While John Fowles' two previous novels were popular successes, it was only with the publication of The French Lieutenant's Woman that Fowles' became a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic. As a result of this critically acclaimed novel, Fowles reputation was extended to include the atmosphere of academia. In this novel, Fowles recreates not only the Victorian world, but also the Victorian novel making this work both a historical novel and an experimental one. This tension between fiction and reality and between the historical past and present are continually manipulated by Fowles throughout this novel.
This novel ranges from typical domestic life in Dorset, to the rougher sections of London, from the reactions of the masses and the popular taste of the day, to its central moral and philosophical questions. Many of the social concerns of Victorian England, especially the great changes in social classes, caused the emergence of a wealthy and powerful commercial class, the demise of the aristocracy, and the beginnings of female emancipation are explored in this historical yet socially conscious novel.
As this novel progresses, Fowles makes reference to Freud, Hitler, Henry Moore, and Marshal McLuhan, to film, television, radar, and the jet engine. Through this journey, the reader is continually invited to enter the Victorian world while at the same time held at a distance as a mere observer of this historical period. Perhaps instead this novel should be read as an amalgam of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The year 1867, in which this novel was set and exactly a century before Fowles began writing the novel, was the year that Nobel invented dynamite, the first volume of Marx's Das Kapital appeared, the year in which the Paris World Fair introduced Japanese art to Europe, the British Parliament passed the second great Reform Bill, the British North America Act established the Dominion of Canada, and the United States purchased Alaska (Olshen, 66). This year's events were representative of the dynamic changes that occurred during the entire period. These changes are exemplified by the heroine of Fowles' novel.
Sarah Woodward, the heroine, by the books end will come to embody the feminine qualities generally repressed in the Victorian age. She is the epitome of passion, imagination, and independence. While the reader is not made aware of this until the novel's conclusion, Sarah is an early prototype of the liberated woman. At the same time, she exudes a rather mysterious quality and continuously appears to be both isolated and allusive. Sarah admits to herself as well as Charles, "You do not understand. It
is not your fault. You are very kind. But I am not meant to be understood" (354).
Charles on the other hand, is a definite follower of Charles Darwin as he is very interested and devoted to geology and paleontology. Rather appropriately, Darwin's Origin of Species appeared in 1859 as the intellectual revolution began and as presented by Darwin, was about to change the very structure of the Victorian society (Olshen, 71). This historical reality is clearly reflected in Charles' evolution as the novel progresses. He is essentially a man trying to overcome history. While the tensions and contradictions within his character are largely due to the Victorian Age, the choices he makes continuously serve to bring him closer to the modern age.
Fowles rather curious inclusion of the epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter serves to not only try to summarize each chapter or highlight the significance of the chapter before the reader delves into the story, but also to maintain the Victorian aspects of the novel. Many of the quotes were in fact taken from Victorian writers. For example, chapter one begins with a quote from Thomas Hardy's, The Riddle. The quote obviously describes the mysterious lady standing at the end of the Cobb, Sarah Woodruff, but the fact that such a quote comes from a work entitled The Riddle also adds some insight to the intrigue, secrets, and shadows behind Sarah. She truly is a "riddle" and something that both the reader and Charles attempt to figure out.
In addition to these epigraphs that begin each chapter, Fowles occasionally breaks his narrative with reference to the subtexts at the bottom of the page which act as the author's asides to clarify a certain point. Fowles keeps using post-modernistic "tricks" like the subtexts to avert the reader's attention away from the Victorian Era into the modern world and then suddenly back into the 1860s. Fowles is purposely teasing readers' minds and playing with their heads, but he does not necessarily try to confuse them because the epigraphs and subtexts are there to guide them along.
When Fowles first published The French Lieutenant's Woman, critics invested a good deal of time and energy trying to determine what type of novel Fowles had created. In a move that often perplexes modern critics, Fowles eventually enters his story in the form of two different disguises. At one point, he is a bearded evangelical type who appears as an unwelcome intruder into Charles's first class train compartment. In the final chapter however, he appears as an extremely important looking impresario who regards the world as his theater to be used in whatever manner he sees fit.
Fowles' journey into the narrative was not the only experimental device he manipulated in this narrative. While the notion of multiple endings is not unheard of in Victorian novels, coupled with the ambiguous narrative voice employed throughout the narrative, it serves to identify Fowles as an inventive contemporary novelist who can write an experimental novel and still remain identifiable. The voice of The French Lieutenant's Woman is much like that of a novel by Dickens, George Eliot, or Trolope. He not only tells the story, but he breaks into it at will so that he might criticize or interpret it. There are also hints of a Jane Austen quality in this novel as Fowles was a fan of the authoress.
It has in fact been argued that this novel has not 2 but 3 different endings. Actually, about one hundred pages from the end of this novel, the reader is informed that Charles and Ernestina have married and had seven children. Charles has also agreed to enter Mr. Freeman's business while Sarah's fate remains unknown. This is obviously a humorous fabrication by Fowles as it is too extreme to take seriously. Critics argue however, that this ending is a betrayal of all that the novel has been moving towards as it has little reality and is offered a purely conventional, literary ending. Why Fowles chose to include this chapter is a bit of an enigma for the next chapter explains that the preceding ending was not what really happened.
From then on it is a page turning thriller to find out how this rather unique novel is going to end. The last two endings, while equally as perplexing seem to be joined giving the reader a chance to end the novel however he pleases. Both endings revolve
around the fact that Charles finally finds Sarah again as an artist's assistant and occasional model. After Charles speaks to Sarah he flees the room and as he descends the stairs, he sees a woman holding a child in her arms. The child's identity remains unknown but as Charles leaves the house, he is in a sense reborn. He has finally found a uniqueness about himself on which to rebuild his life without Sarah.
The other of these final endings is a traditionally romantic one based on wish-fulfillment. He discovers that this baby is his. The inclusion of such an ending appears as Fowles' attempt to please his readers, to give the readers a choice. The ending in which Charles does not know the baby is his is much more Fowlesian and seems to be more in tune with how the choices the characters would have made. Why then Fowles chose to include the other endings continues to perplex critics and readers alike.
The question of why The French Lieutenant's Woman was indeed in success relies largely on the novel's Victorian medium and manner. As Phyllis R. Katz pointed out in a review in "Best Sellers" "He [Fowles] makes it possible for us to see how our age has grown from that one" --the Victorian. This indeed is a Victorian novel that no other Victorian could have written.
The success of The French Lieutenant's Woman wasn't confined to it's popularity in the bookstores. Some 12 years after it was published, a major motion picture was made staring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons. This critically acclaimed movie did help Meryl Streep win a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Sarah Woodward. The film as well as the actress was also nominated for an Oscar but did not win. This movie did not seem to significantly effect the books sales however. There was no resurgence of The French Lieutenant's Woman at the top of the bestseller list. In an interview Fowles admitted that he was happy with the film. He could find fault in one or two minor things but overall he found it to be a very interesting experiment. Fowles, mentioned that the film had been much better discussed in France than anywhere else. There "some very good stuff has been written on it" (Tarbox, 190) Fowles was very pleased for that.
One of the reasons that The French Lieutenant's Woman may not have retained it's popularity is that Fowles never really promoted it. In fact, in an attempt to get away from literary England he is now in exile in Lyme. He had never really done any book tours and rarely consents to an interview. Also, this novel was not intended to be read by the average person. Fowles describes the readers of his works as "people who like narrative, they're at the university level in education, and they enjoy the kind of games I like to play with readers." Regardless, Fowles' rather enigmatic novel, The French Lieutenant's Woman will continue to both thrill and perplex critics and readers alike for many years to come.
Huffaker, Robert. John Fowles. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980.
Olshen, Barry. John Fowles. New York: Fredrick Ungar Publicizing Co., 1978.
Tarbox, Katherine. The Art of John Fowles. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1988.
Wolfe, Peter. Magus and Moralist. London: Bucknell University Press, 1979.
Web Sources for The French Lieutenant's Woman--The Movie
Review and Box Office Charts--http://us.imdb.com/Title?French+Lieutenant%27s+Woman+The+(1981)