"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

August 10, 2011

"The French Lieutenant's Woman" (1969) by John Fowles (Book Review)

Sarah Woodruff (Meryl Streep), dressed in a black hooded gown, staring out across the stormy waters at the end of The Cobb in Lyme Regis, has become a classic scene in modern cinema and also a symbol of a doomed love affair.

This is also how the novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) by John Fowles starts. Gentleman-amateur archaeologist Charles Smithson and his beautiful but spoilt fiancee Ernestina take a walk on the Cobb, and driven by curiosity, Charles accosts the mysterious woman standing at its end. He later finds out her name, Sarah Woodruff, a governess who had an illicit affair, it is rumored, with a stranded French ship captain, but who was left in the lurch by her lover when he again departed for France. In Victorian eyes, she is a "fallen woman," taken in out of charity as companion by the strictly Christian Mrs. Poulteney, who is more cruel than a Nazi camp guard.

On his fossil hunts, Charles seeks out Sarah (who likes to walk alone in deserted areas) to learn more about her life story. Already on their first encounter, he was struck by the passion in her face. During stealthy meetings, he hears her story and gradually love develops between them. There are interesting subplots, about Charles' servant Tom, who pursues his own love interest with the maid of Ernestina, of Ernestina's commercial father, who wants to have Charles in business with him (something which the leisurely gentleman Charles abhors as vulgar), and Charles' uncle, who at seventy suddenly marries, cutting Charles out from the expected title to an estate and inheritance.

After things between Charles and Sarah have reached the boiling point in the small room of an inn in Exeter, he gives up his fiancee, but then, strangely, Sarah disappears... For many years he looks for her, but when they meet in the end, what will be the conclusion?

This is not just a period novel. What makes the book so interesting, is that Fowles tells his 19th c. plot from a 1960s point of view, with the necessary ironic distance. Like 19th c. novels, there is a chatty narrator who intrudes on the story, but the modern element is, for example, that he also gives interesting details about life in Victorian England and the intellectual climate of the times. That makes the book an engaging parody of the Victorian novel.

But The French Lieutenant’s Woman is much more than that. It is also not just a love story. Fowles places is characters in a long historical perspective. Sarah Woodruff embodies the very qualities that the 19th century tried to repress: passion and imagination. The novel is about life, about finding a place for yourself, about freedom and emancipation. In the end, Sarah does her own thing, leading a Bohemian life as a painter's assistant, painting herself, and rejecting Charles because marriage would bring new shackles. This is better than "Reader, I married him."
I read this postmodern novel after Adam Bede and how superior it is to that dated, 19th c. work! I wrongly suspected it of just being a simple love story. Instead, it is a great book about the values of life, written with irony and intelligence. Instead of an authorial intrusion to argue about biblical matters, Fowles dedicates a chapter to a discussion about sex in Victorian England. The author even appears in the story as a bearded gentleman and by turning back his watch 15 minutes, undoes a happy conclusion that sounded unrealistic. Even so, the story remains real and plausible, which proves Fowles' great art.
I read The French Lieutenant’s Woman in the Back Bay Books paperback edition. During 1981, director Karel Reisz and writer Harold Pinter adapted the novel as an eponymous film.