The French Lieutenant's Woman at times reads exactly like a Victorian novel; Fowles is able to mimic the style impeccably and I often forgot I was reading a modern piece of writing. However, the text is peppered with dry observations on the characters, the Victorians or the process of writing a story that come from such a modern perspective that they jolted me out of this false sense of period and made me aware of what the author was doing. Fowles has a very knowing, self-conscious narratorial voice in these passages which can put some readers off, particularly as they often interrupt the flow of the story. He does like to draw attention to just how clever he is being, but as I whole-heartedly agree with him it's very difficult to find this an irritating trait. In fact, I thought that Fowles observations and reflections on being Victorian, something obviously impossible in contemporary novels, added an extra layer of richness to the text. He uses the distance and perspective provided by time to make explicit the cultural points of view latent in these Victorian novels and provide commentary on them. I think it's great that he doesn't just write a historical novel butinstead uses a historical style and setting to produce something so lucid and clever.
The story centres around Charles Smithson, who is staying in Lyme Regis visiting his fiancee, Ernestina, prior to their wedding. There he meets Sarah Woodruff, also known as Tragedy or, less kindly, as the French Lieutenant's Woman. As he becomes increasingly fascinated by Sarah he is forced to reexamine his own values as his forthcoming marriage is threatened. Charles is a thoroughly intriguing central character: although not always likeable, he is so open and honest with himself that it is impossible not to sympathise with him as he struggles with doing what is morally right but socially unacceptable. I got the impression that Fowles rather likes him even though he may not approve of him. His `sinister fondness` (p. 17) for spending time in the library, so frowned upon by his uncle, is another trait designed to make him appeal to the reader.
Fowles employs a similar tactic when talking about Sarah and her days at boarding school, designed to make her appeal to the reader and to make her relatable rather than aloof, as she initially appears. I felt I was manipulated into liking her, just as Charles is, while Ernestina on the other hand, the woman with a legitimate claim to affection, is not a sympathetic character at all. She is constantly shown playing games and acting rather than being sincere, a trait which continues even during moments of what should be genuine emotion.
Considering Fowles' frequent interruptions of the narrative and drawing attention to the fictionality of the characters, I was surprised at how invested I was in Charles and Sarah and what happened to them. In this novel, Fowles explicitly states that there is no `real' ending in fiction, just the author making things work out in his own way, yet still I cared about what `really' happened. This year I've discovered that it takes a lot for me to forgive an author messing around with the story: it has to have a point and it has to be well executed. The French Lieutenant's Woman exhibited both of these qualities and so was a fantastic book from beginning to end.