Chapter 16 is all about…well, let’s call it “comfort porn”. It’s the reflection of Sara’s “pretends” about warm clothes and hot food and a comfortable life. Only now it’s real. Both Sara and Becky have their practical moments. At first Becky eats quickly for fear the food might melt away like fairy gold. And they both have moments when they reassure themselves that even if The Magic had been a one-off experience—if it was just for that night and then disappeared forever—it was still a miracle to treasure. Becky carefully inventories the experiences of the night to save them away against that possibility.
Sara hits on one essential component: “whoever it is—wherever they are—I have a friend, Becky—someone is my friend.” Someone outside the school—and someone with the power to make magical things happen—knows that she exists and cares for her happiness. That’s a big emotional lifeline.
The comfort-porn is leavened with interludes focusing on what other residents of the school perceive, even though they don’t have a share in the secret. We see something of a break beginning between head Mean Girl Lavinia and her BFF Jessie, when Lavinia brags about how she was the one who ratted on the girls and got them in trouble. Jessie shows that she is redeemable when she realizes the practical consequences if Sara is turned out into the street, and understands that deprivation of food is not a trivial punishment if you’re already hungry, and—more importantly—openly defies and contradicts Lavinia on these points.
Miss Minchin is once again infuriated when Sara fails to follow the prescribed script and, rather than being downtrodden and penitent, shows up the next morning cheerful and happy. Miss Minchin, of course, thinks she’s just pretending—being defiant and impertinent as usual. But for once, Sara doesn’t have to rely on her internal monologues to brace her up. She really is warm and well-fed and rested. But she’s also wiser.
Now that she has a concrete secret to keep (not just daydreams) she understands that even Ermengarde and Lottie represent a danger to it. As I noted in my discussion of timelines and character ages, at this point Lottie should be about nine years old. Even adjusting for Sara’s hyper-maturity when she arrived at age seven, it’s startling to hear Lottie still described as, “such a baby she didn’t know she was telling [secrets].” But this circles back to my observation that the other girls are fairly static stock characters. Ermengarde shows a little development in maturity and assertiveness, and I could make a good argument that Miss Minchin has a character development arc, although not a positive one, but Lottie is still the emotionally explosive, immature “baby” that she began. And she can’t be trusted to keep Sara’s secret about The Magic.
We follow Sara through the day, sparking reactions and speculations due to her failure to be miserable, until it’s time for her to return to the attic and discover whether The Magic was “only…lent to me for just that one awful night.” If it was, she has determined to be content with that. But it wasn’t…