Author: John Fowles
Synopsis (Courtesy of Goodreads):
“In this contemporary, Victorian-style novel Charles Smithson, a nineteenth-century gentleman with glimmerings of twentieth-century perceptions, falls in love with enigmatic Sarah Woodruff, who has been jilted by a French lover.
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.”
Thoughts: The French Lieutenant’s Woman is one of those novels that challenges the reader in his or her understanding of the Victorian era and of the idea of the novel itself. The descriptions of each person’s role, down to the buttons on the coat, are exacting and precise. The visual descriptions are breath-taking and leave little to the imagination. Yet, this is as much a novel about the Victorian era as it is a comparison of modern society, or that in the 1960s when it was written, to that era. The comparisons and contemporary asides that draw the reader’s attention to the differences, while startling at first, do force the reader to put aside modern sensibilities and allow the reader to appreciate those differences in a “how far we’ve come” fashion.
Having read this among my book club, there was discussion about the idea of role reversal between Sarah and Charles. Charles ends up being the character who wants the traditional life, marriage and children, career and contentment, while Sarah chooses to blaze her own path and not follow tradition or what society deems appropriate. Of even more importance than the gender roles is the idea of happiness. In each of the three possible endings, either they are both miserable, they are both happy, or one is miserable and the other is content, if not happy. Happiness, in Fowles’ world, is more than following set rules, or not following them as the case may be. Rather, it is something that is not guaranteed no matter which path one might choose.
Speaking of the three endings, yes, there are three possible endings. Fowles presents each of them by including himself in the actual cast of characters, not as the omniscient narrator but as an actual character who interacts with Charles directly. It is this inclusion of himself into the novel and the three potential conclusions that creates the most confusion and ire among readers. For myself, I appreciate what Fowles was trying to accomplish. Life is a lot messier than choosing one path or another and knowing that all will end well no matter what. Sometimes, life takes us down a path that we neither want nor expect. It does not result in pat endings where all story lines are concluded neatly and nicely but rather often leaves more questions than answers. This true-to-life approach to The French Lieutenant’s Woman makes the novel more realistic and profound.
The synopsis above lists The French Lieutenant’s Woman as a love story. I am not certain I agree with this assessment. In fact, one could make a very clear argument that Sarah was never in love with Charles but rather in love with her freedom. This makes her actions more explanatory, if not acceptable. If she is in love with Charles, her actions become a lot more difficult to explain and understand.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a beautiful story in and of itself. The reader can all but smell the sea air, hear the rustling of silk and satin, and feel the breeze on one’s face through Fowles’ gorgeous prose. The story itself unfolds quickly and clearly, without the need for extraneous words that so depicts Victorian-era novels. There are enough quirks, however, that allows the reader to understand that this is anything but a Victorian-era novel but rather a modern novel written about the Victorian era. This distinction is key to one’s enjoyment of the novel.