The French Lieutenant's Woman
|The French Lieutenant's Woman|
1st edition hardback
|Cover artist||Fletcher Sibthorp (1969 above)|
|Genre||Romance novel, historical fiction, historiographic metafiction|
|Published||1969 (Jonathan Cape Ltd)|
ISBN 0-316-29116-1 (paperback)
|LC Classification||PZ4.F788 Fr PR6056.O85|
The French Lieutenant's Woman is a 1969 postmodern historical fiction novel by John Fowles. Though not his initial intention, Fowles later reflected that the characters and story of The French Lieutenant's Woman were inspired by Claire de Duras's 1823 novel Ourika (Fowles would later publish a translation of Ourika into English in 1977). The novel explores the fraught relationship of a gentleman and amateur naturalist, Charles Smithson, and the former governess and independent woman, Sarah Woodruff, with whom Charles falls in love. The novel builds on Fowles' authority in Victorian literature, both following and critiquing many of the conventions of period novels. In light of Fowles's interest in Thomas Hardy, the heroine, Sarah Woodruff has often been compared to Tess of the d'Urbervilles, the protagonist of Hardy's popular novel of the same name (1891).
Following the initial publication of the novel, the library journal American Libraries noted it as one of the "Notable Books of 1969". Subsequent its initial popularity, the novel maintained its relative prominence as a best seller and as an item of academic interest, and still remains popular in both public and academic conversations. In 2005, TIME magazine chose the novel as one of the one hundred best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005. Part of the novel's reputation builds on its exemplary demonstration of postmodern concerns through themes treating metafiction, historiography, metahistory, marxist criticism and feminism. Stylistically and thematically, Linda Hutcheons, in theorising postmodern poetics, calls the novel an exemplar of a particularly postmodern genre: "historiographic metafiction." Furthermore the individuality and personality of Sarah Woodruff, the main character, alongside the stereotypical depiction of male characters has often brought critique of the novel within discussions of gender. Because Fowles often claimed his fiction as "feminist fiction", many critics have questioned whether or not the novel is in fact a feminist novel.
Following popular success, the novel has created a larger legacy, both through response by academics and other writers, such as A.S. Byatt, and through adaptation into both film and theatre. In 1981, the novel was adapted into a film of the same name directed by Karel Reisz, written by Harold Pinter and starring Meryl Streep. The film received considerable critical acclaim and rewards, including several BAFTAs and Golden Globes.
- 1 Plot summary
- 2 Characters
- 3 Style and structure
- 4 Critical concerns
- 5 Contemporary reception
- 6 Publication history
- 7 Legacy
- 8 Notes
- 9 References
- 10 External links
Set in the mid-nineteenth century, the narrator identifies the novel's protagonist as Sarah Woodruff, the Woman of the title, also known unkindly as "Tragedy" and by the unfortunate nickname "The French Lieutenant's Whore". She lives in the coastal town of Lyme Regis, as a disgraced woman, supposedly abandoned by a French naval officer named Varguennes – married, unknown to her, to another woman – with whom she had supposedly had an affair and who had returned to France. She spends her limited time off at the Cobb, a pier jutting out to sea, staring at the sea itself.
One day, Charles Smithson, a gentleman, and Ernestina Freeman, his fiancée and a shallow-minded daughter of a wealthy tradesman, see Sarah walking along the cliffside pining Varguennes. Ernestina tells Charles something of Sarah's story, and he develops a curiosity about her. Though continuing to court Ernestina, Charles has several more encounters with Sarah, meeting clandestinely three times. During these meetings, Sarah informs Charles of her history, and asks for his emotional and social support. During the same period, he learns of the possible loss of inheritance from his elderly uncle who has become engaged to a woman young enough to bear him an heir. Meanwhile, Charles's servant, Sam, falls in love with Ernestina's maid, Mary.
Despite trying to remain objective, Charles falls in love and resorts to asking Sarah to leave for Exeter. Returning from a journey to consult Ernestina's father about the possible loss of his inheritance due to his uncle's marriage, Charles stops in Exeter as if to visit Sarah.
From there, the narrator offers three different moments where the novel could end:
- First ending: Charles does not visit Sarah, but rather immediately returns to Lyme Regis to reaffirm his love for Ernestina, they marry and the marriage never becomes extremely happy. Rather, Charles enters trade under Ernestina's father, Mr. Freeman. The narrator pointedly notes the lack of knowledge about Sarah's fate. Charles tells Ernestina about an encounter which he implies is with the "French Lieutenant's Whore", but elides the sordid details, and the matter is ended. However, the narrator dismisses this ending as a daydream by Charles, before the alternative events of the subsequent meeting with Ernestina are described. Critic Michelle Phillips Buchberger describes this first ending as "a semblance of verisimilitude in the traditional ‘happy ending'" found in actual Victorian novels.
Before the second and third endings, the narrator appears as a minor character sharing a railway compartment with Charles. He tosses a coin to determine the order in which he will portray the two, other possible endings, emphasising their equal plausibility.
- Second ending: Charles and Sarah have a rash sexual encounter in which Charles realises that Sarah is in fact a virgin. Charles, reflecting on his emotions during the encounter ends his engagement to Ernestina, and attempts to propose to Sarah through a letter. However, Charles's servant Sam doesn't deliver the letter, and after breaking the engagement Ernestina's father disgraces him, and his uncle marries producing an heir. To escape the social suicide and depression that his ended engagement produced, Charles goes abroad first to Europe and then America. Sarah, unknowing of Charles's proposal, flees to London without telling the enamoured Charles. During his trips abroad, Charles's lawyer searches for her, finding her two years later living with several artists (the Rossettis), enjoying an artistic, creative life. He then learns he has fathered a child with her; as a family, their future is open, with possible reunion implied.
- Third ending: the narrator re-appears, standing outside the house where the second ending occurred; at the aftermath. He turns back his pocket watch by fifteen minutes, before leaving in his carriage. Events are the same as in the second-ending version but, when Charles finds Sarah again, in London, their reunion is sour. It is possible that their union was childless; Sarah does not tell Charles about a child, and expresses no interest in continuing the relationship. He leaves the house, deciding to return to America, and sees the carriage, in which the narrator was thought gone. This raises the question: is Sarah a manipulating, lying woman of few morals, exploiting Charles’s obvious love to get what she wants?
Throughout the novel, the omniscient narrative voice alongside a series of footnotes seem to objectively reflect on his difficulties of controlling the characters, the conventions that are expected of a "Victorian novel" and analyses of differences in 19th-century customs and class. The narrator often returns to discussions of high importance literature and scholarship of the period, like the theories of Charles Darwin, the radical politics of Karl Marx, and the works of Matthew Arnold, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Thomas Hardy. Through this metafictional and metahistorical voice, the clearly contemporary postmodern narrator questions the role of the author and the historian in thinking about the past.
- The Narrator – like in other works of metafiction with omniscient narrators, the narrator's voice frequently intervenes in the story and takes on a personality of its own. Though the voice appears to be that of Fowles, Magali Cornier Micheal notes that chapter 13, which discusses the role of author and narrator within fiction, clearly distinguishes between the author's role in the text and the narrator's. Alice Ferrebe describes the narrator as both a lens for critiquing traditional gender roles and a perpetuation of the perspectives on gendered identity perpetuated by the male gaze.
- Sarah Woodruff – the main protagonist according to the narrator. Formerly a governess, she becomes disgraced after an illicit, but unconsummated, liaison with an injured French naval merchant. Though the book gestures towards her centrality, the feminist critic, Magali Cornier Micheal argues that she is more a plot devise, not interpretable as a main character because her thoughts and motivations are only interpreted from the perspective of outside male characters. Thus Sarah offers only a representation of myth or symbol within a male perspective on women.
- Charles Smithson – the main male character. Though born into a family with close ties to nobility, Smithson does not possess a title but has a sizeable income and considerable education. Early in the novel he is described both as a casual naturalist and a Darwinist. Though trying to become an enlightened and forward thinking individual, the narrator often emphasises through commentary on his actions and situation that his identity is strongly rooted in the traditional social system. Moreover, conflicting identification with social forces, such as science and religion, lead Smithson to an existential crisis of self.
- Ernestina Freeman – Smithson's fiance and daughter to a London-based owner of department stores. Unlike Sarah, Ernestina's temperament is much less complex, and much more simple-minded.
- Sam Farrow – Charles's Hackney servant with aspirations to become a haberdasher. Throughout the novel, Sam becomes the narrator's model for the working class peoples of Victorian Britain, comparing Sam's identity with Charles's ignorance of that culture. According to critic David Landrum, the tension between Sam and Charles Smithson importantly demonstrates Marxist class struggle, though often gets overlooked by criticism discussing Charle's relationship to Sarah.
- Dr Grogan – an Irish doctor in the town of Lyme Regis who both advises the various upper-class families in the town, and becomes an adviser to Charles. His education and interest in Darwin and other education make him a good companion with Charles.
- Mr Freeman – The father of Ernestina, he earned his wealth as an owner of a drapery and clothes sales chain of stores. He "represents the rising entrepreneurial class in England" which stands in stark contrast to the old money which Smithson comes from.
- Aunt Tranter – a prominent member of Lyme Regis society who is friends with Grogan and, as her maternal aunt, hosts Ernestina during her stay.
- Mrs Poulteney - a wealthy widow and, at the beginning of the novel, the employer of Sarah Woodruff. Hypocritical, and hypersensitive, her character fulfills the archetype of high-society villainess.
- Mary – stereotypical lower class servant to Ernestina Freeman and future wife to Sam Farrow.
Style and structure
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Like many other postmodern novels, Fowles uses multiple different stylistic and structural techniques to demonstrate his thematic concerns in The French Lieutenant's Woman.
Often critics will comment on the novel's multiple endings. Each offers a possible ending for Charles's pursuit of Sarah: the first ends with Charles married to Ernestina, the second with a successful reestablishment of a relationship with Sarah, and the third with Charles cast back into the world without a partner. Michelle Phillips Buchberger discusses these endings as a demonstration of "Fowles’s rejection of a narrow mimesis" of reality.
Part of the books metafictional discourse often has to do with its intertextuality. In the epigraphs for each chapter, the book gestures towards a number of important 19th-century texts and ideas. Partially, references to other texts act in "ironic play", parodied by how the novel emulates other Victorian conventions throughout the text. Linda Hutcheons describes the works of William Thackery, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Froude and Thomas Hardy as direct inspirations for this parody. In his discussion of science and religion in the novel, John Glendening notes that both character commentary on Darwin's publications along with the epigraphs mentioning those works as direct contributor's to the novels emphasis on science superseding religion. Similarly, by quoting Marx with the first epigraph, along with multiple subsequent epigraphs, thematically the novel directs attention towards the socio-economic situations created within the novel.
Though a best-seller, the novel also received significant scrutiny by literary critics. Especially during the 1960s and 70s, a novel with great popularity and significant academic scrutiny is unusual; in literary study, the canon and its academic defenders often focused on "high literary" works that didn't have larger popular followings. In her study of postmodernism, Linda Hutcheon described The French Lieutenant Woman's binary of popular and academic interest as a paradox similar to the postmodern thematic binaries produced within the novel's content. Because of its prominence since publication, the novel has received a variety of different academic re-examinations in light of numerous themes. Some of the most popular concerns for the novel are its discussion of gender, especially questioning "Is the novel a feminist novel?", its engagement with metafictional and metahistorical concepts and its treatment of science and religion.
The novel creates a number of binaries between men and women. Michelle Phillips Buchberger argues that The French Lieutenant's Woman, along with Fowles two earlier novels The Collector (1963) and The Magus (1965), portrays a fundamental a binary between the male and female characters: the female characters act as an elite set of “creators” or “educated, visionary, and predominantly female” characters who provide the facilitation for evolution “in existential terms” of the male “‘collectors’, whose traits are present in all of Fowles’s flawed male protagonists.” Though acknowledging such binaries in the role of the characters, critic Alice Ferrebe does not treat these binaries as necessary thematic elements. Rather, the binaries demonstrate what she calls a gendered "scopic politics", or a politics created by a gaze (not dissimilar from the "male gaze" noticed in cinema studies), that constructs an artificial gender binary within Fowle's early novels (as opposed to a multiplicity of socially constructed genders). For Ferrebe, this binary creates a tension, especially with Sarah, who becomes a violent fetishised objectified "other", differentiated from the male characters like Charles.
A number of critics have treated the novel as a feminist novel. The novel's narrator actively demonstrates and proclaims a feminist approach to women: it presents Sarah as a more liberated and independently willed woman as compared to the other model female characters such as Ernesta and her aunt. Furthermore, despite criticism of his approach to feminism, in a 1985 interview by Jan Relf, Fowles declared himself a "feminist".
However, Fowle's feminist sentiment continues to come under criticism by a number of feminists. Magali Cornier Micheal actively criticises this reading of the text, saying that the novels' overwhelming reliance on male perspectives on women and feminism prevents the novel from meeting feminist objectives. Similarly, Michelle Phillips Buchberger argues that The French Lieutenant's Woman, along with Fowles two earlier novels The Collector (1963) and The Magus (1965), were only proclaiming a "pseudo-feminism" advocating for some feminist ideas, but permeated by a "fetishism [of women that] perpetuates the idea of woman as 'other'". Alice Ferrebe also notes that despite his attempts to critique masculine values his novels' remain male fantasies demonstrative of the "compromises and contradictions" created by the gendered situation in which he was writing. Other critiques of his claim to feminism, both in The French Lieutenant's Women and his other works, have been made by other literary critics, like William Palmer, Peter Conradi, Bruce Woodcock and Pamela Cooper.[notes 1]
Metafiction, historiography and metahistory
In her important study of postmodernity and the poetics of that move in literature, Linda Hucheon describes the novel as definitive of a genre she calls "historiographic metafiction". She defines this postmodern genre as "well-known and popular novels which are both instensely self-reflexive yet paradoxically also lay claim to historical events and personages." Typically postmodern, this genre of fiction blends the creation of imagined narratives with critique on the various modes in which we create knowledge, such as history and literature. Important to her discussion of the genre's post-modernist style, and The French Lieutenant's Woman more specifically, bridges different discourses that usually remain separated, such as academic history, literary criticism, philosophy and literature.
Moreover, the text's treatment of representing the past can insert annacronistic perspectives on the time and the characters. For example, in her queer studies based article "Historical Romance, Gender and Heterosexuality", Lisa Fletcher argues that The French Lieutenant's Woman, by relying on a "good love story" as the central means of representing the past, the text projects a contemporary heteronormative sexuality on the history of Victorian England. For Fletcher, Fowle's paradoxical treatment of Sarah as both a Victorian character and as a desirable "modern woman" through feminist gestures and sexual tension between Charles and Sarah, confines the historical set characters and their experience to stereotypical heterosexual romance. Ultimately, such moves, Fletcher creates a stereotypical and limited perspective on the past, essentially "hereosexualising the passage of (and relationship to) history".
Science and religion
A conflictual relationship between Science and religion often thematically appears in both historical studies of the Victorian history and within Neo-Victorian novels. In his chapter on The French Lieutenant in his book Evolution and the Uncrucified Jesus, John Glendening argues that Fowling's novel offers one of the first neo-Victorian novels to handle the dynamic created between science and religion in Victorian identity. Glendening notes that more generally "Christian ideas and conventions become appropriated in the service of a secularist and extensional version of truth." Furthermore, Glendening notes that Fowling uses commentary on Darwinism "to comment on characters and their experience and to forward a view of natural and human reality opposed to Christian doctrine, and, within limits amenable to existentialist philosophy. ” In general, Glendening sees ideas of science and religion as central to the personal and social identities that develop within the novel, but creating symbolically conflictual binaries. Ultimately, Glendening suggests that Fowles manoeuvres these conflictual forces to favour an existential self-revelation exhibited through the main character of Smithson leading to a conclusion that "the freedom implicit in accepting alienation should be exercized in overcoming it."
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Though of major concern for academics subsequent its popularity, the novel also received critical attention at its initial publication. The reviews are mixed, both positively praising and critiquing its style, plot and approach to metafiction and metahistory. The following samples those responses:[notes 2]
The November 1969 New York Times review by Christopher Lehmann- Haupt warned readers to "be certain there's only one log on the fire. If, unhappily, you lack the fireplace by which this book should be read, set an alarm clock." Lehmann Houpt found the book to begin as "irresistibly novelistic that he has disguised it as a Victorian romance" yet the metafictional elements at the end positively "explodes all the assumptions our Victorian sensibilities." TIME magazine's November 1969 review called the novel "resourceful and penetrating talent at work on that archaic form." In March 1970, the magazine American Libraries name the novel as one of the "Notable Books of 1969" calling it "A successful blending of two worlds as the author writes in modern terminology of the Victorian era."
The Hudson Review's Roger Sale was largely negative in his assessment, saying that "At times it seems that the commentary is not so bad and the novel awful, but at others Fowles makes the novel almost work and the comments are embarrassingly vulgar." Ultimately, the reviewer concluded that the novel wsa "stumbling and gauche and much much too long, but curiously attractive too."
The novel, because of its popularity, has been reprinted and translated in a number of different settings. The novel has been translated into Taiwanese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Hungarian, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Chinese, German, Russian, Polish, and Spanish. The novel was originally published by Little Brown and Company in both Boston and Toronto in 1969. The novel has also been published by a number of English editions from different publishers, represented in the following list (with publication date in parenthesis):
Beyond the academic profile of the book, The French Lieutenant's Woman's role as a popular best seller has spawned a number of important legacies for the text, both inspiring other authors's work and inspiring adaptations. A.S. Byatt purposefully wrote her novel Possession in response to the novel. Lisa Fletcher quotes Byatt's reasoning from Byatt's nonfiction book On Histories and Stories:
Fowles has said that the nineteenth–century narrator was assuming the omniscience of a god. I think rather the opposite is the case—this kind of fictive narrator can creep closer to the feelings and inner life of characters—as well as providing a Greek chorus—than any first–person mimicry. In Possession I used this kind of narrator deliberately three times in the historical narrative—always to tell what the historians and biographers of my fiction never discovered, always to heighten the reader's imaginative entry into the world of the text.
The novel was adapted into a 1981 film directed by Karel Reisz and adapted by playwright Harold Pinter.Other notable members of the production staff, included composer Carl Davis and the cinematographer Freddie Francis. The film starred Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons with Hilton McRae, Jean Faulds, Peter Vaughan, Colin Jeavons, Liz Smith, Patience Collier, Richard Griffiths, David Warner, Alun Armstrong, Penelope Wilton and Leo McKern. The film was nominated for five Academy Awards: Streep was nominated for Academy Award for Best Actress, and the film was nominated for Academy Award for Best Writing, but both lost to On Golden Pond. Though not winning Academy Awards, Streep won a BAFTA and Golden Globe for best actress, and the film's music and sounds both won BAFTA's and scriptwriter Harold Pinter won a Golden Globe for best script in the category Best Motion Picture – Drama.
During 2006, it was adapted for the stage, by Mark Healy, in a version which toured the UK that year.
- Michelle Phillips Buchberger cites the following in her discussion of the debate: William J. Palmer, The Fiction of John Fowles: Tradition, Art, and the Loneliness of Selfhood (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1974), p. 75; Peter Conradi, John Fowles (London:Methuen, 1982), p. 91; Bruce Woodcock, Male Mythologies (Brighton:Harvester, 1984), p. 15; and a discussion of Cooper's criticism in ‘An Unholy Inquisition: John Fowles and Dianne Vipond (1995)’, repr. in John Fowles, Wormholes: Essays and Occasional Writings, ed. by Jan Relf (New York: Henry Holt, 1998), pp. 365–84.
- For a more complete listing of reviews see The entry in The University of Illinois's database on 20th-Century American Bestsellers
- Warburton 166.
- "Notable Books of 1969". American Libraries 1 (3): 276–277. Mar. 1970. JSTOR 25617844.
- Hutcheon 20–21.
- "All Time 100 Novels". Time. 16 October 2005. Retrieved 25 May 2010.
- Hutcheon 5.
- Buchberger 149.
- IMITATION AND PARODY OF THE VICTORIAN NOVEL IN JOHN FOWLES’S “THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN”, MARGARITA DIDŽIULYTĖ, Vilnius University Master Paper, retrieved 25 November 2013
- Micheal "Who is Sarah?" 227.
- Micheal "Who is Sarah?"
- Gledening 129–136.
- Landrum 103–104
- Buchberger 147.
- Hutcheon 45.
- Glendening 118–125.
- Buchberger 136.
- Ferrebe 207–210.
- Ferrebe 216–218
- Buchberger 133.
- Buchberger 145.
- Ferrebe 223.
- Fletcher 31
- Fletcher 31–34.
- Fletcher 41.
- Glendening 113.
- Glendening 119.
- Glendening 133.
- Lehmann- Haupt, Christopher (10 November 1969). Books. "On the Third Try, John Fowles Connects". The New York Times. Retrieved 1 November 2013.
- "Books: Imminent Victorians". TIME: 108. 7 November 1969.
- Sale, Roger (Winter, 1969–1970). "Its Discontent". The Hudson Review 22 (4): 706–716. JSTOR 3849678.
- Johnson, Amanda. "Fowles, John: The French Lieutenant's Woman". In John Unsworth. 20th-Century American Bestsellers. Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Retrieved 1 November 2013.
- A.S. Byatt On Histories and Stories (2001), p. 56. qtd in Fletcher 30.
- The French Lieutenant's Woman, Debate.org
- Theatre review: The French Lieutenant's Woman at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, and touring
- Buchberger, Michelle Phillips (2012). "John Fowles's Novels of the 1950s and 1960s". The Yearbook of English Studies (Modern Humanities Research Association) 42: 132–150. JSTOR 10.5699/yearenglstud.42.2012.0132.
- Ferrebe, Alice (2004). "The Gaze of the Magus: Sexual/Scopic Politics in the Novels of John Fowles". Journal of Narrative Theory 34 (2): 207–226. doi:10.1353/jnt.2004.0010. Retrieved 23 October 2013.
- Fletcher, Lisa (2003). "Historical Romance, Gender and Heterosexuality: John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman and A.S. Byatt’s Possession". Journal of Interdisciplinary Gender Studies 7 (1 & 2): 26–42.
- Glendening, John (2013). "Evolution and the Uncrucified Jesus: The French Lieutenant's Woman". Science, Religion, and the Neo-Victorian Novel: Eye of the Ichthyosaur. Routledge. pp. 109–135. ISBN 9781134088270.
- Hutcheon, Linda (1988). A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415007054.
- Landrum, David W. (Spring, 1996). "Rewriting Marx: Emancipation and Restoration in The French Lieutenant's Woman". Twentieth Century Literature 42 (1 (John Fowles Issue)): 103–113. JSTOR 441678.
- Michael, Magali Cornier (Summer 1987). "'Who is Sarah?': A Critique of The French Lieutenant's Woman's Feminism". Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 28 (4): 225–36. doi:10.1080/00111619.1987.9936460.
- Warburton, Eileen (Spring, 1996). "Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall down: Ourika, Cinderella, and The French Lieutenant's Woman". Twentieth Century Literature 42 (1): 165–186. JSTOR 441682.
- FowlesBooks.com—The Official John Fowles web site
- A Database Entry for the novel's publication history at the University of Illinois