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Revisiting “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”

Today’s kind of a lazy post, but it’s relevant.

Many critics, and even A.S. Byatt herself, have acknowledged Possession is a response to John Fowles’ 1969 novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

So before we jump into Possession, I thought it might be worthwhile to revisit The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the story that provoked A.S. Byatt to write her novel in the first place.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman currently sits at #27 in my rankings of the first 68 books I’ve read from the Time list. Before I read the novel, I thought I wouldn’t like it—thinking of it as a Victorian romance. And it is partly that, but to dismiss it that easily does a great disservice to John Fowles. The man was excellent at his craft.

So instead of me babbling on and on about a book I read nearly three years ago, I thought I’d just repost that review here today. It’s been awhile, so just reading this review again reminded me of why I enjoyed The French Lieutenant’s Woman so much.

And, hopefully, Possession will prove to be as interesting.

* * *

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.

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12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Yes, a riveting tale….very English too, with much country and town description and mystery to get engaged in.

    Like

    March 11, 2014
  2. Great post!! I need to get this one on audio. Is the movie better than the book in this case?? (i usually prefer the book)

    Like

    March 11, 2014
    • I can’t say I’ve seen the movie yet. Just so many books to read and movies to watch!

      Like

      March 12, 2014
  3. I loved both French Lieutenants Woman ( which I last read ages ago) and Possession…..didn’t know about the connection between them so thanks for that. Fowles is a brilliant writer ….I read The Magus when I was about 19 and it really blew my mind. Hope you enjoy AS Byatt ….. She is Margaret Drabble’s sister btw but they don’t speak !!

    Like

    March 11, 2014
  4. Ted Fontenot #

    The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a genuinely great book (as are The Magus and The Collector). Fowles is one of the few novelists that was able to invigorate novels of ideas through a fusion of a compelling storyline through individualistic narrative and style. I wonder if he ever replied to Byatt. I have his collections of short non-fictional pieces, Wormholes, but Byatt isn’t listed in the index. I haven’t read his diaries or his biography.

    Like

    March 11, 2014
    • I don’t think he did, or at least that I know of.

      Like

      March 12, 2014
  5. Love your comments on great books! I, too, am a bibliophile and will read your blog often.

    Like

    March 11, 2014
  6. I invite you to visit my site, Grammy’s Life … So Far! at grammyslifesofar.org.

    Like

    March 11, 2014
  7. ellievanier #

    John Fowles The Collector is pretty amazing too, if you haven’t read that.

    Like

    March 11, 2014
  8. One of my favourite books. Great review.

    Like

    March 13, 2014
  9. What is wrong with a sentence of seventy words? Or longer? I dislike this pandering to those with short-term attention spans. A sentence must be as long as it needs to be. If a person cannot appreciate the exquisite beauty of English, then they ought to stick with Enid Blyton.

    Like

    September 17, 2014
  10. J.E. Fountain #

    Marvelous review of a fascinating, challenging story.
    My review: http://100greatestnovelsofalltimequest.blogspot.com/2015/01/the-french-lieutenants-woman-by-john.html

    Like

    February 7, 2015

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