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The French Lieutenant's Woman (Reading Guide…

The French Lieutenant's Woman (Reading Guide Edition) (original 1969; edition 1969)

by John Fowles

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5,04690893 (3.84)1 / 351
Title:The French Lieutenant's Woman (Reading Guide Edition)
Authors:John Fowles
Info:Vintage (2005), Edition: Limited Ed, Paperback, 464 pages
Collections:Your library, Fiction, Read in 2008

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The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles (Author) (1969)


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First published at Booking in Heels.

I read this based on how much I'd loved The Collector the year before. I'd adored John Fowles' formal yet chatty narrative, and the way his characters (although dislikeable) were brought to life. I knew at the time that I had to read more of his work. All of it, if possible.

And here we are. The French Lieutenant's Woman is a simpler plot than The Collector, at least prima facie. The book is set in Lyme Regis in the 1860s, and revolves around a young, recently engaged couple, Charles Smithson and Ernestina Freeman. In the same town, there's a young woman by the name of Sarah Woodruff who has been scorned for a scandal involving, you guessed it, a French lieutenant.

That's it, really. That's the story. The beauty with this novel, however, isn't the plot, it's the beauty and ingenuity of the prose. It's sort of meta, or it would be if that didn't seem an inappropriate word to use regarding a setting of 1867. Instead of the dark, stream of consciousness narration present in The Collector, the narrator spends a lot of time talking directly to the reader, with phrases such as 'you'll have to excuse Charles, he was merely a product of his time.'

It has a similar tone to The Crimson Petal and the White, come to think of it. It's very much as if the narrator is guiding you along, nudging you to keep up and follow the characters. The author actually pops up as a minor character at one point, just to sit there and muse about the nature of novel-writing. It's odd, but not jarring.

It's balanced very well though, and stops short of becoming abstract. There's a definite story here and it's not difficult to follow, despite the frequent musings of the pecularities of the Victorian Age. If anything, that was my favourite thing, and it seems to be what has earned The French Lieutenant's Woman its glory. The frequent and direct comparisons between the Victorian era and the current time (well, the 1960s) are so naturally inserted into the text, and are so imminently readable, that I just devoured them.

Honestly, without them the book wouldn't be half as interesting. The plot is simple and the main character is profoundly irritating. Charles Smithson is just awful. One minute he loves Ernestina for her little quirks, the next he can't stand the exact same little quirks... ugh. And his attitude towards Sarah Woodruff also doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

The ending is... odd. You're provided with an ending in the natural course of the novel, obviously, but then the author pops up and says 'but because I'm a writer, I can explore what also could have happened,' and then we're provided with two other endings. It doesn't state which is the 'real' one, but then that's sort of the point - Fowles states that because the whole thing is a work of fiction, each ending is as real or unreal as the next.

He's right, I suppose, but I do really prefer a fixed ending.

It's fine though, my enjoyment of The French Lieutenant's Woman wasn't spoilt by Charles Woodruff nor John Fowles. Read this just for the prose, which reminds me quite a lot of The Crimson Petal and the White, with a smidge of The Collector. It's so, so well-written in such a unique manner, that I really do recommend that everybody pick it up. ( )
  generalkala | May 18, 2017 |
A classic of postmodern literature, this popular novel was adapted into an award-winning film.
  mcmlsbookbutler | Feb 8, 2017 |
“We all write poems; it is simply that poets are the ones who write in words.”

This book on the face of it, reads like a Victorian Gothic love story yet it was written in the 1960's and is a kind of ironic homage to that genre. Fowles uses many of the traditions and conventions of a Victorian novel,in particular being careful how he details the scene and using dialogue to reveal the characters true personality, yet all the time is telling the reader that he is doing so, thus mixing two divergent writing styles.

The subject of this novel is essentially the isolation resulting from an individual's struggle for self-hood and despite the title the central figure is not Sarah Woodruff ( The French Lieutenant's Woman or Tragedy as she is more commonly known) but Charles Smithson, a 32 year old bachelor of independent means from an aristocratic family who is engaged to marry Ernestina, the daughter of a wealthy self-made man who is in 'trade' and who would bring a large dowry to any marriage.

Charles' attitudes toward Sarah and Ernestina are very different and are revealed in the way he talks to them. He feels stiff and uncomfortable with Sarah because she won't accept the way in which he categorizes the world, including his view of her because he does not know who he really. He is a Gentleman but also appears rudderless looking for a direction in a changing world. In contrast Sarah is fully aware of herself as an individual who refuses to be defined by conventional roles. However, However Charles changes with Ernestina, with whom he is indulgent and paternal whilst with his servant Sam, he is patronizing. Here he feels comfortable in his role in society. Sarah's honesty, confuses and beguiles him in equal measure. Therefore Charles must travel from ignorance to understanding whereas Sarah and Ernestina alter very little. The knowledge he arrives at is bitter,

Fowles in particular, is concerned with Victorian attitudes towards women and economics. He highlights the problems of two socially and economically oppressed groups in nineteenth-century England: the poverty of the working and servant classes, and the economic and social entrapment of women. While the plot traces what seems to be a love story, the reader questions what sort of love existed in a society where many marriages were based as much on economics as on love. I won't give the ending away other than to say that this is not a traditional love story. The novel is actually a psychological study of an individual rather than a romance.

Now whilst I ended up enjoying this more than I initially expected to enjoying Fowles writing style I fear that I found it lacking for unlike Victorian authors like Dickens or Wilkie Collins this novel was delivered whole as opposed to monthly. Therefore it at times lacked that real spark that almost compelled you to read a little more. This was particularly true when he switched to the first person voice. That said and done I can see why this is regarded as a Modern classic and while it appears on the '1001 Before I Die' list. ( )
  PilgrimJess | Dec 5, 2016 |
I just did not even care a little bit. I was severely irritated by his choice of narrative voice, and I felt like I could "see" the structure of the novel more than I could engage with how this married into the plot/characterisation elements. I would read something else by him, though. ( )
  thebookmagpie | Aug 7, 2016 |
Very odd book but good characters- I'm not quite sure what I think of it overall. ( )
  ltfitch1 | Jun 5, 2016 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Fowles, JohnAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Fuente, Ana María de laTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Velde, Frédérique van derTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Every emancipation is a restoration of the human world and of human relationships to man himself.
Marx, Zur Judenfrage(1844)
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An easterly is the most disagreeable wind in Lyme Bay - Lyme Bay being that largest bite from the underside of England's outstretched south-western 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.
"Fiction usually pretends to conform to the reality: the writer puts the conflicting wants and then describes the fight - but in fact fixes the fight, letting the want he himself favors win. And we judge writers of fiction both by the skill they show in fixing the fights (in other words in persuading us that they were not fixed) and by the kind of fighter they fix in favor of: the good one, the tragic one, the evil one, the funny one and so on."

"That is the great distinction between the sexes. Men see objects, women see the relationship between objects. Whether the objects need each other, love each other, match each other. It is an extra dimension of feeling we men are without and one that makes war abhorrent to all real women—and absurd . . . War is a psychosis caused by an inability to see relationships."
When Charles left Sarah on her cliff ledge, I ordered him to walk straight back to Lyme Regis. But he did not; he gratuitously turned and went down to the Dairy.
- p. 81
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0316291161, Paperback)

As part of Back Bay's ongoing effort to make the works of John Fowles available in uniform trade paperback editions, two major works in the Fowles canon are reissued to coincide with the publication of Wormholes, the author's long-awaited new collection of essays and occasional writings.

Perhaps the most beloved of Fowles's internationally bestselling works, The French Lieutenant's Woman is a feat of seductive storytelling that effectively invents anew the Victorian novel. "Filled with enchanting mysteries and magically erotic possibilities" (New York Times), the novel inspired the hugely successful 1981 film starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons and is today universally regarded as a modern classic.

In A Maggot, originally published in 1985, Fowles reaches back to the eighteenth century to offer readers a glimpse into the future. Time magazine called the result "hypnotic....A remarkable achievement. Part detective story, part crackling courtroom drama....An immensely rich and readable novel".

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:53 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

While in Lyme Regis to visit his fiancee, Ernestina Freeman, Charles Smithson, a 32-year-old paleontologist, becomes fascinated by the mysterious Sarah Woodruff. A fallen woman said to have been jilted by a French officer, Sarah is a pariah to the well-bred society that Charles and Ernestina are a part of. While searching for fossils in a wooded coastal area, Charles encounters Sarah alone, and his curiosity and pity for her soon evolve into other emotions. It is not clear who seduces whom, but when another opportunity presents itself, Charles embraces Sarah passionately. Shortly thereafter, Sarah disappears, having been dismissed from domestic employment by the tyrannical do-gooder Mrs. Poultenay. Charles finds her in a room in Exeter, where he declares and demonstrates his love. Inspired by his image of Sarah as a valiant rebel against Victorian conventions, Charles rejects the constricting, respectable life Ernestina represents for him. He breaks off their engagement and is harassed with legal action for breach of contract. Meanwhile, Sarah vanishes again, and Charles spends 20 months scouring the world for her, finally tracing her to the lodgings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti in London.… (more)

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