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Book #23: The French Lieutenant’s Woman

I really wanted to dislike this novel.

The title. The cover. My mistaken thought that it was an oozing, touchy-feely-beat-me-over-the-head-so-I-don’t-have-to-read-this love story. All of this factored into my preconceived notions about The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

Forgive me. I was wrong.

Does The French Lieutenant’s Woman have romantic elements? Yes. It is a love story? Partially, in a twisted kind of way. But to paint this novel with a broad brush like that is doing John Fowles a disservice.

How much did I enjoy this novel? Well, let me tell you all about it.

1) Fowles is a beautiful storyteller. The novel is set in the 1860s but Fowles, the narrator, is writing from the 1960s. Having read very few period novels, this was a fresh approach for me. He’s kind of like your old white-haired, bearded granddad who sits you down by the fireplace and tells you a story that’s been passed down through generations of your family.

2) The narrator is part of the story. So this is interesting. The narrator is actually John Fowles, not some omniscient, omnipotent eye in the sky. The narrator never actually says, “Hey, this is John Fowles.” But he inserts himself throughout the novel to talk about his characters development, the plot, life in the 1860s compared to the 1960s. In a couple of spots, Fowles inserts himself as a minor character in the novel. Unique. One quote: “I am overdoing the exclamation marks.” Fowles was post-modern before post-modern was cool.

3) The creativity. [Please note: Point #3 doesn’t give away plot, but it does reveal one unique aspect of the book, which you may want to leave as a surprise. Skip on to #4 if that’s the case.]  Fowles was before his time. You know how special edition movie DVDs will occasionally allow you to watch alternate endings? Well, Fowles has three possible endings to The French Lieutenant’s Woman. One is more like a daydream, and the other two are more legitimate options.

Fowles compares novelists to “fight-fixers.” They present a conflict and then choose one side in the fight. He says he has two alternatives:

I let the fight proceed and take no more than a recording part in it; or I take both sides in it…The only way I can take no part in the fight is to show two versions of it. That leaves me with only one problem: I cannot give both versions at once, yet whichever is the second will seem, so strong is the tyranny of the last chapter, the final, the “real” version. I take my purse from the pocket of my frock coat, I extract a florin, I rest it on my right thumbnail, I flick it, spinning, two feet into the air and catch it in my left hand. So be it.

Flip a coin? That’s how Fowles decides which of his alternative endings will close the book. So much for planning, huh?

4) Portrayal of Victorian culture. If you haven’t read much about Victorian culture, Fowles has you covered. This novel is really more of a look at the hypocrisy of Victorian times than it is a love story. And Fowles is really adept at describing the craziness of this period. Take this nugget, for example (Remember, the narrator is writing from the 1960s):

A sudden shift of sexual key is impossible today. A man and a woman are no sooner in any but the most casual contact than they consider the possibility of a physical relationship. We consider such frankness about the real drives of human behavior healthy, but in Charles’s time private minds did not admit the desires banned by the public mind; and when the consciousness was sprung on by these lurking tigers it was ludicrously unprepared.

Fowles also does things like poke fun at his characters for walking on a beach in the summer wearing long pants, a coat, and heavy boots–such was the style of the Victorian period.

5) Insight into human nature. Like yesterday’s post, here’s another great line about how life has evolved since the Victorian era in which the story lives:

The supposed great misery of our century is the lack of time; our sense 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.

“The perfect lightning flash.” How true, even today.

So, what of the plot, you ask? The story focuses on a young couple, Charles and Ernestina, set to be engaged. But Charles’s growing obsession with an enigmatic woman—yes, The French Lieutenant’s Woman—who stares out to the sea for hours at time and sleeps on rugged cliffs puts the couple’s relationship in jeopardy.

The novel is full of twists and all kinds of crazy creativity. In many ways, The French Lieutenant’s Woman reminds me of I, Claudius. Not the story, but just how surprised I am by how much I enjoyed this book.

With I, Claudius, though, I didn’t know anything about the book–so had no expectations. Coming into this novel, I was expecting a sappy, boring love story, so I had very low expectations. That makes The French Lieutenant’s Woman even more impressive in a way.

Will I rank it higher than I, Claudius–currently #2 in highly subjective and totally biased rankings? Oh, I don’t know about that.

Other Stuff

The Opening Line: Take a breath; it’s a long one: “An easterly is the most disagreeable wind in Lyme Bay–Lyme Bay being that largest bite from the underside of England’s outstretched southwestern leg–and a person of curiosity could at once have deduced several strong possibilities about the pair who began to walk down the quay at Lyme Regis, the small but ancient eponym of the inbite, one incisively sharp and blustery morning in the late March of 1867.”

The Meaning: The novel is a coming-of-age story about Charles and Sarah (TFLW). Both must “find themselves,” pardon the cliche, but do so in different ways. 

Highlights: I love the ingenuity of this novel. Fowles caught me off guard and guided me through a wild story with twists, turns, alternate endings, and a good bit of humor thrown in.

Lowlights: The opening line. Have you seen the length of that thing? Did Virginia Woolf possess John Fowles during that sentence? 70 words!

Memorable Line (Paragraph): Speaking of Victorian times: “People knew less of each other, and so were more individual. The entire world was not for them only a push or switch away. Strangers were strange, and sometimes with an exciting, beautiful strangeness. It may be better for humanity that we should communicate more and more. But I am a heretic, I think our ancestors’ isolation was like the greater space they enjoyed: it can only be envied. The world is only too literally too much with us now.”

Final thoughts: Yes, I liked the book with the embarrassing cover. Truthfully, I really liked it. Not because of the “love story” but because of John Fowles—his creativity, his insight into Victorian culture, and the fact that he made me care about these characters. After enduring Neuromancer, The French Lieutenant’s Woman was refreshing.

25 Comments Post a comment
  1. And I just bought myself a second hand copy, but felt reluctant to start reading it. But after your review here I think I should give it a go. Alternate endings? Hmm, sounds very interesting…


    August 9, 2011
    • Definitely a unique approach to a novel. Loved it.


      August 9, 2011
  2. Kim #

    I love when a book completely takes you by surprise.


    August 9, 2011
  3. 🙂 So glad that you enjoyed TFLW. I have studied Victorian literature, and I found Fowles’ approach to be both historically accurate but also refreshingly blunt compared to the novels of the time period. Definitely a unique take which is wonderfully written.
    😦 The surprise of the multiple endings is part of the brilliance of the book. Maybe a spoiler alert would be appropriate?


    August 9, 2011
    • That’s a good point. I didn’t think of it that way because I wasn’t necessarily giving away plot, just the fact there are a few different potential plots. But it’s probably worth a spoiler alert.


      August 9, 2011
  4. The quote on isolation alone makes me want to read the book. Glad you enjoyed it.


    August 9, 2011
  5. I’d never considered this one but your review has prompted me to add it to my to-read list! Thanks


    August 10, 2011
  6. Try Fowles’ “The Collector”. He really is amazing!


    October 12, 2011
  7. wantedseas #

    Fowles really is a great author. I also recommend reading “The Magus” by him. Insanely creative and insightful author, but also a young man at heart it seems.


    January 14, 2012
  8. I’m just beginning to read this for my ‘Critical Fictions’ module. I also don’t have high hopes but have been told that it is brilliant. I actually like this cover better than my Vintage Fowles cover! I linked to you on my blog 🙂


    March 5, 2012
  9. I adore John Fowles work, my all time No. 1 book is The Magus – read that if you really want to be surprised. Yes, agreed that The Collector is a wonderful, thrilling read.


    January 5, 2013
  10. Reblogged this on Scylax of Caryanda and commented:
    An all-time favourite book of mine. And an interesting review.


    August 4, 2013
  11. Ted Fontenot #

    Fowles so fiercely possesses Victorianism intellectually that it amounts to a ravishing, if not a rape of some sort. HIs novel The Magus definitely should have been on this list, however. Intellect and ideas even more vividly drive the compelling story.


    November 6, 2013

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