A playful, self-conscious narrative voice situates the opening of The French Lieutenant’s Woman in Lyme Regis in 1867. Charles Smithson and his fiancee, Ernestina Freeman, are walking beside the bay when they encounter a mysterious woman known locally as “The French lieutenant’s woman,” because of the foreign sailor who has jilted her. Charles becomes fascinated by this enigmatic figure, whose real name, he learns, is Sarah Woodruff. His fascination soon develops into a romantic obsession, one that will overwhelm the complacencies of his privileged existence.
Because of her scandalous background, Sarah is a pariah. Yet Charles, a baronet’s nephew, and Sarah, an impoverished former governess, meet several times in clandestine trysts. They eventually, and awkwardly, make love. Charles feels compelled to break off his engagement with Ernestina, an action that provokes litigation by her indignant father and resentment by his valet Sam, who hopes to marry Ernestina’s maid Mary. When Charles writes a letter to Sarah asking her to marry him, Sam fails to deliver it.
Sarah vanishes, and for the next twenty months, Charles travels the world desperately seeking her. Fowles in fact offers three separate conclusions to the plot he has contrived. In one, Charles fantasizes that he never sees Sarah again and that he marries Ernestina. In the other two, he finally discovers Sarah in London, living with the Pre-Raphaelite poets and painters. The French Lieutenant’s Woman does not so much conclude as simply halt; its author refuses to constrain the freedom of his characters or to deny his readers the exercise of their own imaginations.