on 16 December 2010
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.
on 18 March 2014
"I do not know. This story I am telling is all imagination... I have disgracefully broken the illusion?"
Many would argue the real main character of this novel; the oblivious young gentleman searcing desperatly for his own identity, or the young woman- the French Lieutenant's Whore, in fact - that he falls in love with.
Both are incorrect. The most prominent character in this tale is Fowles himself. Writing from 1969, Fowles explores the Victorian era through every character he brings to our attention, with emotion that only comes from passionately studying the period. What manner of emotion? It ranges at times from commiseration to downright disdain.
Fowles understand the conventions of typical Victorian romantic novels and brutally exploits them. The is no fallen woman who find redemption in the love of a man. No lovers attempting to overcome their separate classes. This novel understands Dickens and resents every image he made of Victorian England. The novel doesn't hold back, often finding itself delighting in some of lives harsher truths.
The person you obsess and find yourself heart-sick over is often far from the idolised image you paint of them.
Some men are haunted by the fact that there are women in the world far more attractive that the one they're with.
And, despite every effort to pretend otherwise, women are capable of cruelty and manipulation that rivals, and even sometimes surpasses, men.
In "The French Lieutenant's Woman", Fowles creates a world impossible not to find yourself lost in lost, without using any of fiction's cheap tricks. In fact, you may find that he'll use them against you, building up your expectations only so he can crush them with a wit that few novelists possess. A lot of criticism aimed at the novel seems to be based on confusion as to what it actually is. Is it a story of two lovers trying to see if they can discover themselves in one-another? An in-depth essay on Victorian values? Or perhaps a lecture on how novelist creates novel?
In my opinion, it's all three of these. And if my conclusion on that matter has made you interested in picking this novel up, I utterly implore you give this novel the chance it has very rightfully earned. .
on 24 May 2001
It is all too easy to be transported into the world so vividly created for us by John Fowles, as he details the love affair between Charles Smithson and Sarah Woodruff, whilst simultaneously exposing the hypocracies of Victorian England.
Haunted night and day by the face of 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' (Sarah Woodruff) Charles Smithson struggles to forget her and concede to a life with the entirely more conventional Ernestina Freeman. Theirs is the expected and typical Victorian pairing, but as the action progresses, Charles finds his initial curiosity towards the enigmatic Sarah developing into attraction and eventual desire. In his novel, Fowles powerfully depicts Charles's inner conflict between head and heart, painfully illustrating the consequences of allowing the heart to overrule in such a repressed, hypocritical society.
'The French Lieutenant's Woman', with its convoluted yet innovative narrative structure, use of multiple endings, enigmatic characters and reflexivity does not make for simple reading, but perservere and you will be rewarded. Fowles's gripping tale of illicit love, simmering passions, repressed sexuality and (ultimately) painful rejection is a haunting masterpiece. The characters and their situations will live on in your memory long after you have closed the book. A beautifully evocative, engaging and intruiging novel - this is a modern work of art and must not be missed.
on 20 June 2001
Lyme Regis, Dorset, 1867. Sarah Woodruff, a young woman dressed in black, stands motionless at the end of a stone jetty and stares out to sea. Walking by are Charles Smithson and Ernestina Freeman, a respectable engaged couple. Ernestina tries to pull Charles away, saying Sarah is a well known local eccentric, nicknamed 'The French Lieutenant's... Woman'. Ernestina is being polite - the self-righteous people of Lyme really call Sarah a whore. Charles finds he cannot erase her image from his memory, and he is fated to meet her again...
So begins John Fowles's remarkable 1969 novel, which is an affectionate parody of Victorian 'sensation' fiction, a genre which offered its readers thrills, suspense and danger, always spiced with a love interest. Readers can follow the romantic triangle between Charles, Sarah and Ernestina, or pursue the narrator's digressions into evolutionary theory, social history, and the art of storytelling itself. The novel combines a powerful central narrative with fascinating intellectual games that are never allowed to detract from the unfolding events. The critic Linda Hutcheon has called it a 'historiographic metafiction', meaning it claims to be an authentic historical account of Victorian England and yet, paradoxically, shows how such accounts are made up of words, quotations, metaphors... that is, they are nothing but stories themselves. It is this, as well as the beautiful, enigmatic Sarah and her relationship with the handsome Charles, that creates the novel's fascination.
Fowles began the novel as an exercise in imitating nineteenth-century fiction, and thought it would be badly received, because it would seem too coldly intellectual. He was wrong - it is his most successful artistic achievement, and the most popular one along with The Magus. It has been adapted into a film starring Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep, with a screenplay by the playwright Harold Pinter.
This is the first book that anyone interested in Fowles should read. It is one of the most critically and commercially successful experimental novels ever written. It's also great fun. Treat yourself and enjoy it.
on 27 August 2014
Although I did generally enjoy reading this book, I did find myself questioning whether Fowles' authorial voice would not have been better if it was omniscient. His constant digressions from the actual narrative itself, to his ideas on philosophy and society, was slightly irritating and there were times when I thought his style was a bit pretentious. A positive aspect of this style of narrative however was that it was highly informative and educational in places, so I won't completely condemn John Fowles.
The plot was very alluring and I loved the enigma which surrounded Sarah. I was also captivated by the general oppression and prohibition in the plot-the fact that Sarah, after gaining an infamous reputation, was forbidden to enter Ware Commons or go certain places. I loved the illicit and duplicitous nature of the storyline.
I did find the character of Charles somewhat perplexing at some points as his thoughts were contradictory. However, I loved Mrs Poulteney. Her unwavering devotion and reverence to God, and her shrewd, disapproving censure of everyone else was in a way quite amusing. Fowles did his best to portray Mrs Poulteney as this austere and aloof individual but throughout some parts of the novel she did subtly reveal a compassionate nature, despite its being hidden well beneath that cold exterior.
Overall, the novel is quite compelling and it's one that i've kept for my bookshelf.
As fresh and intriguing as on my first reading of this book many years ago. The Victorian age is brilliantly portrayed from the genteel pretensions of Lyme to the rough and tumble of the seedier parts of London. The main characters are strongly portrayed. Would-be paleontologist Charles is from a comfortable upper class background but condescends happily to become engaged to Ernestina who is a pleasant but shallow daughter of a prosperous middle class draper. But into their lives comes Sarah, the enigmatic woman who is rumoured to have been "ruined" by a liaison with French seaman.
Fowles is particularly good on the class war and social mores of the time: The attitude of society to Sarah is shocking as is the off-hand way in which servants are treated. When Ernestina's father suggests that Charles join the drapery business he is truly aghast at the idea even though he has no career in mind.
Sarah remains ambiguous - we are left uncertain as to whether she is manipulative and self-absorbed or badly treated and depressed. Throughout the book she both irritates and evokes our sympathy.
The other central character is the writer himself. He playfully drops in and out of the writing, discussing the motives of the characters and suggesting three different endings. This works superbly. The French Lieutenant's Woman is a twentieth century classic.
on 16 July 2011
A novel set in Victorian times, published in 1969, and narrated by an author suffused with mid-20th century ideas. It tells the story of a love affair, and one for which the author write three different endings.
Coming to this after reading "The Crimson Petal and the White" and "The Children's Book", the concept of writing a novel which reflects both the 19th century and a modern take on the life of the time is no longer unfamiliar - bold and unexpected as it must have been when Fowles wrote it - and a startling and ambitious departure after the two very different masterpieces of The Magus and The Collector. While the multiple endings are of interest, perhaps there is nothing so new there - Great Expectations has two in modern editions, and there are the cancelled chapters of Persuasion...
So - while this undoubtedly holds the attention - I was a little disappointed overall. But then my expectations had been very high.
on 21 April 2016
This is a brilliant, challenging, revolutionary book. It considers huge issues: free will; evolution; history - its warnings and encouragements; the strengthening and stifling mores of cultural convention and religion.
Fowles uses the process of novel-writing as a metaphor. How far is an author licenced to direct his/her created world and the imaginary characters it contains? What if his/her interference stretches them beyond credibility or nature, thus destroying their integrity? So then, he asks by implication, how far is God, or society or received morality licenced to interfere and direct the world and its inhabitants? What if that interference stretches our natures beyond endurance or crushes our integrity? What happens when people rebel and dare to do things differently? Are they, in fact, duty-bound to do so? This book asks how much freedom is permissible and how much is an absolute requirement. Can we, ought we to, MUST we rebel and evolve?
This novel is self-consciously written in the late 1960s but set in 1867. From the lofty perspective of hindsight, Fowles examines the effects of Victorian culture, morality and philosophical thinking on people of various strata of society. Charles Darwin, it is worth noting, had just published his ‘Origin of Species’ and it is no accident that one of the main characters (also named Charles) is interested in palaeontology - the study of fossils which challenged the then received Christian wisdom of a world dating back no further than 4004 BC.
The Charles in the book is engaged to Ernestina because she is pretty and rich and because he is at an age when he really ought to marry; his family expects it and an heir must be sired. He finds himself in the claustrophobic town of Lyme playing escort to his fiancée while she visits her aunt. Released from a round of stultifying afternoon calls he takes to rambling in the countryside in pursuit of fossils when he comes across the local ‘fallen woman’; the eponymous Sarah Woodruff. Adhering to rigid and ridiculous protocols of behaviours there is nevertheless a powerful undertow of attraction and interest coursing between them, which Charles fails to recognise but which Sarah identifies and accepts. The ensuing story is fairly easy to predict and well-rehearsed in literature; Anna Karenina, Madam Bovary, The Ambassadors, The Age of Innocence - they all deal with the terrible dichotomy between what is expected and what is desired.
Nowhere, though, is the situation as forensically or as humanely examined as it is in this novel nor any other outcome as bleak or as brave as the one Fowles paints. He uses this situation to allow Charles an opportunity to challenge - to really dig down and examine, as though exhuming fossils - much that is ingrained into his society, aiding him along with the wisdom of 1960s hindsight. Charles comes to question the idea that he must do things as his father and grand-father did them; that he must fall into their patterns and follow their traditions just because it has always been so and because people will be terribly shocked if he doesn’t. In an epiphany by no means antagonistic to Christianity he realises that if Christ died so that things can always be the same and to keep people under the cosh of guilt and restriction, then Christ died for nothing. To ‘uncrucify’ Christ we need to live the lives of freedom and truth He envisaged.
Charles embodies the evolving member of the species which adapts, which chooses (selects) to do things differently, and by doing so forges a new path, new possibilities and therefore ultimately survival for his genus. Charles’ struggle - emotional, intellectual, theological and philosophical - is beautifully mapped by the writer, profound and affecting to read; my own feet paced the worn-down church flag-stones as his did. Likewise the fall-out which shatters his world like a comet hitting pre-historic earth is painful; we cringe at the pious cant of those who decry him one moment and saunter off to the neighbourhood brothel the next. But the self-appointed occupiers of the ‘moral high ground’ are merciless, viewing Charles with horror and doubt as the first Ichthyostega must have been viewed by the fish it left behind in the sea.
For anyone who has been in this situation - as I have - confronted with making a life-changing but ultimately life-saving decision which with appall everyone you know; which you will be told is ‘wrong’ and ‘selfish’ and ‘wicked’, which may well injure people you would rather not hurt, but which every atom in your soul cries out for you to make anyway, this book will not comfort you but it will resonate with great power.
Charles is by no means the only character epitomising evolution - they all are, in different ways; Mr Freeman’s wealth is slightly grubby, coming from ‘trade’, but it pays his way into elite society, trampling down barriers which would have debarred him from it only a few decades earlier. Tina, his daughter, has been groomed to marry ‘up’, into the aristocracy, her draper’s dowry standing in for noble birth, she will challenge poorer but gentler-born girls for the privileges her mother could never have expected. Sam, valet, aspires to own his own business. Mary, parlour maid, climbs the social ladder to a house costing £19 per annum rent and engages a parlour maid of her own. Mrs Poultney, hypocrite, aspires to heaven.
And then there is Sarah. I think in creating the character of Sarah Woodruff John Fowles has created possibly the most complex, interesting, multi-faceted and layered female character in all of literature. I cannot think of any other which equals her. She is a woman ahead of her time, sexually driven and not ashamed of her sexuality. She wishes to conform to no norms of her culture but simply to be the person she is. She is amoral - one might even say immoral - in her dealings with Charles, deceiving and manipulating him, playing his weaknesses, seducing him as a man might seduce a girl. She is a victim of her era, of her society and of the French Lieutenant. At the same time she is rigidly true to her self - bearing the judgement of those who set themselves up as her betters, holding out for what she wants. She suffers, seeing herself reflected back in the eyes of the towns-people: to them she is a whore, a charity case, a mad woman. She is cooped up inside the strait-jacket of Lyme, subject to the stares and tittle-tattle of the gossips and do-gooders, ‘people who the world tells [her] are kind, pious, Christian people [but who seem to her] crueller than the cruellest heathens’. She is made wretched also by the impulses and feelings which she has but cannot exercise or at times even understand. She is a tortured soul - shocking, manoeuvring, calculating - but also beautiful, good, tragic, a beacon for women trapped in times and situations which limit and crush them.
The book has three endings, triumphing, perhaps, the cause for free will, for evolution, for daring to do things differently. Fowles allows his characters a selection of destinies and he extends this freedom to his readers; which one will you choose?
John Fowles was always a thinker, as much as a novel writer: philosophy, politics, psychology, history, science, sociology, ethics, natural history, as well, of course, as the arts, he is always writing ‘about stuff’ as well as inhabiting the craft of narrative literary fiction, the understanding of characters in place and time, and the relationships between them.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman was made into a successful film, one indeed which in filmic terms managed to explore some of the ideas about the novel itself which forms a part of the book.
And what a very satisfying book it is. We are of course well used to writers writing about writing in the course of their novels, trying out different forms, books within books, mind games, sophistication, but at the time of publication (1969) this was far rarer, particularly in a book which was both literary and popular
The setting is Lyme Regis, and the time, potent in that place, 1867. Darwin’s Origin of Species had been published 8 years earlier. Fossil hunting was a pursuit eagerly taken up by amateur scientists, male and female, of liberal persuasions. Palaeontology was verifying Darwin. And Lyme Regis, part of the Jurassic Coastline, was the perfect place for such searchers.
Charles Smithson is such a gentleman. He comes from aristocratic lineage, though his fortune is not quite what it was. He has recently become engaged to Ernestina Freeman, the grand-daughter of a moderately successful draper. Two generations later, the Freemans are extremely wealthy. Fowles is exploring many things, but class and its aspirations and the evolution of a society which had been fossilised, and is now rapidly changing, is one of them. So is, particularly, women and sexuality a major theme. Smithson and Freeman have come to Lyme to stay with Ernestina’s aunt on a holiday. Into the settled world of the happy couple comes a catalyst – The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Sarah Woodruff is the daughter of a farmer who wished to better himself. She was educated beyond her station and became a governess. But a mystery, and shame, is connected with her, and her reputation has been compromised through an unfortunate connection. Impropriety may or may not have happened, but the suspicion of improperness, in that generally closed society, is enough to cause shock and prurient interest.
So…….on the one hand, what we have is a kind of triangle, with a historical setting. Into which, Fowles inserts himself, as novelist, reminding us this is a story, making comments from a twentieth century viewpoint, on both his own society and the Victorian one – asking us to see our society through Victorian eyes, to constantly weigh and balance what our society and that society also, has lost and gained, compared to each other. He interferes further, showing the reader other possibilities, different trajectories for his fiction
There is a wonderful push and pull of the immersion of narrative literary fiction, particularly as Sarah’s character is a particularly fascinating one, and the tension between Charles, Sarah, Ernestina also has another relationship linked within it – Sam, Charles’ manservant, Mary, Ernestina’s aunt, Mrs Tranter’s, maid – there is a lot of mobility of class, a lot of stagnation resisting change, going on, and it all has echoes with evolutionary theory.
Fowles playfully, successfully, also involves the reader in the dichotomies between immersion, and a novelish version of Brechtian alienation – reminding us this is fiction, taking us into identifying and empathising with character, caught up in journey, only to make us question again what is going on.
The tensions between immersion and the new novel (nouveau roman), both debunking and revealing the omniscient god narrator really work. Fowles feels as if he talks directly to the reader, not talks down to them, and there is a curious sense of the invented characters being both real, and not real, literary creations. Head, heart, viscera all engaged.
I don't usually comment on endings, but here the author himself doesn't seem to have attached narrative importance to it (and I don't give it away in any case)...
It does all go so well until the ending, previously having toyed intelligently with the reader Fowles declares he cannot make up his mind and uses literary pretensions as a cop-out - turning the motives implausible to air his own political points. It came over more as moral cowardice to me, given his preferred ending is obvious, but spoils the story (and I'm not referring to happy or sad endings).
If you don't mind politics and sociology lectures (bearing in mind the incarnation of both have a limited shelf-life and this was published 1969) hijacking your novel reading then it may feel a refreshing change for you. If you do mind being invited to a sumptuous dinner to be bored by the host afterwards then you may be put out.
Either way I'd urge you to read this book. It contains the best modern depiction of the Victorian age from an author who truly understood it.