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The French Lieutenant's Woman (Vintage…

The French Lieutenant's Woman (Vintage Classics) (original 1969; edition 2004)

by John Fowles

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4,85385953 (3.85)1 / 339
Title:The French Lieutenant's Woman (Vintage Classics)
Authors:John Fowles
Info:Vintage (2004), Paperback, 480 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:fiction, 1960s, read

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


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I utterly adore this book - the characters, the setting, the humor, the story. I love the narrative voice (though to be honest I hadn't thought about it till I read other reviews) - the way it's quite a Victorian novel, yet told in a 20th century voice. I remember reading it for the first time and being unable to stop. Fantastic. ( )
  piemouth | May 21, 2016 |
The story line is fine, (I would be interested to see it delivered by Meryle Streep in the movie), but the narration in this book is what sets it apart. ( )
  sydsavvy | Apr 8, 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 | Mar 13, 2016 |
The first chapter describes Lyme Regis and its Cobb, a harbor quay on which three characters are standing: Charles Smithson, Ernestina Freeman, and Sarah Woodruff. The describing narrator has a distinctive voice, all-knowing yet intimate, with a wide-ranging vocabulary and evidently vast knowledge of political and geographical history. In one sentence the narrator sounds like a Victorian, as he remarks that the male character recently "had severely reduced his dundrearies, which the arbiters of the best English male fashion had declared a shade vulgar--that is, risible to the foreigner--a year or two previously." In the next sentence he sounds modern, as he describes how "the colors of the young lady's clothes would strike us today as distinctly strident." The narrator's double vision and double voice make him as important as the characters in this novel.

Charles is a middle-aged bachelor and amateur paleontologist; Ernestina is his fiancée, who has brought him to spend a few days with her aunt. Out of a chivalric concern for Sarah, Charles advises her to return from the end of the Cobb to a safer position, but she merely stares at him. As he reflects on this curious meeting, the narrator begins to comment on Charles's outlook on life and on the attitudes that were typical of the age in 1867, with occasional comparisons with 1967.

Ernestina is revealed to be a pretty but conventional young woman. Sarah is an outcast who is reputed to be pining for the French lieutenant who has jilted her. Charles is earnest but intelligent enough to be aware of Ernestina's limitations. When he is looking for fossils along the wooded Undercliff, Charles discovers Sarah sleeping, and must apologize when she awakes and sees him observing her. As he returns to Lyme, he inquires about her at a nearby farm, whose owner tells him that the "French Loot'n'nt's Hoer" often walks that way. Sarah's employer, having separately become aware of that fact, forbids her to walk there any more. Sarah spends that night contemplating suicide, and Chapter 12 ends with two questions: "Who is Sarah? Out of what shadows does she come?"

Chapter 13 begins "I do not know," and the narrator proceeds to discuss the difficulty of writing a story when characters behave independently rather than do his bidding. Charles, he complains, did not return to Lyme as the narrator had intended but willfully went down to the Dairy to ask about Sarah. But, the narrator concedes, times have changed, and the traditional novel is out of fashion, according to some. Novels may seem more real if the characters do not behave like marionettes and narrators do not behave like God. So the narrator, in effect, promises to give his characters the free will that people would want a deity to grant them. Likewise, the narrator will candidly admit to the artifice of the narration and will thereby treat his readers as intelligent, independent beings who deserve more than the manipulative illusions of reality provided in a traditional novel.

Subsequent chapters contain representations of domestic life--a quiet evening with Charles and Ernestina, a morning with Charles and his valet, a concert at the Assembly Rooms. During this last, Charles reflects on where his life seems to be leading and on the fact that, as he puts it, he has become "a little obsessed with Sarah…or at any rate with the enigma she presented." He returns to the Undercliff, again finds Sarah there, and is shocked to be told by her that she is not pining for her French lieutenant, that he is married. The next time Charles encounters her in the Undercliff she offers Charles some fossils she has found and tells him that she thinks she may be going mad; she asks him to meet her there once more, when she has more time, so that she can tell him the truth about her situation and obtain his advice.

Charles decides to seek advice himself and visits Dr. Grogan, an elderly bachelor and an admirer of Darwin, whose theories they discuss. When the conversation turns to Sarah, Grogan expresses the belief that she wants to be a victim. Sarah seems to bear out his view when she explains to Charles that she indeed became infatuated with the French lieutenant when he was recovering from an injury in the house, where Sarah was governess, and that she followed him when he left to return to France. She tells Charles that she quickly realized that he had regarded her only as an amusement, but that she "gave" herself to him nonetheless, doubly dishonoring herself by choice as well as by circumstances. She seems to be proud of her status as outcast, for it differentiates her from a society she considers unjust. Charles accepts her story--even finds it fascinating.

When Charles returns to his room at the inn, he finds a telegram from his bachelor uncle Robert, summoning him home to the family estate he is in line to inherit. To Charles's surprise, Robert has decided to marry Bella Tomkins, a young widow, whose sons--if she has any--would displace Charles as heir. On Charles's return to Lyme Regis, Ernestina mentions that Sarah was seen returning from their last meeting in the Undercliff, where she had been forbidden to walk, and has been dismissed by Mrs. Poulteney. At his hotel, Charles finds a message from Sarah, urging him to meet her one more time. Charles has Dr. Grogan call off the search for Sarah, who, it was thought, might have killed herself Grogan again warns Charles against Sarah, this time by offering him a document to read about a case of bizarre behavior by a young woman in France who manages to get one of her father's officers unjustly convicted of attempting to rape her. Charles decides to meet Sarah again, despite the possibility that she may be deranged and trying to destroy him.

When he finds her, she confesses that she deliberately allowed herself to be seen and, hence, dismissed. Charles is unable to resist kissing her but is bewildered. His feelings turn to dismay when they are stumbled on by Sam and Mary, his valet and Ernestina's aunt's servant, who have come to the Undercliff for their own privacy. Embarrassed, he swears them to secrecy.

Now even more of two minds about his marriage, Charles decides to go to London to discuss his altered financial prospects with Ernestina's father, a prosperous merchant there. Mr. Freeman is more concerned for the happiness of his daughter, who evidently loves Charles dearly, so the engagement stands; but Charles is increasingly uncomfortable with, even trapped by, his situation. He goes to his club and drinks too much. He visits a brothel with two of his friends, but finds the entertainment repellant, and leaves. He picks up a Cockney streetwalker and returns to her flat with her; when she tells him her name is, coincidentally, Sarah, Charles becomes ill and, subsequently, returns to his room. The next morning Charles receives a letter from Grogan, and a note from Sarah with the name of a hotel in Exeter.

Because the train station nearest to Lyme Regis is in Exeter, Charles must pass through that town on his way back from London. Having steamed open the note from Sarah, Sam is confident that they will spend the night in Exeter, so that Charles can visit Sarah, but they proceed to Lyme, where Charles and Ernestina are reunited. The narrator recounts that they go on to marry, have seven children, and live well into the twentieth century. In the next chapter, the narrator explains that this traditional ending is just one possibility, a hypothetical future for his characters. Charles recognized his freedom of choice and "actually" did decide to put up at Exeter for the night, precisely as Sam had expected.

As the story resumes and continues to unfold, Charles visits Sarah at her hotel. He must see her in her room because she has supposedly injured her ankle, though she has purchased the bandage before the "accident" occurred. Charles is overcome by passion and takes her to bed, only to discover that she is a virgin, despite what she had told him about the French lieutenant. She confesses that she has deceived him, says that she cannot explain why and, furthermore, cannot marry him. Stunned by the whole experience, Charles visits a nearby church and meditates on the human condition. He decides that Sarah has been trying to "unblind" him with her stratagems, so that he would recognize that he is free to choose. He writes a letter to Sarah, telling her how much she means to him, and then returns to Lyme to call off his engagement.

Sam does not deliver the letter. Ernestina is distraught when Charles tells her that he is unworthy to be her husband, more so when she realizes that the true reason is another woman. Sam correctly surmises that his master's star will wane as the marriage is called off, so determined to protect his prospect of marriage to Mary, he leaves his position as Charles's valet in hope that Ernestina's aunt and her father will help him.

When Charles returns to Exeter, he finds Sarah gone to London, having left no forwarding address. As he follows her, by train, a bearded figure sits opposite Charles and watches him as he dozes. The character is the narrator himself, who professes not to know where Sarah is or what she wants; indeed, he is wondering what exactly to do with Charles. He compares writing a novel to fixing a fight in favor of one boxer or another; to seem less dishonest, he decides to show the "fight" as if "fixed" both ways, with different "victors," or endings. Because the last ending will seem privileged by its final position, he flips a coin to determine which ending to give first.

The narrative resumes the description of Charles's search for Sarah. He checks agencies for governesses, patrols areas frequented by prostitutes, and advertises--all without success. He visits the United States and advertises there. Two years after she disappeared, Charles gets a cable from his solicitor saying that Sarah has been found. Charles hopes that Sarah has decided to answer the ad, but the narrator explains that Mary has seen Sarah enter a house in Chelsea, and that it is Sam who responded to the ad, now that he is a thriving employee of Mr. Freeman as well as a happy father and husband, but still slightly guilt-ridden over his having intercepted the letter at Lyme.

When Charles arrives at Sarah's house, he finds her surprised to see him and not apologetic about having left him in ignorance of her whereabouts. She gradually is revealed to be living in the house of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and several other artists and models of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Charles is shocked, partly by the rather notoriously unconventional company she is keeping and partly by her lack of repentance for having deceived him and left him in uncertainty. He accuses her of implanting a dagger in his breast and then twisting it. She decides not to let Charles leave without revealing that she has had a child by him, named Lalage. Chapter 60 ends with the three of them evidently on the threshold of some kind of future together.

Chapter 61 begins with the bearded narrator in front of Sarah's house with a watch, which he sets back fifteen minutes and drives off. The narrative resumes with the same piece of dialogue from Chapter 60, about twisting the knife. In this version of the conversation, Charles sees that she cannot marry without betraying herself, and that he cannot accept her on more independent terms. He leaves without realizing that the child he notices on the way out is his. The narrator ends the novel by noting that Charles has at least begun to have some faith in himself, despite his not feeling that he understands Sarah, and that the reader should not imagine that the last ending is any less plausible than the one before it.

( )
  bostonwendym | Mar 3, 2016 |
( )
  rosenrot | Feb 22, 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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