John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman

The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles* 1001 Books Book

Fowles, J. (1969). The French lieutenant’s woman. Boston: Little, Brown.

A coworker recommended this book to me. Then, another coworker suggested I read it. At long last, I embarked on reading the nearly 500 page book. Before I realized, I had actually read the whole book.

Twentieth century writer John Fowles looks upon his Victorian characters and times in The French lieutenant’s woman. Fowles and the reader see these late Nineteenth century events from a Twentieth century point of view. The novel is interspersed with poetry of the day and discussions of politics, Darwinism, and Existentialism.

In the small Southwestern English village of Lyme Regis in 1867, the pretty young heiress Ernestina Freeman resides with her widowed aunt until her planned march down the aisle. She is engaged to a gentleman and amateur paleontologist Charles Smithson. Charles stays at a local inn, awaiting his marriage. One day, Charles and Ernestina walk along the coast. Inadvertently, they stumble upon the town’s own Hester Prynne, Sarah Woodruff (a.k.a. Tragedy, the French Lieutenant’s Whore/Woman, etc). Ernestina manages not to rubberneck but Charles is intrigued by the enigmatic, sad woman who was jilted by a French soldier not so long before the novel begins.

Later, Charles learns Sarah’s real name and that she now works as a companion to the legalistic and cruel Mrs. Poulteney, the richest woman in town. With each page, Charles becomes more and more fascinated by Sarah and her story. She makes him second guess and question not only his engagement but everything in his life. The biggest question of all is this; will Charles give up everything else to pursue something good and true or will he continue his life of pretense.

I can say that I had never read a novel like this. While I may have read poor imitations of Fowles’ interjectory style, this book is one of a kind. I easily saw that Charles supported Darwin’s arguments but I also saw him as a dying breed – a gentleman who did not have to work. His kind found itself dependent on wealthy heiresses seeking titles. Yet, his gentleman’s gentleman, Sam, has the survival instinct of a cockroach.

One big question the book raises is Sarah’s motives. Surely, she represents truth and honor while Ernestina stands for the gilt beloved by Victorians. Yet, Charles’ feelings for either one of these women is debatable. When all is said and done, I think it was less about which corner of the love triangle prevailed and more about Charles doing what is right.

I hope I’m not breaking my own rule about spoilers but Fowles offers us three different endings. The first one is debunked by Fowles himself. This reminded me of “Choose your own adventure” books but I did find it authentic and worth pondering which way it would have truly gone. Nonetheless, thank you, Mr. Fowles, for giving your characters, and readers, some free will. Perhaps it’s enough rope to hang ourselves, characters and all, but it makes for a worthy read.

The only complaint I have will make me sound like a complete plebeian; all the foreign language. I did not take French and I had not the foggiest notion what the characters were saying at times and this frustrated me.

I must say, however, this is a Five out of Five Pearls book.

Places: Lyme Regis, UK; London, UK; Exeter, UK; Europe; US

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