Reprise Books

‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ by John Fowles

A still from the movie.

A still from the movie.  

In an essay, the reclusive British writer John Fowles (1926-2005) writes that his home town, Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, was “dominated by conformism” and the “pursuit of respectability”. His novels, most notably The French Lieutenant’s Woman (published in 1969), steer clear of such constraints. Set in 1867, the book tells the story of a palaeontologist, Charles Smithson, who is influenced by the ideas of Charles Darwin (The Origin of Species was published in 1859, shaking Victorian society out of its moralistic stance).

The 32-year-old Charles is engaged to Ernestina, a young woman from the same class as his, but cannot get his mind off Sarah Woodruff, with her “unforgettable” and “tragic” face. He had watched her standing “motionless, staring out to sea...” Later, Ernestina explains the mysterious figure: “It must be poor Tragedy... one of her many nicknames.” Sarah, who had been drawn to a French sailor who wooed and deserted her, is the eponymous heroine of the novel.

‘No artifice, no mask’

When Charles sees Sarah on the seafront, he feels her sorrow welling out “as purely, naturally and unstoppably as water out of a woodland spring. There was no artifice there, no hypocrisy, no hysteria, no mask; and above all, no sign of madness.”

The seed of the story may be traced to Claire de Duras’ 1820’s novel Ourika about a Senegalese girl rescued from slavery and brought up in an aristocratic French family. Fowles translated her best-selling story into English in 1995. In ‘Notes on an Unfinished Novel,’ Fowles says he had an image of a woman standing at the end of a deserted quay staring out to sea. He felt she was Victorian but since she stood with her back turned, it also meant that she was an outcast — he didn’t know her crime, but “wished to protect her.”

The novel is Victorian in manners, but contemporary in tone. Sarah, says the narrator, had an uncanny ability to classify other people’s worth: to understand them, in the fullest sense of the word: “... as she saw through people, she saw through the follies, the vulgar stained glass, the narrow literalness of the Victorian church.” Charles, a man of science who “had always asked life too many questions”, has more enquiries on every aspect of life and social rigidities.

Fowles mixes it up further by offering multiple endings. Writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Ellen Pifer says, “Remarkably, he [Fowles] manages to sustain such effects at the same time that, as an experimental writer testing conventional assumptions about reality, he examines and parodies the traditional devices of storytelling.”

The writer looks back at one classic each fortnight.

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Printable version | Jun 4, 2020 1:51:00 PM |

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