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the french lieutenant's woman

8 june 2022

I read quite a few literary works as an undergraduate; but I graduated from college 43 years ago, and I've read a lot more since. A lot more have been written since. Still, a few that I read specifically as course requirements have stuck with me. John Fowles' French Lieutenant's Woman (1969) is one. I have read it many times since, too many to count, and I've assigned it in turn to college classes.

John Fowles (1926-2005) wrote seven or so works of fiction – some of his writing grades between the more autobiographical ranges of fiction and the more imaginative reaches of memoir. Loving The French Lieutenant's Woman as I did, I went back and read everything he'd written before, and then kept up with his later productions. I was always disappointed. I never wanted to re-read The Collector, though I remember it as having a certain lurid energy, or Daniel Martin, though it seemed to have some condition-of-England chops. Some of Fowles' other books, like The Magus or A Maggot, are simply weird.

But The French Lieutenant's Woman … from the first paragraph, and consistently through to the last, Fowles for once was utterly sure of himself and found the perfect narrator persona. The French Lieutenant's Woman is a very "told" novel, full of direct engagement with a reader of the 1960s. It is topical, minutely detailed, opinionated. It is meta-literary – its themes are a pastiche of Victorian novels, populated by 1960s sensibilities – and erudite, at times insufferable. The novel quotes a lot, and documents its quotations; it probably quotes too much, its only weakness. Like other highly-wrought fictions that I love (Moby-Dick, Lolita), The French Lieutenant's Woman is verbally ornate and artificial while strongly tethered to recognizable reality. It is a great postmodern novel.

I first read The French Lieutenant's Woman in 1976, which means that it was basically a new book, speaking to its present moment. It can't help but have dated since – datedness and period sensibility are among its major themes – so it is interesting to see it in 2022 as a reflection not just on 1867 but also on 1967. Fowles uses many epigraphs from Thomas Hardy in the novel, but avoids one of Hardy's poems that I think must be its unspoken subtext: a poem titled "1967" that begins

In five-score summers! All new eyes,
New minds, new modes, new fools, new wise;
New woes to weep, new joys to prize.
It is now almost three-score summers since Fowles wrote The French Lieutenant's Woman, with many new minds and modes to account for.

We read about "mods" and "squares," terms that almost require footnotes themselves, half a century later. We read how scientists are the new gentlemen, an opinion that seems irrelevant now even as a comment on the 1960s. One has to let certain of these details go. If Fowles was wrong about his own time, part of his theme is that people are always wrong about their own time. The only times they are wronger about are the past and the future.

The French Lieutenant's Woman also seems dated now in its construction of women characters and its treatment of them. This is odd, because Fowles certainly intended to create a title character (Sarah Woodruff) who would come more from the future (seen from 1867 or even 1967) than from the male presuppositions of his own time. But it's complicated. We see Sarah largely through the eyes of Charles Smithson, the book's protagonist (but far from its only reflector-character). And of course we see her through the narrating "I" of the novel: John Fowles. We do not see Sarah's own perspective, though we are sometimes shown her, cinematically, when she is alone and otherwise unobserved.

Sarah seems to know what she wants in life, though she has no idea how to go about getting it; and to be fair, Victorian society leaves her almost no path. At the end of the novel she becomes a protégée of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as if only one of the most notable eccentrics of Victorian culture could be a match for her. Along the way to Rossetti, Sarah wants things from Charles. She wants his intellectual regard, his sympathy, his body. She gets all three, but she stuns and baffles him in the process. Turnabout is fair play; Victorian women spent much of their time being stunned and baffled by men. But Sarah's erratic behavior seems to tip her into the category of eternal mysterious female. "Modern women like Sarah exist," says Fowles in Chapter 13, "and I have never understood them" (95). There, he gets a little timeless where he might have been better off dated. We are left with the idea that Sarah is a mystery because women themselves are necessarily mysteries, to men and to themselves.

Charles Smithson is more convincingly drawn. He is not sympathetic. He is a modernist, a natural historian, a breaker of conventions; so we are drawn to him. He is also affected, narrowly class-conscious, oblivious to the feelings of others, and generally of the opinion that he should have anything he wants, with enough application of money and insistence. But he does not get what he wants – in either of the book's two famous, diametrically-opposed endings.

Affective criticism, though, is all the rage these days (as long as we're dating ourselves). And though I am strongly interested in Fowles' characters and arguments (The French Lieutenant's Woman is a deeply rhetorical novel), I should come out and say that I love this book because it makes me cry. My absolute favorite great novels (again, Moby-Dick, Great Expectations, The Age of Innocence, À la recherche du temps perdu, Ulysses, Lolita) all make me cry, usually at the ending but often at unexpected junctures well before.

You can't really analyze a good weeping fit, but some factors may play into my reaction to The French Lieutenant's Woman. Part of it is just the way that the protagonist, Charles, is balked in getting what he wants: crying like a baby, I suppose, and not in the good sense. Part of it is Fowles' marvelous engagement with the writerly imagination. The scenes where he becomes a character in his own novel, flipping a coin or resetting his watch to change the course of events, are at the same time insufferably meta and gorgeously affecting. Even the Creator – and Fowles is big on the author as God – does not always get what he wants, either.

Fowles, John. The French Lieutenant's Woman. Boston: Little, 1969.