The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. Highly recommended.
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 entrée 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.
17 September 2006
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf