Wednesday, 31 October 2001

John Fowles: The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969)

Edition: Vintage, 1996
Review number: 984

The nineteenth century novel is an important part of the legacy of English literature, and the Victorian age is one which has continued to fascinate throughout the last hundred years (particularly in this year, the centenary of Victoria's death). The French Lieutenant's Woman is a homage to the novels of writers like Dickens, Thackeray and Trolloppe (with nods towards Hardy and James), together with a commentary on the period to which much of the last century's culture has been a reaction.

The type of story told here is, with certain modifications such as overt sexuality, one which could have been the plot of a nineteenth century novel. Set in Lyme Regis (location of important parts of persuasion and, as a fossil hunter's paradise, essential to developments in Victorian scientific ideas), The French Lieutenant's Woman is about Charles Smithson, heir to a baronetcy, and the woman to whom he is engaged, Ernestina Freeman,rich heiress of a merchant. She is spending the summer with her aunt, a resident of the town. The woman of the title is a former governess who haunts the quay after having been abandoned by her lover, a French sailor; respectable people assume that she is no better than a prostitute. Charles becomes fascinated with this outcast from the comfortable society in which he has lived all his life despite his advanced Darwinian views.

The principal way that it is clear that Fowles is a twentieth century writer is in the way that the story is told. The narrator takes a large part in proceedings himself, and is more a guide to explain the psychology and culture of the characters than a traditional storyteller. The reader is constantly kept at a distance from the story, always being made aware of how it illustrates the Victorian age. It is done in a moderately academic way, making The French Lieutenant's Woman quite an intellectual novel, but it is always fascinating. A good example of the sort of thing that Fowles does is the treatment of Charles' Cockney servant Sam; we are given quite a lengthy digression just after the introduction of the character about the similarities to and the differences from the most famous fictional Victorian servant, The Pickwick Papers' Sam Weller.

In fact, The French Lieutenant's Woman is almost as much about the twentieth century attitude to the Victorian age as it is about its setting. Fowles makes much of contradictions (such as the popularity of pornography in a supposedly straitlaced culture), implicitly drawing attention to similar contradictions a hundred years later. (The novel is set almost exactly a century before it was written.) In science fiction, it is commonto use the future to criticise the present, but it is much more unusual for a historical novel to attempt to use the past for the same purpose.

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