One morning, in 1966, at his home on the outskirts of Lyme Regis, John Fowles awoke with a vision of an enigmatic, solitary woman, standing on the Cobb, staring off into the distant sea, a woman who clearly belonged to the past. In an article for Harper’s Magazine, he writes, “The woman obstinately refused to stare out of the window of an airport lounge; it had to be this ancient quay.” The image of the woman haunted him. He notes that she had “no face, no particular degree of sexuality. But she was Victorian.” In his vision, she always had her back turned, which to him, represented “a reproach on the Victorian Age. An outcast.” He claims, “I didn’t know her crime, but I wished to protect her. That is, I began to fall in love with her. Or with her stance. I didn’t know which.” This mysterious woman would become the inspiration for Fowles’s third novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman (Boston, Toronto, 1969), an international popular and critical success and the most highly acclaimed work from this prolific author.
The story traces the relationship between a woman, caught between the Victorian and modern ages, and a man drawn to her independent spirit. Charles Smithson, a young English gentleman, becomes fascinated with Sarah Woodruff, a social outcast in the coastal town of Lyme Regis, who is known as “Tragedy,” or in a more pejorative sense as “The French Lieutenant’s Woman.” Rumors suggest that she gazes continually at the sea, waiting for the sailor who seduced her to return. Charles eventually risks his own social ostracism when he breaks off his engagement to a perfectly respectable young woman to pursue Sarah. Readers are never given a definite conclusion to the story as they are left to choose among three possible endings.
Fowles’s innovative narrative technique, which allows readers to become an active part in the creation of his novel, provides the framework for a fascinating story of passion, the constraints of class, and the struggle for freedom.