The French Lieutenant's Woman is a work of fiction that involves a Victorian love triangle between the main character, Charles, his fiancé, Ernestina, and the French Lieutenant's Woman, Sarah.
Charles is a gentleman, and as becomes his status in Victorian England, he is engaged to a woman of good connections, Ernestina. As they stroll down the Cobb in Lyme Regis one day, Charles notices a woman standing alone, looking out to sea. Ernestina is quick to explain that this is "the French Lieutenant's Woman" and informs her fiancé that no respectable person in town should have anything to do with the wretched creature. Charles, however, is intrigued and - if I may - a bit peaked that his fiancé is speaking so vilely. Thus begins Charles' dance with propriety, his duty to Ernestina, his compassion for Sarah, clandestine meetings, and a forbidden romance with the fallen woman of Lyme Regis.
But is Sarah everything she seems to be? *Insert dramatic music here*
Overall, I rate this novel as excellent and a must-read for all of my readers. As an exploration of the constraints of Victorian social conventions and the use of writing as a style itself, Fowles provides an interesting voice and point of view.
However, if you want to read something to simply be entertained, this probably isn't the book for you. The thickness of the book and the language that marks all Victorian-era novels (which Fowles imitates throughout the novel's entirety) can be rather, well, long.
Freedom from social conventions is an overriding theme in the novel and the exploration of boundaries is always present throughout the narrative. Obviously, each of the characters respond to these constraints in different ways. But don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything by giving you a long-winded explanation you don’t want to read anyway. But I can tell you that between all the characters, you have a full spectrum of actions and reactions to enjoy (from the straight-laced, typical Victorian reaction [spoiler: fainting!] to the throw-it-all-in-the-wind-and-let-it-play-out reaction).
But what I found most interesting in Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman was his use of style and approach to the narrative itself that - as a writer - I found absolutely fascinating.
Writing mainly from the perspective of Charles, with brief side-trips into the other character’s perspectives, Fowles constantly inserts himself into the narrative. He addresses the reader, reminding them that they’re reading a novel at various points throughout the course of the narrative. Another interesting thing I found myself liking when I read The French Lieutenant’s Woman was that Fowles repeatedly reminds the reader that he’s writing the story not for his own satisfaction , but for the reader. He tells us that he’s pushing the characters around and moving them as he wishes (like a child playing with action figures or Barbies), and not once does he let the reader forget that these characters aren’t real.
Strangely, I didn’t find myself repelled from the narrative or the characters at all. There is something indefinable (and brilliant) in Fowles’ use of words that compelled me to keep reading, to invest myself in the story and the characters even though I knew it wasn’t real and the characters didn’t exist.
But it was the ending that completely hooked me on this novel forever. Fowles takes a moment and inserts himself into the narrative in a new way (he’s literally a character in the novel!).
Put up against the ending he wants, Fowles enters the narrative to try to solve a problem – he knows he can’t simply end at this point when readers would think it too sudden and with no resolution (because that’s what we really want, isn’t it?). He also adds that the style of Victorian models that he’s using to write the narrative won’t allow this either. So Fowles gives us two possible endings.
It’s up to the reader to choose the ending they like. And to ponder the one they didn’t choose.