Charles' manservant Sam is in love with Mary and desperate for cash to open the clothing store which is his dream. The news that Charles will not inherit Winsyatt comes as a blow to Sam, who had been planning to enjoy his position as butler there if he hadn't managed to make his shop-dream come true. Sam begins to vaguely think about blackmail - he recognizes the significance of Charles' desire to keep the notes from Sarah secret.
We flash back to the conversation between Charles and his uncle, which proceeds civilly. Uncle Robert's new fiancée is "disagreeably young" and reminds Charles of Sarah - he knows that Ernestina will not be able to match this woman's strong spirit (173). When he leaves, Charles is upset by the thought that he will have to be financially dependent on Ernestina, now that he will not be inheriting the estate.
The person Charles chooses to go to is Doctor Grogan, with whom he spent such a pleasant evening of male camaraderie in Chapter 19. He tells Doctor Grogan that he has a "private and very personal matter to discuss," and Grogan assumes instantly from his long experience dealing with young affianced men that it must be about sex (175). Charles tells him "almost all the truth" about his meetings with Sarah so far, and Dr. Grogan sends a note to call back the search party that he has sent out looking for Sarah - or Sarah's corpse (176). According to Dr. Grogan's hypothesis, Sarah is trying to inspire as much pity in Charles as possible, because she finds him attractive and intelligent, and thinks he is interested in her mostly because he is sorry for her. This appalls Charles; he doesn't want to believe that Sarah could be calculating enough to hurt herself with the intention of bringing him closer to her, especially since he has a fiancée. But Dr. Grogan says he has known many "prostitutes" who gloat over their married and engaged conquests (179).
Grogan encourages Charles to search his soul and understand his true desires and motives; Charles admits that he is not "made for marriage" but has realized this "too late" (180). He doesn't think Ernestina will ever understand him, and he senses "something" in Sarah that makes him attracted to her, despite her being too "compromised" and "mentally diseased" to love (181). Dr. Grogan tells him to leave the matter in his hands: he will go to Sarah and tell her Charles has left Lyme, and then commit her to a private asylum if her melancholia does not improve. Charles will pay the bill.
Dr. Grogan has given Charles a book to read about the phenomenon of 'hysteria' and how a young girl's hysteria caused a Frenchman to be wrongfully convicted of attempted rape. Initially, Charles is shocked by the text and identifies Sarah's behavior as perverted and self-serving hysteria, but he soon realizes that he and Dr. Grogan have both judged her wrongly. Charles feels ashamed, and decides to go out into the night to find Sarah.
It is early morning in Lyme as Charles walks out to the Undercliff. He expects to see Sarah at every turn, but she is nowhere to be found, until he reaches a small barn. Sarah's black bonnet is hanging on a nail - Charles looks over the partition, terrified of what he might find...
We flashback here to when Mrs. Poulteney dismissed Sarah from her service. The mean old woman is furious, and Sarah calls her out on her "hypocrisy" and refuses to take her wages, suggesting that Mrs. Poulteney buy an instrument of torture to better abuse those who work for her (194). Mrs. Poulteney swoons and clutches at her chest, and Sarah leaves to go cry in her bedroom.
Class and class distinctions are a central topic of this chapter, in which the lower classes get the better of the upper classes. Firstly, we see the power that Sam has over Charles, by virtue of knowing about Sarah Woodruff (or at least knowing that something not-quite-right is happening between the two of them). Next, we see the satisfaction of the Winsyatt staff when they hear of Charles being disinherited - they are happy that his "laziness" isn't being rewarded more than their endless hard work (169). And who causes Charles' disinheritance? Mrs. Tomkins, his uncle's fiancée, who is "very much...an upper-middle-class adventuress" wanting to establish herself as a lady in Winsyatt (170). At the end of the chapter, bourgeois Ernestina is financially in control over her fiancé. Charles, the true aristocrat, is looking a little worse for the wear.
Sarah is called many things in this chapter, which is intended as a 'big reveal' of sorts - the voice of reason, Dr. Grogan, is explaining to Charles how he has let himself be deceived by Sarah Woodruff. We know that Dr. Grogan is older and more worldly-wise than Charles, and so we are inclined to believe what he tells us: that Sarah is trying to inspire pity in Charles in order to seduce him. Grogan attributes this desire to her "deranged mind," and yet he likens her to a "prostitute" who "gloat[s]" over her schemes (179). Charles feels that these traits - the fact that she is mentally ill, and sexually compromised - mean that he cannot love her, and he asks Grogan, "How could I?" (181). However, the situation doesn't seem so cut-and-dry. It is much more plausible that, as Dr. Grogan suggests, Charles is "half in love" with Sarah (179). The strength of his feelings for her explain why he is so eager to pay whatever he has to in order to "be rid of her" (182).
Charles is fully aware of his ambivalence toward Ernestina and his desire to remain a bachelor, and yet he is still planning to marry her. He doesn't have high hopes for the future: he thinks she will "never understand him" and that he will always be "haunted" by the knowledge that there are other, lovelier women to be had (180). This does not bode well for their future together.
Some of the reactionary influences in the Victorian age are laid out clearly here, albeit in the context of post-Revolution France. The Frenchman accused of attempted rape was convicted, the narrator says, by the following reactionary principles: "by social prestige, by the myth of the pure-minded virgin, by psychological ignorance, by a society in full reaction from the pernicious notions of freedom disseminated by the French Revolution" (185). Many of these forces play a role in British Victorian society as well, but the one most relevant to Sarah and Charles is the "myth of the pure-minded virgin." Sarah, to Charles' knowledge, is not a virgin, but he believes in some deep innocence in her, and he tends to idealize womanly innocence and purity like the majority of men in his era - this is why he is unable to believe Dr. Grogan's claims in Chapter 27 that Sarah has hurt herself in order to ensnare him. In Charles’ view, women are capable neither of violent actions nor of having sexual or immoral ends that they could desire (such as seducing Charles while knowing that he has a fiancée).
The case studies in the pages that Dr. Grogan gives Charles to read paint a very different picture of what the female psyche is capable of. The conclusion of the doctors in the studies is this: it is far from impossible for "a girl, in order to attain a desired end, to inflict pain upon herself" (187). Of course, Charles is shocked - he had no idea that "the pure and sacred sex" (women) could have such "perversions," and he identifies with the Frenchman who was falsely accused by the hysteric young girl (188). His view of Sarah changes after reading this book; he can now believe that she manipulated him atrociously for her own ends, and he believes that she - whom he thought so innocent and actually pure - is a "whore" (188).
To Charles' credit, this shift in attitude does not last very long. Upon rereading the text, he realizes that Sarah is not actually like the girls whose hysteria is described: she is really a "woman of exceptional courage" who is "crying for help," and he has judged her wrongly (189). The discussion comes back to fate and free will - Charles is ashamed at his actions and feels he has no free will; he has only been acting out the part that society expects of him. Sarah is his destiny, he realizes, and in order to try and gain some free will back, he sets out to find her.
Nature awes Charles, and often makes him feel distinctly unscientific. He thinks more in terms of art and religion when the beauty of nature overwhelms him. In Chapter 10, he laments the "inadequacies of his own time's approach to nature," although "Science eventually regain[s]" its power over him (60). Here, he is compared to a Saint in a painting of Pisanello’s. Like the Saint, he is astonished by "Nature's profoundest secret": that all life is equal, every animal both "appointed" and "unique" (191). This goes against the scientific "pseudo-Linnaean" theory that nature is ranked according to class, kingdom, order, and so forth; and it also goes against the idea of Darwin's 'survival of the fittest' - everything is equally divine and wonderful (191). When faced with this beautiful scene, instead of feeling like the "naturally selected" as he usually does when he is in town, Charles feels "in all ways excommunicated" and unable to fully immerse himself in this paradisiacal landscape (132, 192).
Sarah finally exhibits her strength of character to Mrs. Poulteney, with whom she has always been meek and relatively obedient. The old woman is shocked, and this is partly because Sarah speaks like a modern woman: calmly and coolly, repressing her emotion in order to deliver an exquisitely impertinent remark: she will leave the room with "the greatest pleasure," because "all [she has] ever experienced in it is hypocrisy" (194). Of course, this dismissal is devastating - how will she make ends meet? - and Sarah breaks down into tears at the end of the chapter.