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John Fowles: The French Lieutenant’s Woman

If only Fowles had maintained this standard, what a great writer he would have been. But this was his last great novel and, though he tried it again, with A Maggot, it just did not work. But his one really works as Fowles treats us to a first-rate Victorian novel written as a post-modernist novel, with both working.

The Victorian novel, at least in its broad outlines, is relatively simple. Charles Smithson is an amateur paleontologist and a bachelor. He is engaged to Ernestina Freeman, an attractive but conventional middle-class Englishwoman. Sarah Woodruff, whom we meet at the same time, is pining for her lost lover, the eponymous French lieutenant. But we gradually learn that she is no longer pining for the lieutenant, despite the fact she had given herself to him. Charles keeps meeting her and learning more about her and, of course, in good Victorian novel fashion, is getting more interested in this woman who is clearly an outcast and clearly different. With a few interesting plot convolutions, involving in, in particular, Charles’ Dickensian valet, Sam, Charles becomes really enamoured of Sarah, who then abruptly disappears. It takes two years before he finds her (in Dante Gabriel Rossetti‘s house). He learns that she has had a son by him and it looks as though they might get back together.

Or not. For this is a post-modernist novel and Fowles cleverly adds in a variety of post-modernist twists, which do not detract from the Victorian novel inside, unlike the later novel A Maggot. If you have read Matthew Kneale‘s very clever English Passengers, which you should have, you may recall that, in order to deceive the customs the Manxmen actually build a ship within a ship but one that not even the most assiduous customs officer can find. Fowles’ two novels in one are like that ship. The or not at the beginning of this paragraph, for example, refers to the fact that, while Fowles does indeed give us that ending, he immediately gives us another ending, which has Charles leaving, without realizing he has a son. There is a variety of similar tricks. For example, a bearded man is watching Charles on a train (when Sarah has disappeared). The man is the narrator who confesses not to know where Sarah is and what to do with Charles. Earlier on the narrator complains that the characters do not do what he wants but, rather, go their own ways. However he is prepared to give them this free will. In short, he plays games which, when described like this, sound somewhat stupid but which actually work in the novel, like Kneale’s ship-within-a-ship and make for a great novel, fully deserving of its reputation.

Publishing history

First published 1969 by Jonathan Cape