John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman


Imagine an implacable desire swelling inside of you. This desire is mysterious and tormenting, and is unlike anything you have ever previously experienced. The fulfillment of this desire could bring about an unfathomable feeling of serenity and transcendence. When confronting this desire, you have the vague sense of setting your eyes on a new and enchanting world that just cannot quite be brought into focus. The actualization of these strange new passions could confer ultimate truth and banish all feelings of uncertainty, reservation, and discontentment. If they offer such a fruitful reward, then why tarry in pursuing these ardent yearnings? Because, of course, there is always peril looming over any audacious act that severs all ties from the world you have previously known. You would risk condemnation and ostracism from your community by even voicing these new desires, let alone acting upon them. The act you are on the verge of committing is an egregious violation of everything deemed proper and moral. Furthermore, what if you have been beguiled by this exotic and alluring temptation? What if the promises of eternal bliss and ultimate truth are merely articulate lies, and the pursuit of these elusive desires would only leave you dejected, downtrodden, and alone? How would you respond to this impossible dilemma? This is the problem Charles Smithson must grapple with in John Fowles’ novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Charles is betrothed to the chaste and innocent Ernestina, and is so close to marrying his sweet, young bride and living out his days as an admirable gentleman of Victorian England. However, all that seemed so certain is thrown into question when Charles accompanies Ernestina to the provincial English town of Lyme Regis.


The French Lieutenant’s Woman begins with Charles and Ernestina strolling down by the Cobb of Lyme Regis. Ernestina is the only child of overly solicitous parents, and so every year they send her on a rejuvenative trip to Lyme, where she stays with her aunt. This time, her new fiancée Charles has joined her. Charles is an idle young man in his early thirties who comes from old money. Charles occupied himself during his twenties by traveling and engaging in his intermittent and tepid interest of science, and has finally decided it is time to settle down. During this initial stroll, Charles first encounters Sarah Woodruff, who is all alone at the Cobb and staring wistfully out to sea. Charles’ curiosity in Sarah is immediately aroused, and upon further enquiry, he learns that she had an affair with a French Lieutenant and is known throughout the town of Lyme as “The French Lieutenant’s Whore.” Charles’ second encounter with Sarah is in the Undercliff, which is a nature preserve on the outskirts of Lyme. Lyme is known for its geological richness, and so Charles, being of a pseudo-scientific ilk, decides to go fossil hunting when he is granted a reprieve from Ernestina. It is during this encounter in the Undercliff when Charles first feels these strange sensations germinating inside of him. Charles finds Sarah slumbering, and he perceives a beautiful, serene, iridescent quality in her appearance. Charles feels an intense resentment towards the townspeople of Lyme for treating her with such scorn. As the novel progresses, Sarah discloses to Charles the truth about her history and entreats him for help. Finally, Charles’ burgeoning fascination with Sarah can no longer be contained, and he has sex with her in the town of Exeter, where he has sent her to escape the disdainful eyes of Lyme’s citizens.


Fowles explores numerous themes in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. The novel is an indictment and subversion of Victorian England’s social mores. For proper, affluent ladies and gentlemen of Victorian England, everything was about external conduct. The civilized, well-mannered members of the upper-class were expected to be at all times composed and forbearing. Any feelings of passion and lust had to be relentlessly bridled, for to exhibit such feelings would be a woeful disregard for one’s dignity and social standing. To Charles, Sarah Woodruff is the embodiment of a world liberated from the stifling values of Victorian society. Sarah dismisses all caution and concern for her reputation to run away for a man with whom she had fallen in love. After being jilted by the French Lieutenant, Sarah comes to Lyme Regis despite the certainty of her being a pariah there. Sarah makes no effort to disguise her sullen disposition, even though proper Victorian ladies are expected to always affect a pleasant, submissive demeanor. Sarah is an entirely solitary individual, never consorting with her townsfolk. Furthermore, she frequents the Undercliff, a place notorious for illicit lovers’ trysts. No self-respecting lady of Lyme would dare venture into the Undercliff as it is inextricably associated with depravity. Charles sees Sarah as the impetus to his own transcendence of Victorian England and its artificial value system. Adherence to the social mores of Victorian society makes people judge themselves by externally manufactured criteria, preventing them from probing into their own consciousness and discovering their true passions, desires, and inclinations. Through Sarah, Charles suspects he may be able to discover the truth about himself and the world. Continued...
















© Copyright Richard Glennon 2007