The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles

John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman is this month’s reading group book for The Guardian. I’ve passed on a lot of the books they’ve picked—mostly because I wasn’t terribly interested in their choices—but I was intrigued by the inaugural article about this book that described its blend of Victorian pastiche and postmodernism. I love Victorian pastiche; it’s the extremely broad vocabulary and psychological tension that gets me. What that article didn’t prepare me for was just how funny this book could be, as the author-narrator takes constant potshots at the characters’ frequent hypocrisies.

Although the title of the book leads us to think that Sarah Woodruff is the subject of the novel, we spend most of our time with Charles Smithson. Charles is the epitome of his time. He’s a gentleman of means who can indulge in his love of travel and paleontology. His manners made me think of a Victorian version of the “Well-Respected Man” that the Kink’s sang about in the 1960s. When we meet him, he’s about to take the next big step in his life: marrying a girl who is the female epitome of the time. They’re a perfect couple—at least at first glance. The narrator clues us into some important problems that the couple are not aware of. Charles worries about his more animalistic feelings. (He has a libido.) Ernestina worries that her fiancé will find out that she’s not as reluctant to have sex as she’s been taught women should be. There’s also the fact that the couple barely know each other. The match is good on paper and that’s the most important thing.

The eponymous French Lieutenant’s woman, Sarah, appears early in the novel. She is dressed in black and standing on the Cobb at Lyme Regis, staring out to sea. Shortly after, Charles and Ernestina learn her story of seduction, loss, and shame. The story—and her eyes and auburn hair—fascinate Charles. He risks his reputation to meet Sarah and talk with her. In the end, Charles’ attraction to Sarah tests him. His vague worries about worthiness and propriety catch fire into a full blown existential crisis. He does not want to be a hypocrite like the other men of his station. He doesn’t want to be the man who travels back and forth between wife and mistress. Part of the tension in this book comes from watching to see if Charles can master himself or if he decides to give in to his lust.

What entertained me most about The French Lieutenant’s Woman was the narrator’s voice. I chuckled more than once as the narrator says what it thinks about the various hypocritical characters it introduces to us readers. (The commentary about Mrs. Poulteney is priceless.) I also appreciated the narrator’s interruptions as it discussed the self-created dichotomies of the Victorian psyche; it brilliantly muses on the psychological knots the Victorians created for themselves. These interruptions reminded me of the narrative essays that Hugo and Dickens would add to their novels.

Fowles’ narrator, however, has the advantage of a century’s worth of psychological distance. This distances allows it to be a lot more blunt about what is wrong with these characters. At least, it can be blunt about Charles, Ernestina, Mrs. Poulteney, and everyone except for Sarah. Sarah herself says, more than once, that she doesn’t understand herself. I was irritated by the way the narrator and Sarah failed to create believable motivations for her actions. I didn’t see her as a psychologically realistic character so much as a living symbol of female temptation that haunted the Victorian mind. She inflames Charles, teases and tempts him. It would be easy to blame her for everything that happens to Charles in this book—except that Charles’ problems are really all caused by Charles.

I’m glad I took a chance on The French Lieutenant’s Woman, even though it took me longer to get through it than I expected. Fowles brilliantly recreates the voice of the era and gave me so much entertaining snark that I really did enjoy reading it for all its challenges. I would definitely recommend it to other fans of Victorian pastiche; it is one of the best examples of the subgenre I’ve ever read.

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