The French Lieutenant’s Woman

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The French Lieutenant’s Woman

by John Fowles


A novel, set primarily to Lymie Regis, England, but also in Exeter and London, England and in the United States in 1967; written 100 years later in 1967; published in 1969.


A Victorian gentleman, staying in iyme Regis with his pretty and conventional fiancée, becomes intrigued with ‘the French lieutenant’s Woman an enigmatic figure with a scandalous past The relationship that develops between them forces him to choose between the safety and security of conventionality and the freedom of following his own heart.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

John Robert Fowles was born March 31, 1926, at Leigh Upon Sea, Essex. He served two years in the military before attending Oxford University, where he studied French language and literature. After graduating in 1950, Fowles went on to teach English in France, Greece, and Britain. In 1954 he married Elizabeth Whitton, whom he had met in Greece, becoming at the same time stepfather to her daughter from a prior marriage. Fowles’s first published novel, The Collector (1963) sold well and was generally, if not universally, well reviewed (Aubrey, pp. 91-92). Its success enabled Fowles to leave teaching and write full time. His second, The Magus (published in 1965, although actually written much earlier) fared less well, often being dismissed as pretentious (Aubrey, p. 100). Therefore, the success of his third novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which catapulted him to fame as an important and popular writer, came as a surprise. Fowles continued to publish consistently thereafter, releasing several novels, as well as collections of short stories, essays on philosophy and natural history, poems, and translations of French literature. He wrote The French Lieutenant’s Woman shortly after moving to Lyme Regis, where he and his wife lived in an old farmhouse on the edge of the Undercliff that served as a model for The Dairy in the novel. Although no longer living at Underbill Farm, Fowles still resides in Lyme Regis, where he acted as curate for the town’s local history museum in the 1980s.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

Evolutionary thinking and the crisis of faith

The pursuit of science was crucial to Victorian intellectual culture and industrial development, but posed difficult challenges to Christian descriptions of the world, its origins, and humanity’s place within it. In particular, developments in geology and biology led many to question the Biblical account of the world’s creation and, along with it, traditional Christianity. Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875) published his Principles of Geology(3 volumes) between 1830 and 1833, which demonstrated that the earth was millions of years old rather than thousands, and that the world itself had changed over long periods of time as the result of processes like erosion. Biologist Charles Darwin (1809-82), working in part from Lyell’s research on fossils, published the theory of natural selection in his watershed book, On the Origin of Species (also in WLAIT 4: British and Irish Literature and Its Times) in 1859. Its impact was enormous, both within scientific circles and in the popular culture. Indeed, evolutionary thinking became a hallmark of the era.

Many Victorian thinkers were concerned with the notion of “progress”—where their society had been, where it was going, and how it might get there. Evolutionary thinking provided a model within which to conceptualize progress, and was soon applied beyond the sciences, to social and economic theory as well. Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) devoted himself to producing “a theory in which evolution could provide a total explanation for all phenomena,” introducing the phrase “survival of the fittest” (usually, and incorrectly, attributed to Darwin) in his writings about social evolution (Hoppen, p. 475). For Spencer, the same natural laws applied to biology and society; thus class inequalities (among many other social characteristics) could be understood (and, for some, justified) as the manifestation of different individuals’ “fitness” for life in modern society.

At the same time, scientific evidence that the world was ancient and its inhabitants evolved over time rather than being created all at once undermined the credibility of the Genesis story in the Bible, leading many to question Christian history and Christian faith along with it. Moreover, other branches of scholarship contributed to this doubt: at mid-century, German Biblical scholars began publishing work in “higher criticism” that challenged previous assumptions about the authorship and sources of Biblical texts. Taken together, these intellectual developments created for many a kind of crisis of faith; with evidence mounting that the Bible could not be taken as literal truth, many struggled to reconcile religion with knowledge. Certainly, Fowles’s Charles Smithson is just such a man. This is not to say, however, that religious doubt swept through the entire populace. On the contrary, “never was Britain more religious than in the Victorian age” (Hoppen, p. 425). In the 1830s, for example, the Oxford Movement, led by John Newman (1801-90; after 1879, Cardinal John Newman) thrived as an influential religious revival. Actually, the agonizing over religious doubt that appears in so much Victorian writing and culture indicates the continuing strength of religious thought; had faith and the Church been less powerful elements in society, they would have been much easier for intellectuals troubled by counterevidence to leave behind.

Social transformation and the Second Great Reform Bill

Along with industrialization in the nineteenth century came urbanization, accompanied by important demographic shifts in the British population. Manufacturing provided a new economy in which riches could be amassed, creating a new class of well-off (occasionally fabulously rich) families who owed their financial status to industry rather than landownership. The aristocracy had traditionally been the wealthiest—and concomitantly most powerful—group in society because of its landholdings, but political power and influence shifted to the wealthy industrial class (the upper middle class) as the Victorian era progressed. The furor over the Corn Laws is indicative of this change. The Corn Law tariffs prohibited the importation of foreign grain unless domestic grain prices went above a very high set price. These tariffs protected landlords by keeping food prices high, which, in turn, opponents argued, limited trade and made manufactured goods more costly. The repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 indicated a policy shift in favor of the new wealthy.

At the same time, industrialization drew workers to the city and trade (in the broadest sense) created many new white-collar jobs both in the offices of the companies doing business and in aspects of the infrastructure necessary to support urban living, such as retail shops. As a result, in addition to shifting from agricultural labor to factory work, many in the working class were able to leave manual labor behind altogether and move into the lower rungs of the middle class by acquiring jobs as clerks, secretaries, or shopkeepers. Indeed, this subgroup of the middle class increased more rapidly than most others. In The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Sam’s dreams of his own haberdashery shop represent his desire to make the leap from working to middle class, and although he is unable to achieve them, his eventual success in Mr. Freeman’s department store demonstrates how working-class members could indeed rise economically and socially in this period.

Social mobility—whether up or down the class scale—is rarely easy, however, and can be accompanied by social unrest. Significant aspects of English political policy during the 1800s were structured with the intention of quelling potential rebellion in the lower classes. Britain’s conservative leadership, anxious about the possibility of revolution, passed a series of gradual reforms across several decades designed to appease radical demands for greater political equality without actually implementing radical change. Most important among these were the two great franchise reform bills of 1832 (the year usually identified as the beginning of the Victorian period) and 1867 (the year in which The French Lieutenant’s Woman takes place). Although carefully structured to minimize their impact on the actual balance of power between the wealthy and the poor, these reforms enfranchised hundreds of thousands of men. The 1867 bill granted the vote to every male property owner living in a borough constituency, and to male lodgers paying at least £10 per year in rent. It also included redistricting provisions that took one parliamentary seat away from any borough with less than 10,000 inhabitants, freeing 45 seats for redistribution. Ten went to towns that had never had a Member of Parliament (MP), four were given as second seats to Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds, one was assigned to the University of London, and 25 were given to counties whose population had grown since 1832. These provisions reduced the impact of new working-class votes by giving more parliamentary seats to the landholding counties than to industrialized urban areas. Even after the 1867 bill, only around a third of British men over 21 had the right to vote in national elections.

Class consciousness was in fact just beginning to develop in this period. Karl Marx (1818-83) and Friedrich Engels (1820-95) composed the Communist Manifesto in the 1840s; it would be published in an English translation in 1888. In the epigrams to the chapters of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Fowles often quotes Marx. These quotations reflect his era’s hindsight on the shifting class structures of Britain (and indeed all of Europe), for although these ideas appeared and gained influence as the nineteenth century progressed, they were by no means the dominant theory of social interaction and progress at the time. Indeed, during the mid-nineteenth century, “many began to believe that the heat was being taken out of social antagonisms; that, occasional strikes notwithstanding, physical force and revolution were giving way to gradualism under the impress of prosperity” (Hoppen, p. 240). This mid-Victorian faith in gradualism, although contradictory to radical theories under development by European thinkers such as Marx and Engels, nevertheless set Britain on a course of reform that complemented its shifting economic and class structures and established precedents for future emancipations.

Gender inequality and the sexual double standard

Among those left out by the Great Reform Bills were Britain’s women, although in the debates over the 1867 bill John Stuart Mill was able to convince 73 MPs to vote in favor of extending suffrage to women. The novel cites this moment as “the beginning of feminine emancipation in England” (Fowles, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, p. 115). But Mill’s radicalism was a minority position—196 MPs voted against the measure; and women would not achieve even partial suffrage in national elections until after the First World War. Instead, the dominant mode of thought about women in the nineteenth century consisted of a not-always compatible set of ideas regarding women’s nature and role in society. On one hand, women were considered by many to be morally superior to men; they were idealized as “The Angel in the House” (the title of a popular mid-century poem by Coventry Patmore) who would counteract the influence of the wicked world on their husbands and children with their inherent gentleness and virtue. On the other hand, society regarded women as weaker than and intellectually inferior to men; females were considered incapable of managing the demands of professions or business. In other words, women ought to be dependent upon and subordinate to men, despite the pedestal of virtue upon which they were placed.

The idea (and idealization) of the angel in the house developed largely as a result of shifting work patterns in the middle and working classes. Whereas in previous centuries husbands and wives had often worked together to sustain a family through small-scale farming and cottage industry, the shift toward work in factories or businesses took earning a living out of the home. This initiated the now-familiar dichotomy between a (usually male) wage earner who goes out to work each day and a (usually female) family caregiver who stays in the home with responsibility for the children and domestic chores. The arrangement indicates a certain level of socioeconomic status and respectability (since the husband is clearly earning enough on his own to support the entire family) that quickly became romanticized as the ideal family structure—something good and proper, rather than simply practical. Of course, for many working-class families this ideal was completely out of reach; in families battling poverty, women often sought work as well, although employers systematically discriminated against them in wages and other respects. Women, then, suffered unequal treatment in both public and private life, living under an ideology that prized their virtue but insisted upon an environment thoroughly dominated by men.

Another aspect of the inequality of women in the nineteenth century was a sexual double standard under which chastity before marriage and fidelity thereafter were demanded of women whereas a certain discreet indulgence and variety of sexual experience were expected of men. The scope of female prostitution at the time provides evidence of this dichotomy, as thousands of “fallen” women provided outlets for men’s sexuality. It is impossible to know today how many prostitutes really worked in Victorian England, in part because contemporary estimates varied widely, ranging from 25,000 to 368,000 for England and Wales, but clearly the numbers were high (Hoppen, p. 322). Fowles’s novel captures the contradictions between the Victorians’ stated values and actual behavior in its description of the nineteenth century: “An age where woman was sacred; and where you could buy a thirteen-year-old girl for a few pounds—a few shillings, if you only wanted her for an hour or two” (Fowles, French Lieutenant’s Woman, p. 266). The novel likewise reminds us of the double standard among respectable people, explaining early in the story that Charles has dallied with many women abroad whereas Ernestina forbids herself even thoughts about sex.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

The French Lieutenant’s Woman opens with its three primary characters all out walking on the Cobb, a stone breakwater that forms the manmade harbor of Lyme Regis. Charles Smithson and his fiancee, Tina Freeman, banter affectionately about Charles’s acceptance of “the Darwinian position” and fondness for fossils until Charles notices that standing at the end of the Cobb is a mysterious figure, whom Tina identifies as “poor Tragedy”—“The French Lieutenant’s … Woman” (Woman, pp. 7, 9). Tina’s hesitation, indicated by the ellipsis in the text, alludes to the “gross name” the fishermen call her—“The French Lieutenant’s Whore”—although that name will not be voiced until much later in the novel (Woman, p. 9). Intrigued by the woman, Charles demands that Tina tell him her story. The woman waits, Tina explains, for a French lover who abandoned her—but in fact Tina knows little for certain, admitting “it is all gossip” (Woman, p. 9). Nonetheless, the woman’s presence discomfits Tina, who asks Charles to turn away with her. Charles insists on approaching her, however, and is profoundly startled by the look she gives him when he speaks to her. From this moment it is clear that a romantic triangle has formed. Walking away, Charles comments to Tina that the trouble with provincial towns is that “there is no mystery. No romance,” two elements the French Lieutenant’s Woman is about to bring into Charles’s life with striking consequences (Woman, p. 10).

The following chapters familiarize us with the histories of several major players in Fowles’s drama: Charles, the minor aristocrat, who is likely to inherit his uncle’s baronetcy although he has not inherited his attitudes and interests; Mrs. Poulteney, the hypocritical, unkind, and self-righteous widow with whom Sarah Woodruff, the French Lieutenant’s Woman, currently resides; Ernestina, the intelligent and sexually self-repressed young woman whose manners, like her face, are exactly right for the Victorian age; Sarah Woodruff herself, albeit through versions of her story told by others; Sarah, it appears, rashly left her post as a governess to elope with a French Lieutenant she had nursed after he was injured in a shipwreck.

Although the people who claim to know the story all believe that Sarah Woodruff lodged with a female cousin when she followed the French Lieutenant to Weymouth (a port nearer to France), and that she refused the Lieutenant when it became clear that he planned to seduce rather than marry her, her conduct remains “highly to be reprobated” in the eyes of rigidly moralistic respectable Victorian society (Woman, p. 34). Mrs. Poulteney, we learn, has taken Sarah in as a kind of personal secretary in a charitable gesture, intended both to earn Mrs. Poulteney a surer place in heaven and to spite a rival of hers known in the community for her generosity and kindness.

As the plot progresses, Charles sets out fossil hunting. In the course of his walk, he stumbles upon Sarah, asleep on a hidden ledge at the edge of a seaside meadow. She seems to him “childlike,” “immensely tender and yet sexual” in the “abandonment of deep sleep” (Woman, p. 70). Charles is “tranced by this unexpected encounter,” and overcome by a conviction that she has been “unfairly outcast” (Woman, p. 71). In the awkward moment after she awakes they share another powerful, disconcerting look before Charles “[comes] to his sense of what was proper,” apologizes, and walks away (Woman, p. 71). Significantly, Charles does not tell Ernestina he has met Sarah at all—an omission he justifies on the grounds of Ernestina’s apparent wish to hear nothing about the woman, but that suggests the secrecy of a man having an affair.

The narrative then looks backward, to explain that Sarah’s wish for secrecy is due to Mrs. Poulteney’s having forbidden her to walk in that area, Ware Commons, because of its association in the minds of the townspeople with midsummer dancing and sexual impropriety. On that day, in fact, Sarah had contemplated suicide, but the narrator declares he cannot explain her thoughts or feelings precisely, nor answer the perplexing question, “Who is Sarah?” (Woman, pp. 95-96). At this point in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the narrator—speaking in the voice of the author, John Fowles—makes a startling intrusion into the plot, inserting an entire chapter (13) that discusses his philosophy and methods of writing, and asserts that his characters, although fictional, choose their own paths through the novel. Although the narrative voice has interrupted the plot several times already to provide background information like the details of Charles’s proposal to Tina or Sarah’s positive influence on Mrs. Poulteney’s household, this intrusion is by far the most self-conscious yet, and sets the stage for further insertions of the authorial presence as the novel continues. At the same time, Chapter 13 explicitly states the creed of freedom that Fowles


Sarah’s actions seem all the more sinful to the righteous of iyme Regis because the man she followed was French, The stigma reflects a long history of animosity between France and England, during which the two countries fought many wars. It also reflects a stereotype. As Mrs, Pouleney makes clear in the novel, many Britons believed the French to be generally wicked and wanton in their ways and beliefs France, the novel also suggests, has gained ill repute simply because It is foreign, and therefore associated with the excesses of travelers. While abroad, people could indulge in, for example, the services of prostitutes without anxiety about social repercussions that would accompany such indiscretions closer to home. Finally the French were overwhelmingly Catholic, which seemed sinful in itself to many English Protestants, During the nineteenth century, France’s recent political history provoked further anxiety in Britain. Although many British Intellectuals had been enthusiastic about the French Revolution when it began in 1789, the chaos and violence that followed led a large number to adopt the view of English philosopher Edmund Burke, whose Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) argued that revolution would only lead to anarchy and tyranny, and that gradual reform was the superior way to Improve society. Anxiety about the possibility of violent revolution underscored British politics throughout the nineteenth century and contributed to the series of reforms (notably the franchise) that are one hallmark of the Victorian period, Thus, in addition to associating the French with immorality and excess, Britons were also likely at this time to associate them with the threat of dangerous social and political disorder.

sets forth in the larger plot of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, declaring, “There is only one good definition of God: the freedom that allows other freedoms to exist” (Woman, p. 97).

In the following chapters, Charles meets Sarah a series of times, at first unintentionally, but with a growing interest in her. At a visit to Mrs. Poulteney, Charles is again impressed by her apparent intelligence and strangely self-confident reserve. On another hunt for fossils, he is struck by her appearance, and his perception of her shifts toward a heightened appreciation of her sensuality. They have their first real conversation, in which Charles expresses kindness and sympathy and Sarah reveals that although she knows the French Lieutenant will never return, she feels tied to Lyme Regis despite the town’s condemnation of her.

By now it is becoming apparent even to Charles himself that he has grown to be somewhat obsessed with Sarah, “or at any rate with the enigma that she presented,” so it is not surprising when he sets out again walking in the direction of the place they have met twice before (Woman, p. 128). Charles plans to avoid Sarah, but she appears and approaches him, bearing as a gift two of the fossilized starfish that he especially seeks. Sarah speaks of her isolation and suffering, and pleads with a disconcerted Charles to meet her again so that she may tell him her story. Charles reluctantly agrees, recognizing that “he was about to engage in the forbidden, or rather the forbidden was about to engage in him” (Woman, p. 146).

When they next meet, Sarah confesses that she is “a doubly dishonored woman. By circumstances and by choice” because in fact she did not stay with a female cousin in Weymouth and, when the Lieutenant made his intentions clear, “I gave myself to him” (Woman, p. 174). She explains that she has “married shame” because it is the only way she could find to “break out of what 1 was” and achieve a kind of personal freedom (Woman, p. 175). Her explanations confuse Charles, but her tears touch him, and he appears more drawn to her than ever. It becomes clear now that they are in love, but they agree that they must never meet alone again.

Fowles’s plot speeds up at this point, with delicate character development giving way to a rapid sequence of events. A disturbing surprise is in store for Charles: he has been called to his uncle’s estate, to be informed that his uncle plans to marry—an event that will most likely disinherit Charles when the union produces children. Upon his return, he learns that Sarah has been dismissed by Mrs. Poulteney (having intentionally allowed another household servant to see her leaving Ware Commons). At first Charles fears for Sarah’s safety, but two notes from her relieve his anxiety. Although disturbed by her carelessness, he decides to try to help her. Charles gives Sarah some money and advises her to leave Lyme Regis immediately because there is talk of committing her to an asylum. Painfully, they part, and, following Charles’s advice, Sarah goes to Exeter.

Charles, on the other hand, travels to London, where he discusses his changed prospects with Ernestina’s father. Much to Charles’s dismay, Mr. Freeman suggests that Charles join him in the family business. This proposal horrifies Charles, who thinks of himself as a gentleman of the sort who has nothing to do with trade or industry. In his distress, Charles embarks on an evening of drinking and debauchery that concludes in the room of a prostitute. Already nauseous from excessive drinking, Charles becomes violently ill when she tells him her name is Sarah. Back at his London residence, Charles receives a letter from Sarah, containing nothing but her Exeter address.

The next chapter of the novel presents one possible conclusion to the story. Charles and Ernestina settle down to marriage and, eventually, seven children; Charles never hears from Sarah again. But, the narrator then tells us, this “thoroughly traditional ending” is actually only what Charles has imagined on the train (Woman, p. 339). He in fact stops in Exeter to visit Sarah. Within a few passionate moments, Charles and Sarah have abruptly consummated their affair in her small bedroom, but when Charles suggests that he break off his engagement, Sarah protests. She insists that she could not ask him to give up his position in the world for her sake, and declares herself unworthy to be his wife. He disagrees, until he realizes that she has lied to him: she never had sex with the French Lieutenant. Charles cannot fathom the reason for her deceit, but, refusing to explain, Sarah sends him away.

After a night of soul-searching, Charles has an epiphany: it is essential to be free, to follow one’s own heart regardless of the expectations of the world around one. He comes to understand Sarah’s deceit and actions as “stratagems” to help him see that if he so chooses, he is free to reject the dictates of convention, duty, and restrictive moral codes just as she has. With this knowledge, Charles determines to break off his engagement and remain with Sarah (Woman, p. 368). He declares his resolve in a letter, which he asks his manservant, Sam Farrow to deliver, and heads off to Lyme Regis to speak with Ernestina, confident that Sarah will await him upon his return.

Throughout the novel, Sam Farrow has been the protagonist of an important subplot: a romance between himself and a maid working for Ernestina’s Aunt Tranter. Sam dreams of opening his own haberdashery shop, and hopes that Charles will give him enough money to do so. His hopes—and his machinations in his own best interest—grow more urgent when he and Mary get engaged. In the manner of personal servants who know a great deal about their employers’ goings-on, Sam observes the relationship developing between Charles and Sarah. He at first views the information as potentially valuable, but after Charles is effectively disinherited, it becomes crucial to Sam’s plans that Charles marry the wealthy Tina. When Sam realizes that Charles intends to choose Sarah instead, he develops an alternative strategy based on offering the information he has about the affair to Ernestina’s family. Sam, therefore, keeps Charles’s letter of intentions instead of delivering it to Sarah.

After breaking his engagement with Ernestina, Charles travels to London, to explain everything to her father, Mr. Freeman. Here, Fowles writes himself into the narrative, as a traveler in Charles’s train compartment, and explains that he doesn’t know quite what to do with Charles and will, therefore, offer two endings to the novel rather than just one.

In London, Charles is browbeaten by two developments: Sarah has disappeared, and Mr. Freeman forces him to sign a legal document admitting his guilt in breaking the contract of his engagement and forfeiting his right to be considered a gentleman. Although he hires detectives to find her, and places inquiries in the Times, Charles cannot locate Sarah, and eventually decides to go abroad. He travels widely for over a year before receiving word that Sarah has been found in London. When Sarah is found, Charles is in the United States, a nation that restores in him “a kind of faith in freedom”; he thinks Sarah would have been at home there (Woman, p. 434). Indeed, Charles finds Sarah looking very much like an American woman when he returns to London and goes to her new residence, the home of painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Woman, p. 443). She has joined Rossetti as a kind of assistant, and tells Charles that she has found happiness in this life. After a difficult conversation, she introduces Charles to the daughter she bore after their intercourse and the first ending closes with a passionate family embrace.

Here Fowles again appears in the novel, this time as a dandy in the street below, and turns back the hands of his watch. In the second conclusion, there is no child and Sarah refuses Charles when he urges her to marry him, choosing, finally, freedom and independence over love.

Anachronisms in The French Lieutenant’s Woman

Although Fowles writes with the tone of a conventional Victorian omniscient narrator in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, several aspects of the novel make it unmistakably of its own time. Among these is the persistent anachronistic commentary that calls our attention to the similarities and differences between the 1860s and the 1960s. These anachronisms—in this case definable as comments or ideas belonging to a time in the future of the novel’s setting—allow Fowles to shape our perception of the Victorian era by comparing and/or contrasting it to a more familiar twentieth-century, environment, while also suggesting that many contemporary trends have parallels or, indeed, origins, in the Victorian era.

Fowles introduces this approach in the novel’s third paragraph. Having described the Cobb at Lyme Regis in enthusiastic terms, his narrator comments: “I exaggerate? Perhaps, but I can be put to the test, for the Cobb has changed very little since the year of which I write; though the town of Lyme has, and the test is not fair if you look back towards land” (Woman, p. 4). Asserting both continuity and change, the narrator overtly asks his reader to “look” as he bids, at the Cobb of 1867 rather than the Lyme Regis of 1967. From this point forward the novel is peppered with narratorial comments that point out the differences between Victorian times and our own. These comments might be socio-historical, as when describing Charles’s skin as “suitably pale,” the narrator reminds us that “this was a time when a suntan was not at all a desirable social-sexual status symbol, but the reverse: an indication of low rank” (Woman, p. 41). At other times, the comments are philosophical, as when the narrator explains to us that “In spite of Hegel, the Victorians were not a dialectically minded age; they did not think naturally in opposites, of positives and negatives as aspects of the same whole” (Woman, p. 248). At still other times, the comments are psychological:

Such 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.

(Woman, p. 176)

Another anachronistic device Fowles adopts to remind us that the novel takes place in a historical period removed from our own is the inclusion of footnotes explaining certain terms or historical situations. These pull us out of the illusion of reality created by fictional narratives, reminding us that we are reading a text, and indeed, one that may require historical education for comprehension. In effect, although the setting of the story is 1867, the setting of the text is clearly and explicitly 1967.

Even more striking is Fowles’s appearance in the narrative on two separate occasions as himself—the author—first attempting to determine what he should do with his characters and then later, having decided, interrupting the flow of textual time by setting his watch back 15 minutes, a gesture that facilitates the shift from one possible ending for the novel to another. Obviously, John Fowles could not have been present in historical 1867, but he can insert himself into the fictional 1867 of his imagination in anachronistic moves that allow him to comment directly on his own choices as the author. Notably, he identifies the precise period of time that separates himself from his characters—and the problems that creates for him as an author—in one of these episodes: “I have pretended to slip back into 1867; but of course that year is in reality a century past. It is futile to show optimism or pessimism, or anything else about it, because we know what has happened since” (Woman, p. 406).

These anachronisms also enable Fowles to remind his readers that many of the liberal tendencies of the 1960s, perhaps most notably the liberation of women, have beginnings in the earlier century. Sarah, with her personal and sexual independence, is clearly a precursor to modern women, and Fowles uses another anachronistic narratorial comment about Ernestina’s conventionality to locate the origins of political emancipation for women in 1867 as well:

Ah, you say, but women were chained to their role at that time. But remember the date of this evening: April 6th, 1867. At Westminster only one week before John Stuart Mill had seized an opportunity in one of the early debates on the Reform Bill to argue that now was the time to give women equal rights at the ballot box. His brave attempt… was greeted with smiles from the average man, guffaws from Punch … and disapproving frowns from a sad majority of educated women… Nonetheless, March 30th, 1867 is the date from which we can date the beginning of feminine emancipation in England.

(Woman, p. 115)

Here the narrator challenges his contemporary audience’s notions about women and feminism in Victorian Britain, encouraging readers to connect women’s liberation not just with the social movements of their own time, but with the nineteenth century as well.

The Rossettis and 16 Cheyne Walk

The painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, with whom Sarah lives and works at the close of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, was a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of young artists who admired the style of the early Italian masters of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and sought to create paintings that emulated the virtues they saw therein. In a short manifesto, they detailed ideals, including the expression of “genuine ideas,” an attentive study and reproduction of nature, and sympathy with “what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art,” along with the rejection of “what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote” (Ash, p. 383). Initially they kept their society a secret, exhibiting paintings signed only with the enigmatic initials “P.R.B.” When the secret came out, there was a brief scandal in the London art world because all of the artists involved were young and considered audacious for their rejection of contemporary artistic standards. However, although the actual Brotherhood only lasted for about five years from its inception in 1848, their work gained respect and influence as the esteemed art critic John Ruskin touted their creations in publications and lectures.

Throughout his career, Rosetti often painted medieval themes, frequently featuring the characters of Dante (the Italian poet for whom he was named) and Beatrice, the woman who leads Dante through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise in his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy. In addition to echoing Beatrice as a guide or tutor leading a man toward redemption, Fowles’s Sarah Woodruff also appears to look much like the women that populate Rossetti’s paintings.

In the late 1860s (the point at which Charles finds Sarah at Rossetti’s house at 16 Cheyne Walk) Rossetti was sharing a home with the writers Algernon Charles Swinburne and George Meredith, as well as his mistress and model, Fanny Cornforth, who “moved in with the euphemistic title of ‘housekeeper’” (Ash, p. 388). When Charles knocks, she is undoubtedly the woman answering the door whom he finds so difficult to place on the hierarchical scale of servants and masters (Woman, p. 441). Christina Rossetti, the younger sister of Dante Gabriel, who Charles mistakenly believes for a moment to be Sarah’s lover, was a respected poet in her own right (Woman, p. 455). She is known both for religious writing and for poems like “Goblin Market” (1862) that subtly challenge Victorian standards


Many literary works allude with more or less subtlety to earlier texts or stories as part of the development of their own narratives. The French lietenant’s Womanf however, does so explicitly and self-consciously Ernestina points out to Charles, for example, that as they walk along the Cobb they pass the very steps thai fnovelistj lane Austen made Louisa Musgrove fall down in Persuasion [1817],” and when die narrator introduces Sam Farrow he reminds his audience of Sam’s literary predecessor, the immortal Sam Welter—the Cockney servant in Charles Dickers The Pickwick Papers, published serially In 1836 and 1837 (Woman, p. 8, 41), Similarly, the narrative voice (sounding very much like Fowles at this point although he is not speaking as a character) expounds on the fact that his work comes ‘’under the shadow of Thomas Hardy, who “was the first to try to break the Victorian middle-class seal over the supposed Pandora’s box of sex in his novels set in Dorset the county of England that contains Lyme Uegis Woman, pp. 8, 271; see Jude the Obscure , also in WLAIT 4; British ami Irish Literature and te Times).

and expectations regarding women and their roles. These are the poems Charles remembers as marked by “passionate obscurity” and “rather absurdly muddled over the frontiers of human and divine love” (Woman, p. 456). Swinburne’s poetry was politically radical, and his personal life—marked by alcoholism, self-publicized homosexuality, masochism, and bestiality—flouted conventional Victorian morality. A novelist, Meredith is perhaps most respected for The Egoist (1879), a critique of male chauvinism. By placing Sarah in this household, Fowles aligns her with these multiple rejections of Victorian values, both political and social. Here, she can declare, “I belong,” whereas in the respectable homes of Lyme Regis she has no comfortable place (Woman, p. 451).

Sources and literary context

In a well-known essay, “Notes on an Unfinished Novel” Fowles ties the origin of The French Lieutenant’s Woman to a haunting visual image that interrupted the work he had underway, absorbing his attention. This image is the one that opens the novel, both within the text and in the author’s mind: “A woman stands at the end of a deserted quay and stares out to sea” (Fowles, Notes on an Unfinished Novel, p. 161). Later he adds, “The woman had no face, no particular degree of sexuality. But she was Victorian; and since I always saw her in the same static long shot, with her back turned, she represented a reproach on the Victorian Age” (Fowles, Notes, p. 162). In its inscrutability, this image also prefigures the enigmatic nature of Sarah, who even at the close of the novel insists to Charles, “I am not to be understood even by myself’ (Woman, p. 452).

This resistance to interpretation is also a hallmark of the literary mode with which The French Lieutenant’s Woman is generally associated: postmodernism. “Postmodernism” is a decidedly slippery term, carrying different meanings in fields ranging across the arts and social sciences. Describing certain tendencies in the arts and culture of Western society after World War II, “postmodernism” is associated with (among other things) a suspicion of intellectual reason and its assumption that there is clear or universal “truth” to be determined by rational study, a rejection of high modernism’s distinction between “high” and “low” culture, and (in a famous formulation from Jean-Francis Lyotard’s 1979 book, The Postmodern Condition) a profound doubt about any narratives that propose to explain grand scale historical processes or the meaning of life. These “metanarratives” might include religions, political theories like Marxism, or even scientific formulations about the origins of the universe or life on earth.

In literature, certain forms or stylistic devices are also consistently associated with postmodernism, including a playful irony, parody, fragmentation, intertextuality (a more substantial borrowing of elements from other books than we see in allusion), and explicit self-consciousness within the text about its nature as a text (exemplified in The French Lieutenant’s Woman by Fowles’s descriptions of how he is going about writing the novel). Because “postmodernism” is associated with so many different ideas, postmodern texts may display only some postmodern qualities. The French Lieutenant’s Woman clearly demonstrates several postmodern tendencies—self-consciousness, multiple and contradictory endings, a challenge to linear notions of time and narrative, and profound resistance to the idea that Sarah (or the novel) can be rationally interpreted. Nevertheless, it also accepts some metanarratives (e.g., evolutionary thinking, suggested in the novel by Charles’s decline and Sam’s success) and argues for a philosophy of freedom that one might regard as being at odds with the cynical irony in much postmodern thought. The approach reflects Fowles’s own interests in philosophy and natural history, while the mixture of genres testifies to the reality that classifications like “postmodern” are usually applied after the fact rather than as manifestos by which authors set out to write.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

The permissive society

The 1960s saw dramatic changes in the mood of British society and culture as the growing influence of youth culture created “swinging London” and a society that perceived itself to be “throwing off the Victorian shackles and the legacy of post-war austerity and Puritanism” (Morgan, p. 255). Young men with long hair and young women wearing short skirts both enjoyed and symbolized a wave of personal freedom and experimentation that included forays into drug use and freewheeling sexual activity. These youth, described by themselves and others as rebellious, rejected older notions of morality, respectability, and, in many cases, class division.

Despite deep-seated macroeconomic problems that led to the devaluation of the pound in 1967 and serious damage to Britain’s economy, throughout much of the ‘60s full employment combined with a booming property and consumer market meant that many in the middle and working classes had the means to participate in the burgeoning “consumer culture” (Morgan, p. 256). The new permissiveness (as it was identified at the time) was closely associated with consumerism, in both booming retail sales and in a thriving mass-market culture, perhaps best exemplified by the stunning success (and record sales) of the Beatles musical ensemble, which appeared in 1963. In this framework, permissiveness was often associated with materialism and hedonism, much to the chagrin of those Britons who longed for a more conventional and unified society.

At the same time, Britain’s legislators were advancing a series of reform bills that echoed the permissive society’s emphasis on liberalization and individual freedoms. Capital punishment was abolished in 1965, and both abortion and private homosexual acts between consenting adults were legalized in 1967. After years of pressure from middle-class women, divorce laws were also reformed in 1969. Of course, part of the impetus for these legal reforms came from civil rights movements like those calling for women’s or gay liberation—movements that reflected a new determination on the part of many individuals to assert their personal and civil rights. This liberalization of both law and culture reflects a societal interest in personal freedom that parallels the philosophy of freedom Fowles champions in The French Lieutenant’s Woman; Sarah, with her back turned on restrictive Victorian conventionality, can be read in some ways as an icon of Fowles’s own time.

The Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation

The Cold War, the competition for world leadership between the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies, was one of the dominant issues on the international stage throughout the 1960s. Nuclear buildup and the principles of deterrence implicated not only the nations directly involved, but all others as well because of the threat that nuclear war might destroy not only the participants but the entire world. Britain, allied to the United States through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), had little actual influence on the course of the Cold War, despite attempts by Prime Minister Harold Wilson (1916-95) to act as a mediator between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1967. Nevertheless, events outside Britain’s control routinely reminded her citizens of the nuclear threat. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster, while the involvement of United States’ troops in the war in Vietnam (beginning in 1965) provided ongoing evidence that Cold War ideological differences could lead to actual military conflict. The Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt in 1967 (which created a shock in the British economy when it temporarily closed the Suez canal, a major route for British shipping) also raised the specter of nuclear war because the involvement of the Arab and Israeli combatants with the superpowers led to the possibility of escalations that could pit the United States and the Soviet Union against each other in a direct conflict.

Fowles has identified the nuclear threat as an important historical context for The French Lieutenant’s Woman. In “Notes on an Unfinished Novel,” Fowles explains that he believes “the great nightmare of the respectable Victorian mind” was the new understanding of human insignificance and “hideously mechanistic explanation of human reality” offered by the science of men like Lyell and Darwin; “Just as we live with the bomb,’” said Fowles, “the Victorians lived with the theory of evolution” (Fowles, “Notes,” p. 166). In both cases, Fowles suggests, scientific progress creates a terrifying situation in which our knowledge or achievement forces us to reassess our understanding of human nature, our past, and the potential future of our species.


Although Fowles expected otherwise, The French Lieutenant’s Woman was both a critical and a popular success. Reviews were enthusiastic. Like many reviews, the Times Literary Supplement’s assessment praised Fowles’s handling of the interaction between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, observing that he “has found a way, in this tour de force, to emulate the great Victorians, to supplement them without patronage” (Times Literary Supplement, p. 629). The reviewer for Punch declared Fowles “the most stunningly original novelist since William Golding” and the novel’s handling of transitions back and forth from the Victorian past to the contemporary present “breathtaking” (Price, p. 35). In a front-page article for The New York Times Book Review, Ian Watt wrote that “our final impression is of pleasure and even, on occasion, awe, at so harmonious a mingling of the old and the new in matter and manner” (Watt, p. 74). New Statesman reviewer James Price declared the novel “a splendid, lucid, profoundly satisfying work of art” (Price, p. 850). Fowles won the 1970 W. H. Smith Literary Award for the novel. In less than a decade after its 1969 publication, it sold over 3 million copies (Aubrey, p. 108) and a major film adaptation was in development, with a script written by noted English playwright Harold Pinter.

—Michelle N. Mimlitsch

For More Information

Adams, Robert M. The Land and Literature of England. New York: Norton, 1983.

Ash, Russell. Victorian Masters and Their Art. London: Pavilion, 1999.

Aubrey, James R. John Fowles: A Reference Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Dennis, Barbara, and David Skilton, eds. Reform and Intellectual Debate in Victorian England. World and Word Series. London: Groom Helm, 1987.

Fowles, John. The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Boston: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown, 1998.

____. “Notes on an Unfinished Novel.” Afterwords: Novelists on Their Novels. Ed. Thomas McCormack. New York: Harper & Row, 1969.

Hoppen, K. Theodore. The Mid-Victorian Generation, 1846-1886. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Morgan, Kenneth O. The People’s Peace: British History 1945-1989. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Price, James. “Self-Dependence.” New Statesman 77 (1969): 850.

Price, R. G. G. “Four New Novels” Punch 257 (1969): 35.

Review of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles. Times Literary Supplement, 12 June 1969, 629.

Watt, Ian. Review of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles. The New York Times Book Review, 9 November 1969, 1, 74.

Waugh, Patricia. Postmodernism: A Reader. London: Edward Arnold, 1992.

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