This is the story of an English gentleman called Charles Smithson betrothed to Ernestine Freeman and set in 1876 in the small town of Lyme Regis in England. Charles becomes attracted to the mysterious Sarah Woodruff who is seen walking alone, and seemingly in deep despair, along the harbour wall. It is said that she is waiting the return of a French naval officer with whom she had an affair before he went back to France alone. Charles becomes conflicted, and after seeking advice from Dr Grogan, he aims to forget Sarah. Things don’t go smoothly though, and his resolve wavers.
“This story I am telling is all imagination. These characters I create never existed outside my own mind. If I have pretended until now to know my characters’ minds and innermost thoughts, it is because I am writing in (just as I have assumed some of the vocabulary and the “voice” of) a convention universally accepted at the time of my story: that the novelist stands next to God. He may not know all, yet he tries to pretend that he does.”
“It was as if the woman had become addicted to melancholia as one becomes addicted to opium. Now do you see how it is? Her sadness becomes her happiness. She wants to be a sacrificial victim, Smithson. Where you and I flinch back, she leaps forward. She is possessed, you see…. Dark indeed. Very dark.”
The plot is simple – a love-triangle in Victorian England. However, it’s not a straightforward narrative, because the author also gives an analysis on the social attitudes of Victorian England through both the characters’ behaviours and relationships, and by cleverly interceding into the story with his own commentary. He often uses comparisons with contemporary attitudes in a humorous way. There is an interesting variety of characters in this book, each of whom has a point of view that gives the story a realistic feel. The many diversions into the characters’ thoughts and feelings seems overdone at times, but this is not a standard historical fiction. The author uses these diversions to make his commentary and analysis of the era.
The Guardian: “Symbols and allegory stain almost every page of this long, puzzling book. The characters occasionally fade to shadows beneath a burden of polemic, the story falters, the mixture of sociology and fiction is now and again pretentious – but for all that I recommend an encounter with Mr Fowles’s lively mind. In a book as big and as ambitious as this, flaws are not surprising; and since Mr Fowles invites participation from the reader, a tendency to question some of his arguments must be taken as part of the reader’s function. Consumed slowly, The French Lieutenant’s Woman is in the end a rewarding stimulant.”
Kirkus: “By the close, after having introduced his readers to just about every aspect of Victorian life on several levels and to the ideas then in ferment (not only Darwin and Marx and Freud but also Hardy and Matthew Arnold and Tennyson) Mr. Fowles is back again in form and the drama intensifies with all the false starts and wrong turns and stunning reverses which he handles so well.”