Jun 03

French Lieutenant’s Woman

Posted by Soliloquy in Braille

French Lieutenant’s Woman

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5 Responses

  • What to make of a Victorian novel by a contemporary existentialist who steps into the book twice and can’t decide how to end it? I cannot imagine a more satisfying inconclusive book.

    Charles gets the girl. Or maybe not? It doesn’t matter. Fowles’ novels are always superficially simple and unplumbable in their philosophical depths: *The Collector*, *The Magus*, *The French Lieutenant’s Woman*, *A Maggot*.

    Sarah Woodruff is at once utterly inexplicable and absolutely believeable. And her believeability extends to the unthinkable. As well as we “understand” her, we cannot choose the “right” ending any more than Fowles can.

    Humans are creatures of dizzying Hazard. I once heard Richard Loewentin argue that even if behavior could be “determined” by complete knowledge of motives and stimuli, as the social Darwinists believe, the sheer volume of those motives and causes would allow virtual free will. Even so, no depth of understanding can determine Sarah’s behavior, no fount of self-knowledge binds her to any course.

    Chance circumstances, trivial as the nail lost from the horse’s shoe, trigger the chaotic avalanche of the action after the incredible sex scene. So it is in life; the trivial becomes the deciding element.

    I lost a Sarah, as randomly and as much through my own error as Charles did. And I remain as uncertain as he of the magnitude of that loss, however familiar I am with the scale of my grief. What a heartbreaking book, what terrible truths.
    Rating: 5 / 5

  • In the first hundred pages of this book I had already begun to realize that this was one of the best books I have ever read. That feeling never let up; indeed, it grew even stronger as I approached the end, when I began to feel a frantic eagerness to discover what would become of these characters that I had grown to care so much for.

    Sarah Woodruff (aka the French Lieutenant’s Woman) is one of my favorite characters in literature. She is a complex, nuanced character, intriguingly covered by a delicate veil of mystery throughout the first half of the book. Her pain, her selfless sacrifice, and her courage are deeply and powerfully drawn. She is a true example of a woman ahead of her time, a woman who challenges the norms of her society by simply ignoring them. Her confidence and her quiet scorn for the Puritanism of the times in which she lives raise her to a level above the so-called moral leaders who condemn her. In a strange way, she is a true hero.

    This book, written in the late 1960s but set one hundred years earlier, is a beautiful example of period literature. Fowles, through his remarkably genuine narrative voice, recreates the world of Victorian England in such a way that if it weren’t for the occasional references to modern life you might think the book was a century older than it is. It is filled with all the pomp and formality you would expect, but also with a wit, dry humor, and quiet mocking of the period that lend it an added flavor.

    But Fowles is not simply trying to create a period piece or social commentary. I believe that first and foremost he was creating a love story. I would put Charles and Sarah in the same category with Romeo and Juliet as far as love stories go. The relationship is developed slowly, so slow that it is exquisitely painful almost. And though the time they spend together is brief, it is filled with an unmistakable air of eventual tragedy.

    The only question left in my mind is whether to categorize this book as a classic of modern fiction or of 19th century fiction. It could easily stand in either section of my bookshelf.
    Rating: 5 / 5

  • I first read this wonderful book in the late 60’s, shortly after it published. As a high school student, I was simply blown away by the story, the virtuosity of the endings, by its ambiguity, but most of all by the richness of its language.

    The scene when Charles and Sarah confront each other in the shed in the undercliff has more tension and suspense than a thousand horror movies, because it was so real.

    In the intervening 30 years, I’ve re-read this novel every five years or so. Like other great works, each re-reading brings something new (because I continue to change).

    The great tragedy, at least in my view, is that what has followed from John Fowles has never risen to the heights of this novel. Daniel Martin was a huge disappointment to me (so self-indulgent and empty). The Maggot has some moments, but was ultimately disappointing. Only The Magus, and, to a lesser degree, The Collector, rival The French Lieutentant’s Woman.

    That said, Fowles has always been his own man and has stuck to his view of the world. I’ve read some of his philosophy of life in the Aristos and found most of it to be inconsistent with my own world view.

    But in this great book, Fowles and I connected. I hope when I’m ninety, I can sit down and read it again (and find something fresh and new).
    Rating: 5 / 5

  • I had not seen the movie of The French Lieutenant’s Woman until recently, so I did not know what to expect from the novel. I thought it might be a romantic thriller set during one of the world wars and was surprised to read a book set in one of my favorite English periods, the Victorian, written from the perspective of the late 1960s.

    The waning aristocracy is represented by Charles Smithson, dilettante and heir to his aging, unmarried uncle’s wealth and title. His bride-to-be, Ernestina Freeman, heiress to the fortune her father has accumulated at his enormous London emporium, represents the rising, affluent middle class. While Charles and Tina seem to share the idealized Victorian view of marriage and family life, they are also keenly aware that their engagement is a legal contract that will benefit each of them in different ways. After Mr. Freeman’s death, Charles will gain control over the family’s money. For Tina, marriage means an entrĂ©e into the aristocracy, elevating her above being a mere “tradesman’s daughter.”

    This is only one of many Victorian dualities that Fowles highlights; he is not subtle about his theme. Darwin’s theory, as seen by the science dabbler Charles, is as harsh as practitioners of Christianity like Mrs. Poulteney. The advantage of evolution seems to be its lack of bias and judgment. Charles, unwilling or unable to adapt to a changing society in which money is coming to matter more than manners, is as much a victim of evolution as Sarah appears to be of the hypocritical morality of Mrs. Poulteney’s religion.

    Idealized Victorian life centered on the home and family. The poem that Ernestina reads to her contracted lover is about a sterile, lofty form of love devoid of real passion–and it promptly puts Charles to sleep. According to Fowles, it was believed that respectable women merely tolerated men’s carnal desires, but did not share them. Ernestina “must not” think about such things, even though they are natural. Nature is to be controlled. She is shown mostly within the confines of her aunt’s house or social settings. In contrast, Sarah Woodruff, the French lieutenant’s woman, is first seen at the end of the seawall, in the wind, exposed symbolically to the world. Later, Charles discovers her “on that wild cliff meadow”; at some point, he “recalled very vividly how she had lain that day.” Charles sees her in a way in which he will never see Ernestina; she is sleeping openly in a natural position which is, not surprisingly, sexually suggestive.

    If the close-minded, tightly clothed Ernestina represents the Victorian marriage-and-family ideal, Sarah seems to represent the unspoken male ideal, at least for men like Charles–a natural woman, a woman of intelligence, of spirit and independence, who is not afraid to shun the ideal in favor of the real, to prefer passion to posturing. Her interactions with Charles make the “love” of Charles and Ernestina seem like the play-acting of children. Even with Sarah, however, Charles cannot escape the duality of his perceptions and desires. “He was at one and the same time Varguennes enjoying her and the man who sprang forward and struck him down; just as Sarah was to him both an innocent victim and a wild, abandoned woman.”

    While Ernestina sees herself in the perfect Victorian marriage–one in which love is pure, and carnal demands are submitted to primarily to produce the ideal family–Fowles shows some of the alternatives. There is the prostitute mother, for whom sex is a mechanical means to the end of supporting herself and her child. There is Mrs. Tomkins, intent on producing the rich heir to what would have been Charles’s title and inheritance. There is Mary, and the servants and country girls like her, who see sex as a way to land a man but who also seem to enjoy it for its own sake. There is Mrs. Poulteney, whom one can never imagine experiencing love of any kind, pure or not. There is the sexualized Sarah, the French lieutenant’s whore, whom Charles encounters in the wild, in a natural state unencumbered by social expectations. There is also the Sarah of one proposed ending, the sophisticate artist’s assistant in London, committed to her single status and her freedom.

    The narrator often intrudes into the story, deliberately undermining it. Just as the reader may be getting wrapped up in the odd, tension-filled relationship between Charles and Sarah, the narrator interjects a comment from contemporary times; words like “computer” clash with the old-fashioned stays of Mrs. Poulteney’s dress and the limits of her mentality. While drawing us into the Victorian world, the narrator pulls us back with his ironic, detached commentary on what he wants us to understand is fiction if not fantasy. Charles and Sarah are no more real to a man of the 1960s than the mores of Victorian society.

    While the Victorians may have feared the power of sex and desire, the narrator points out that we have succeeded where the Victorians did not of stripping sex of that power. He notes that, by his time, any relationship that is more than casual quickly becomes sexual. For Charles and Sarah, the tension is cumulative, building to a proportional climax. By the 1960s, Charles would simply have dumped Ernestina and gone to bed with Sarah as a matter of routine, transforming sex into as casual an activity as changing the sheets. It is instant impulse fulfillment, which is no more satisfying than ongoing denial without release.

    The French Lieutenant’s Woman is filled with philosophical, historical, religious, scientific, and literary references that alone make it a fascinating novel. They reveal the numerous and often conflicting ideas that made Queen Victoria’s time, a time of evolution, so vibrant and complex. With its twists on the conventional novel and love story and its sweeping perspective, The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a remarkable achievement in 20th-century literature.
    Rating: 5 / 5

  • This is a book to fall in love with and a novel to take your mind on a quest through a highly fluid condition of time. It is both a perfect example of a novel of the Victorian era, and also the product of a twentieth-century narrator, who openly inserts himself into key moments of the story in order to reveal details and compare and contrast the age of his characters with that of his own time 100 years in their future. This unnamed narrator, almost certainly Fowles, himself, is all-knowing and never unaware of the fates and ultimate decisions of those he describes in this novel. He is in fact God-like in his ability to run the clock backward and forward and present second chances to certain individuals whose lives ARE the plot of The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

    Set in the late 1860’s and early 1870’s, mostly in the southwest of England, this is the psychological and sociological story of Sarah Woodruff, the title character, and Charles Smithson, an idealistic paleontologist who falls in love with her. Though she is locally called “Poor Tragedy” (along with other less respectful names like w hore) slender, beautiful Sarah is a beguiling figure of mystery who captivates the romantic Charles simply by her distant presence. As he walks the local sea cliffs in search of fossil remains of earlier life forms, the visiting Charles, already engaged to wed a wealthy merchant’s daughter, often sees Sarah standing alone on the shore, staring wistfully into the impenetrable distance, speaking to no one, unmoving for stretches of what seems to be hours, and he becomes obsessed with her. He seeks to know her and heal her of whatever pains she bears that have driven her to such a state. However, Sarah rejects Charles and seeks no assistance from him or anyone else. Charles makes inquires and learns Sarah’s tale. He hears how she became an outcast as a result of her risking everything for the love of a French naval officer, who jilted her when he left the English coast to return to his homeland. Rather than at that point pragmatically halting his desires for involvement with the melancholy Sarah, Charles instead casts aside all sense of caution and deepens his quest to become important to her. He is, by this point in this tale of love, morals and betrayal, lost in feelings for the French Lieutenant’s woman that might well, in judgmental Victorian England, seal his doom as surely as Sarah’s actions sealed her own.

    This is a difficult tale to relate in a review, and it slides easily into a discussion of themes in literature rather than its actual plot. I’ll leave the storyline where I set it above, and gladly bequeath analysis of literary intricacies to others. I’ll merely say in conclusion this is one of perhaps a hundred novels any lover of literature should be ashamed to die without having read.
    Rating: 5 / 5

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