The French Lieutenant’s Woman follows Charles as he first meets Sarah by the ocean in an English seaside town. He is walking with his fiance, Ernestina, but is immediately drawn to the black, forlorn figure standing with her back to the shore. When he later chances upon her again he cannot deny that he is fascinated, and not just by her mysterious, tragic past, but also because he totally wants to bang her.
“There are some men who are consoled by the idea that there are women less attractive than their wives; and others who are haunted by the knowledge that there are more attractive.”
The novel takes place in the English Victorian age, but it is told from a 1960’s eye in what is a unique blend of following Victorian storytelling customs, blended with modern comments and observations. Fowles sets up each chapter with quotes and excerpts from both contemporary and modern works of poetry, fiction, science, and philosophy and the main aim seems to expose and discuss the Victorian sensibilities compared to modern day as much as telling the story of Charles, Ernestina, and Sarah.
“We all write poems; it is simply that poets are the ones who write in words.”
This works well when it lifts the veil to the Victorian society and describes scenes and activities that contemporary Victorian literature could not include due to taboo. It works less well in that the actual plot is quite dull and the characters somewhat lifeless. When you read a novel you want to be duped, but here the author constantly inserts himself and the premise wears thin across the length of the novel.
“You do not even think of your own past as quite real; you dress it up, you gild it or blacken it, censor it, tinker with it…fictionalize it, in a word, and put it away on a shelf – your book, your romanced autobiography. We are all in the flight from the real reality. That is the basic definition of Homo sapiens.”
Fowles demonstrates a deep love for the literary history and the novels that he seeks to pay homage to, but he misses a key aspect. The main character, Charles, learns nothing during the course of the novel, he does not evolve or change and the women remain waiting, unchanged. He departs from Sarah’s narrative just as she faces adversity and overcomes it and returns only to portray her the same as before. In Austen’s novel what makes the ending so satisfying is not that the lovers unite, but rather that they both had to grow and change to get to this end.
“His statement to himself should have been ‘I possess this now, therefore I am happy’, instead of what it so Victorianly was: ‘I cannot possess this forever, therefore I am sad.”
I am glad I read it, it was very interesting – especially as someone who does adore that period quite a lot, but I am not sure I would recommend it. It was a slog to get through, more of an academic exercise where the knowledge isn’t quite enough to feel like you learned something and the story not interesting enough to entertain.