mrs. Poulteney is well known for her charity yet her motives for being "charitable" are mercenary. Firstly she wants to assure a place for herself in Heaven. Secondly, she wants a cheap source of labor and so asks the vicar if there is anyone she can take into her household who has fallen on unfortunate circumstance. This also gives her a morally superior edge. Her sanctimoniousness is evident in her request. The vicar, Mr. Forsythe recommends Sarah Woodruff.
The chapter begins with another quotation from Pike’s work, and it expounds on the social conditions of British upper and middle classes and their attitudes towards the lower classes. In Pike’s own words ‘cesspool’ is the term he uses to refer to the lower classes.
The chapter is largely a portrait of Mrs. Poulteney and her housekeeper/spy, Mrs. Fairley. Mrs. Poulteney professes to be a moralistic upright woman and her sidekick, Mrs. Fairley pretends to be the same. But in reality both are hypocrites. Together they succeed in making the lives of the domestic staff at Malborough Hill a living hell. Mrs. Poulteney, the narrator intrudes in to mention, is well known for her charity yet her motives are selfish. She believes she is feathering a bed for herself in Heaven. Both of these women are common types in Victorian novels. Whether or not such types really existed is worthy of inquiry although their high-mindedness and social and moral superiority are attributes associated with many Victorians. Together the two mean women succeed in making Sarah’s life miserable and make Sarah’s character more sympathetic.