The French Lieutenant's Woman

The French Lieutenant's Woman

Infobox Book |
name = The French Lieutenant's Woman

image_caption = 1996 Vintage paperback
author = John Fowles
illustrator =
cover_artist = Fletcher Sibthorp (1996 above)
country = Great Britain
language = English
series =
genre = Romance novel, historical fiction
publisher = Jonathan Cape Ltd
release_date = 1969
english_release_date =
media_type =
pages = 445 pp
isbn = ISBN 0-224-61654-4

"The French Lieutenant's Woman" is a 1969 novel by John Fowles. The book was inspired by the 1823 novel "Ourika" by Claire de Duras, which Fowles translated to English in 1977 (and revised in 1994). Fowles was a great fan of Thomas Hardy and in particular likened his own work to that of Tess D`Uberville in Hardy's popular novel, "Tess of the d'Urbervilles".

In 1981, the novel was adapted as a feature film, and was adapted for the stage by Mark Healy in a version which toured the UK in 2006 [] .

Time Magazine included the novel in its "TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005". []

Plot summary

The novel's central character is Sarah Woodruff, the Woman of the book's title, also known by the nickname "Tragedy" and by the unfortunate nickname "The French Lieutenant's Whore." She lives in the town of Lyme Regis as a disgraced woman, supposedly ill-used by a French sailor who returned to France and turned out to be married to another woman. Throughout the story Sarah is portrayed with ambiguity: is she a genuine ill-used woman, the product of the French Lieutenant's lust? Is she a sly, manipulative character who tries to get Charles to succumb to her, using her own self pity? Is she merely a victim to the notions of gender in upper middle class Victorian society?

Sarah spends her limited time off from her domestic work on the Cobb [sea wall] at Lyme Regis, staring at the sea. One day, she is seen there by the gentleman Charles Smithson and his fiancée, Ernestina Freeman, the shallow daughter of a wealthy tradesman. Ernestina tells Charles something of Sarah's story, and he develops a strong curiosity about her. They end up having several clandestine meetings during which Sarah tells Charles her history and asks for his support, mostly emotional. Although Charles tries to remain distant, he ends up sending Sarah to Exeter, where he cannot resist stopping to see her during a journey. At the same time, Charles learns his projected inheritance from an older uncle is in jeopardy, as the uncle is now engaged to a woman young enough to bear him an heir.

From there, Fowles offers three different endings.
* In one, Charles marries Ernestina. Their marriage is not a happy one, and Sarah's fate is unknown. Charles tells Ernestina about an encounter with whom he implies is the "French Lieutenant's Whore", but apparently eliminating the worst details, and the matter is closed. This ending, however, is possibly dismissed as a daydream, before the alternative events of the subsequent meeting with Ernestina are portrayed.

Before the second and third endings, the narrator - not to be confused with Fowles himself - appears as a minor character in the carriage Charles occupies on a train. He flips a coin to determine in which order he will portray the two other possible endings (detailed below), emphasising their equal plausibility.

* In the second, Charles becomes intimate with Sarah and breaks his engagement to Ernestina, which brings unpleasant consequences of its own. He becomes disgraced, and his uncle marries and produces an heir. Sarah flees to London without telling Charles, who, very much in love with her, looks for several years before finding her again--she is living with several artists, likely the Rossettis, and enjoys an artistic, creative life. He then sees that he has a child. Their future as a family is left open, but there is an implication that they might reunite.
* In the third, the narrator appears again, standing outside the house in which the second ending took place, apparently directly afterwards. He turns back his pocket watch by fifteen minutes before leaving in his carriage. Events are the same as in the second ending, but when Charles finds Sarah again in London, their reunion is a sour one. He realizes he has been used, but sees some benefit in the journey towards self-knowledge. It is possible that no child had ever been born from their union, at any rate Sarah does not tell him about one, and expresses no interest in furthering their relationship. Charles leaves the house, deciding to return to America, and sees the carriage in which Fowles presumably drove off. This raises the question: is Sarah a manipulating, lying woman with few morals, exploiting Charles' obvious love for her to get what she wants?

Along the way, Fowles discourses on the difficulties of controlling the characters one has created, and offers analyses on Victorian customs and class differences, the theories of Charles Darwin, and the poetry of Matthew Arnold and Lord Tennyson. He also calls upon the literature of Thomas Hardy to raise questions about Victorian conventions, attitudes and society. He questions the role of the author, such as the time he speaks of how Charles "disobeys" his orders, implying that the characters have a life of their own within the novel. The idea of Existentialism is mentioned at several points in the novel, and in particular detail at the end, after the portrayal of the two, apparently equally possible endings.


* ISBN 0-316-29116-1 (paperback)


External links

* [ Postmodern evolutionary theory in "The French Lieutenant's Woman"]
* [ Genetic and cultural selection in "The French Lieutenant's Woman"]
* ['s+Woman 20th-Century American Bestsellers "The French Lieutenant's Woman"]
* [ "Details of the 2006 UK tour of Mark Healey's adaption of The French Lieutenant's Woman"]

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