Thursday, 15 July 2010

The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowels

Figuring I needed to get myself out of my wallow in crime and YA literature, I decided I needed to read a classic and went with The French Lieutenant’s Woman as a cross between classic and future classic; it’s not quite a heavy book, but not a light read either.

Sarah Woodruff is a woman jilted in love, or is she? She can be seen pining day after day on the Cobb in Lyme Regis staring out to sea apparently after her French lover whom she nursed during his recovery from an injury sustained in a shipwreck, but who left her as soon as he’d recovered. She is penniless and alone and the society of the time would have condemned her to the life of an outcast for her “crimes”, but through the charity and kindness of others, finds a place as a lady’s companion. Mrs. Poulteney takes Sarah in out of a need to prove her piety. Sarah accepts that she must suffer for her past indiscretions, at the same time refusing to divulge any details or even hint that she may feel penitent. She lives her life seemingly without hope for improvement or thought of the future, often refusing to take advantage of offers of assistance given to her. The only comfort she does allow herself is the confidence of Charles, who is affianced to Ernestina, a wealthy woman of the rising classes. Charles and Sarah enter into a relationship which may lead to both their ruin.

This book is destined to become a classic, or already is one despite its relatively recent publishing date. It was written in 1969 but takes place in Victorian England. It’s written from the point of an omniscient narrator who provides insights and commentary into both today’s society, i.e. that of 1969, and Victorian society, often offering praises and critique of both. He imparts not only the character’s feelings, but the reasons behind those feelings as well. Victorian England can often be a complicated and incomprehensible world for modern society as it’s based on many rules and regulations which often seem to have no logical derivation even though they are obviously motivated by Religion an purity of soul.

That Sarah is based on Tess of the D’Urbervilles is obvious to anyone who has read the latter. Fowles not only includes many quotes and references to Hardy, but Sarah, at least on the surface, is really just a clone of Tess, who also feels the constant need for penitence and punishment. The twist is that Fowles includes Doctor Grogan in his story who offers another possible interpretation to Sarah, namely that of a maniacal, twisted woman who is out to manipulate others to her own benefit. He changes Charles perspective and forces him to confront his feelings and opinions. Fowles also offers the reader several scenarios within his own book, all of which are possible and believable. He forces the reader into thinking about which ending he would chose for the characters. I won’t give my choice away because it would ruin the story for anyone who hasn’t read it. Besides, that would just lead me to spending an age discussing all the variants.

It’s an interesting read and well worth it. The modern commentary and the twists Fowles introduced kept it from being as gloomy and doomy as Tess and Hardy are, thus making it the more pleasant read. I now understand what all the fuss was about. 5 out of 5.


Scrabblequeen said...

Now you've got me wondering...did I actually read this, or just watch the movie? And I agree, it is very reminiscent of Tess.

Trish said...

I have this one on the shelf but I've always been a little imtimidated by it. And even though I loved Tess, your comparison between the two only makes me more intimidated! :)

Anonymous said...

I just picked this up at the library's used book rack. Now I might have to try and squeeze it in this summer, but emotionally I'm not sure I can handle another Tess either!

Laura's Reviews said...

Great review. I definitely need to read this novel . . . it has been on my "to read" list for too long!