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The French Lieutenant’s Woman

November 14, 2022

After I wrote about my list of favorites, someone asked me why The French Lieutenant’s Woman was on it, and I said that it was because novels by John Fowles were trendy in literary circles when I was in college in the 1980s and I’d read and liked them all, but thought that The French Lieutenant’s Woman was the one to begin with, if you want to read Fowles. Then, of course, I had to reread The French Lieutenant’s Woman to remember why I’d liked it so much. I remembered that it wasn’t so much the tale as the way it was told, and that turned out to be absolutely correct. It’s a Victorian love story, but the narrator is constantly putting a modern perspective on it, musing about Victorianism and how the story might have turned out differently in another age (in fact, the novel has more than one ending).

I finished rereading The French Lieutenant’s Woman while sitting in DFW in Dallas, waiting for my much-delayed flight to take off for home. I’d spent a pleasant long weekend with my brother and sister-in-law, talking about things we don’t always get a chance to discuss and sharing a few of the things that underlie our conversations—like, for instance, why my hermit crabs are all named Bob. They took me to their community pool, still open in November and with the best handicapped entrance I’ve ever seen for a pool. The pool itself was beautiful, overlooking a lake.


We went out for Tex-Mex food and it was not only some of the best I’ve ever had, but a sudden downpour as we finished made us stay for dessert, which turned out to be the apple pie with brandy butter sauce and cinnamon ice cream that I’ve been longing for since the Columbus-area Cantina Laredo went out of business after the pandemic. Because I’ve spent most of my life on the academic calendar, I’ve never traveled much in the fall, and it was lovely to feel that kind of freedom.

All of this provided just the right background for rereading The French Lieutenant’s Woman, with its shifting perspectives and reassessments of what life was all about at the end of the 20th century. Fowles’ time is past; he died in 2005. My life in academic literary circles is mostly past; I’m on the fringe now, an “affiliated scholar” at Kenyon.

And so I reintroduced myself to Charles, the male protagonist of this 1969 novel, who
“liked to think of himself as a scientific young man and would probably have not been too surprised had news reached him out of the future of the airplane, the jet engine, television, radar: what would have astounded him was the changed attitude to time itself. The supposed great misery of our century is the lack of time; our sense of that, not a disinterested love of science, and certainly not wisdom, is why we devote such a huge proportion of the ingenuity and income of our societies to finding faster ways of doing things—as if the final aim of mankind was to grow closer not to a perfect humanity, but to a perfect lightning flash. But for Charles, and for almost all his contemporaries and social peers, the time signature over existence was firmly adagio. The problem was not fitting in all that one wanted to do, but spinning out what one did to occupy the vast colonnades of leisure available” (16).
Can you even imagine?

The narrator informs us that Charles is an agnostic, while a footnote explains that “he would not have termed himself so, for the very simple reason that the word was not coined (by Huxley) until 1876; by which time it had become much needed” (18).

Charles is engaged to Ernestina, a pretty young girl who he does not know very well, but finds himself attracted to the unconventional Sarah, who is known as “the French lieutenant’s woman” because of her relationship with a wounded man called Varguennes who was recovering in the home where she worked as a governess. Sarah roams the woods and shorelines where Charles walks to hunt for fossils. The narrator tells us that the beauty of nature “made him sad, in a not unpleasant bittersweet sort of way” and explains that this is because
“he was a Victorian. We could not expect him to see what we are only just beginning—and with so much more knowledge and the lessons of existentialist philosophy at our disposal—to realize ourselves; that the desire to hold and the desire to enjoy are mutually destructive. His statement to himself should have been ‘I enjoy this now, therefore I am happy,’ instead of what it so Victorianly was: ‘I cannot possess this forever, and therefore am sad’” (60).

When Sarah has been dismissed from her position with an unpleasant woman who has been using her to exhibit what she thinks of as Christian charity and Charles does not know where she has gone, he thinks she must be in one of the places they have met while roaming outdoors and thinks “but the folly of the procedure, the risk! The French! Varguennes! ….a vision of her running sodden through the lightning and rain momentarily distracted him from his own acute and self-directed anxiety. But it was too much! After such a day!” Then the narrator says “I am overdoing the exclamation marks” (167). This is one of the parts of the novel that led Harold Pinter to write his script for the 1981 movie in such a way that Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons seem perpetually overwrought.

When Charles and Sarah are reunited there’s a scene that reminds me of the missing “reunion scene” for Buttercup and Westley when they are reunited in the fire swamp in The Princess Bride, a scene that William Goldman, as narrator, says you can write to his publisher to get and which, if you do, you will find consists of more excuses for why you can’t actually read the reunion scene. In this novel, Charles find Sarah safely asleep in a barn and when he wakes her “they stood some ten feet apart, Sarah in the door, Charles by the corner of the building” (197). Instead of getting to see them draw any closer together, readers are treated to the narrator’s musings on Charles’ impression of her at that moment:
“There was a wildness about her. Not the wildness of lunacy or hysteria—but that same wildness Charles had sensed in the wren’s singing…a wildness of innocence, almost an eagerness. And just as the sharp declension of that dawn walk had so confounded—and compounded—his earnest autobiographical gloom, so did that intensely immediate face confound and compound all the clinical horrors bred in Charles’ mind by the worthy doctors Matthaei and Grogan. In spite of Hegel the Victorians were not a dialectically minded age; they did not think naturally in opposites, of positives and negatives as aspects of the same whole. Paradoxes troubled rather than pleased them. They were not the people for existentialist moments, but for chains of cause and effect; for positive all-explaining theories, carefully studied and studiously applied. They were busy erecting, of course; and we have been busy demolishing for so long that now erection seems as ephemeral an activity as bubble-blowing. So Charles was inexplicable to himself. He managed a very unconvincing smile” (197).

After the first ending of the novel, the narrator says
“having brought this fiction to a thoroughly traditional ending, I had better explain that although all I have described in the last two chapters happened, it did not happen quite in the way you may have been led to believe.
I said earlier that we are all poets, though not many of us write poetry; and so are we all novelists, that is, we have a habit of writing fictional futures for ourselves, although perhaps today we incline more to put ourselves into a film. We screen in our minds hyportheses about how we might behave, about what might happen to us; and these novelistic or cinematic hypotheses often have very much more effect on how we actually do behave when the real future becomes the present, than we generally allow.
Charles was no exception; and the last few pages you have read are not what happened, but what he spent the hours between London and Exeter imagining might happen” (266).

In another ending, the narrator admits that “I have pretended to slip back into 1867; but of course that year is in reality a century past. It is futile to show optimism or pessimism, or anything else about it, because we know what has happened since” (318).

In one of the endings, the narrator even touches on the subject of necromancy. Referring to some lines from Tennyson’s long poem In Memorium—“There must be wisdom with great Death; the dead shall look me thro’ and thro’”—the narrator says that “Charles’s whole being rose up against those two foul propositions; against this macabre desire to go backwards into the future, mesmerized eyes on one’s dead fathers instead of on one’s unborn sons. It was as if his previous belief in the ghostly presence of the past had condemned him, without his ever realizing it, to a life in the grave” (286).

Although I’m refraining from revealing any secrets about the ending, no one reads this novel for the plot. If you read it, it will be for the digressions, for the pleasure of exploring assorted thoughts about the kinds of situations in which the characters find themselves.

25 Comments leave one →
  1. November 14, 2022 3:00 pm

    That pool looks amazing!

    I have never read The French Lieutenant’s Woman, I saw the film a long time ago but don’t remember anything about it. Not sure if I will ever get around to reading the book at this point. Perhaps if I am ever stuck at DFW 😉

    • November 14, 2022 5:27 pm

      My other favorite by Fowles is The Magus. I haven’t reread it since the couple of times I read it before I was 20, though, so can make no claims about whether what Jo Walton calls “the suck fairy” might have come to it.

  2. November 14, 2022 3:46 pm

    Interesting – from your quotes it sounds ALL about the narrator’s take on everything.

    I spend all my writing time making sure there is no narrator.

    Novels have changed.

    • November 14, 2022 5:29 pm

      Oh, I pulled out quotes from the narrator because that’s what interests me about the novel. There’s lots of story in between!
      Novels have changed, but Fowles’ was a late 20th-century experimental style.

      • November 14, 2022 6:18 pm

        My own perspective has always been against experimental fiction (except there are some good epistolary sections I’ve enjoyed that got over a concept quickly and elegantly, such as the beginning to Dorothy L. Sayers Busman’s Honeymoon, where a bunch of points of view about the marriage of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane is dealt with quickly in a set of contrasting letters between people who feel the need to opine).

        It can take a lot of additional effort for a reader to process the experiment. One that comes to mind is the lack of quotation marks around dialogue in All the Pretty Horses, which permanently put me off Cormac McCarthy! I couldn’t deal with a whole book in a format my mind had to parse EVERY SINGLE TIME. I’m sure some readers loved it. [I read somewhere recently that it was an experiment he didn’t use again.]

        One of my reviewers said, “This is solid general fiction of a very high order, in the best Realist tradition, exploring human interactions and relationships between enormously well-drawn characters who come fully alive, as real, intensely human people.” Kind of him, but what I try to do is get out of the way, which isn’t really possible, but I can fake it reasonably well. ‘Realistic’ is also a bit of an experiment, as I limit myself to thoughts a character would actually have in a particular situation, and internal monologue in humans is a fascinating mixture of stream of consciousness, reactions to external stimuli, sidetracks, and “Oh, look! A squirrel!”

        Most people don’t have my limitations. Some people can’t cope with MY writing style.

        • November 15, 2022 1:38 pm

          I like your writing style, and you’ve honed it to a fine edge. But I also like more experimental styles; recently I’ve loved novels by Dexter Palmer and Percival Everett because of the way they play with style in the novel. I think it’s one result of my years of studying satire.

          • November 15, 2022 1:58 pm

            I wish I had your flexibility! I do remember Bridget Jones’ Diary – and how much fun it was to pick up that style – but it’s been years and I am now very much stuck in my rut (at least until I finish LIMBO?).

  3. Rohan Maitzen permalink
    November 14, 2022 6:06 pm

    This was such an interesting post: I haven’t reread this novel in years either though I loved it in the 80s and wrote an undergrad paper on it. It sounds like it holds up better than I might have expected. The metafictional stuff seemed more innovative then, but I recall him being such a good storyteller too.

    • November 15, 2022 1:40 pm

      Yes, I could have said more about the story–but it’s the digressions and intrusions that make this novel one of my favorites.
      I suspect I also wrote an undergrad paper on it, from the pencil underlinings in my old copy!

  4. November 14, 2022 8:48 pm

    Reblogged this on dean ramser.

  5. November 15, 2022 6:15 pm

    Because Fowles was so trendy in the 60s and 70s I never tried him – I like to come to things when I’m ready and, oddly, I think that time may be now! Thanks for this overview, Jeanne. And your comparison with The Princess Bride, now that’s intriguing – two metafictional tales, very different but with more in common than I thought! A hugely helpful insight, truly. 🙂

    • November 17, 2022 9:04 am

      It was a surprise to me, to find that Fowles and Goldman were doing some of the same things. I think that the film version of these novels eclipsed some of the interesting things done in the fiction, for a while.
      It was when I was teaching a class in “Fantasy Lit” (as a TA, in grad school) that I wrote to Goldman’s publisher and asked for the reunion scene. I still have the letter I received in reply, stuck in my teaching copy of the novel.

  6. November 15, 2022 6:17 pm

    That pool looks stunning! I’m glad you have more flexibility in travel now!
    I’ve not read this nor have I seen the movie but it sounds interesting. How fun that a novel you loved years ago can still hold up for you.

    • November 17, 2022 9:06 am

      The pool is stunning, particularly because it’s a good vantage point to watch the sun set (which we did).

  7. November 16, 2022 10:41 pm

    The way you describe the book in your last paragraph makes me think of the novel David Copperfield. Though it is David’s story, the many diversions make up much of the charm of the novel. However, this book arrears to be composed more of divergences than one main character. Is that accurate?

    • November 17, 2022 9:10 am

      I’m rereading David Copperfield right now (because I just read Kingsolver’s Demon Copperfield) and don’t see the same kinds of metacommentary, although you’re quite right that the Dickens is full of diversions.
      I haven’t described Fowles’ novel well for anyone who hasn’t already read it. He does tell the story of Charles and Sarah in full–I have just picked out the parts where he comments on their story because that’s what interests me.

      • November 17, 2022 2:20 pm

        What a coincidence! I read David Copperfield because my husband absolutely loves it and has read it many times. There’s just something about a person hollering, “Janet! Donkeys!” that makes such a wonderful read.

  8. November 20, 2022 9:49 am

    I read this book ages and ages ago as a teen, and now I’m tempted to read it again with a different/older set of eyes. I don’t even remember the dual endings, which surprises me. Thanks for the interesting insights. 🙂

    • November 20, 2022 9:50 am

      The endings are part of the metacommentary, so it’s not that surprising!
      It might be worth rereading for you; it certainly was for me.

      • November 20, 2022 10:11 am

        That makes sense then that I don’t remember it. I think I still have the book somewhere. 🙂

  9. December 14, 2022 10:36 am

    This was assigned to me at age 15 in a British lit class. I remember the comparison to the two different endings in Great Expectations, but otherwise I can’t imagine what I made of it. I think it would have “confounded and compounded” my befuddlement with all its metafictional and philosophical references – probably why I have never read anything else by Fowles.

    • December 14, 2022 10:48 am

      This is definitely the most mainstream novel by Fowles.

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