The French Lieutenant's Woman (Vintage Classics) Paperback – 4 Nov 2004
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"A brilliant success... It is a passionate piece of writing as well as an immaculate example of storytelling" (Financial Times)
"Compulsively readable" (Irish Times)
"A splendid, lucid, profoundly satisfying work of art, a book which I want almost immediately to read again" (New Statesman)
"Brilliant...an artist of great imaginative power" (Sunday Times)
"Marvellous 1969 novel... You can read this book again and again, always finding something new and always falling in love with the hapless Charles." (Val Hennessy Daily Mail)
Of all John Fowles' novels The French Lieutenant's Woman received the most universal acclaim and today holds a very special place in the canon of post-war English literature. From the god-like stance of the nineteenth-century novelist that he both assumes and gently mocks, to the last detail of dress, idiom and manners, his book is an immaculate recreation of Victorian England. Not only is it the epic love story of two people of insight and imagination seeking escape from the cant and tyranny of their age, The French Lieutenant's Woman is also a brilliantly sustained allegory of the decline of the twentieth-century passion for freedom.See all Product description
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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. .
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.
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.