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.
Charles Smithson, the protagonist of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, is very much like Nicholas Urfe of The Magus. He is well-born and well-bred and should be in an excellent position to enjoy the fruits of life, but he finds himself vaguely dissatisfied. Thinking that marriage to the clever Ernestina Freeman will provide the sense of fulfillment his life lacks, he is quickly dissuaded of this notion upon his instant attraction to Sarah Woodruff, the “French lieutenant’s woman.”
She is Mystery with a capital “M,” and her separate world, which she has created for herself with her fabricated tale of sexual encounter with the French lieutenant, gives her the freedom the nineteenth century setting and her circumstances would not otherwise provide. She and the Undercliff that she frequents become the mythic landscape, the otherworld that Charles enters in search of adventure, just as Nicholas enters Bourani in The Magus.
Both Charles and Sarah are trapped in roles that neither wants. Sarah has the education of a well-bred lady but her lower social standing keeps her in the working class. Charles is a gentleman, but he chafes at the rigid world he inhabits. Unknown to him is his longing to break free. His hobby is the study of fossils trapped by the receding seas when the world changed. Likewise, his place in history is at a turning point in the world, at the end of the Victorian era. The question that the novel poses is whether Charles, like his echinoderm fossils, will be trapped as the world changes or will be able to break free.
Commerce is on the rise, and even while Charles does not expect that he will have to work to earn a living, he is surprised to find that his uncle, from whom he has expected to receive a handsome inheritance, has remarried, dimming Charles’s chances of living the life of perpetual ease. Even so, he declines an offer by Mr. Freeman, Ernestina’s father, to come into the world of business, feeling ill-suited for this endeavor.
Charles believes in a Darwinian view of the world and enjoys arguing about this new scientific...
(The entire section is 870 words.)
Charles Smithson, a London gentleman on vacation in the south of England, goes for a walk with his fiancé, Ernestina Freeman, on the sea ramparts in Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast. They see a woman in a black coat and bonnet staring seaward from the very end of the quay, who, when warned of the danger, turns and gives Charles such a look of sadness that he never forgets it. He is further fascinated when Ernestina tells him the story of the woman, Sarah Woodruff, who, it is rumored, was seduced and abandoned by a shipwrecked naval officer she nursed back to health. Since then, she is called Tragedy or the French Lieutenant’s Woman, a euphemism for “whore.”
The next day, while Charles, an amateur paleontologist, is looking for fossils in an area known as the Undercliff, he once again sees Sarah, sleeping on a ledge beneath the path where he walks, and he is struck by her appalling loneliness. When she suddenly awakens, startled, he can only apologize for his intrusion. After she runs away, he follows her and offers to walk her to town, but she refuses. On the following day, Charles sees Sarah again when he visits Mrs. Poulteney’s, where Sarah was taken in as a kind of charity case. They share a look of understanding but do not indicate that they already met.
Later, Charles encounters Sarah on the Undercliff again and offers to help her get away from the self-righteous Mrs. Poulteney, but Sarah refuses, leaving Charles puzzled as to what keeps her in Lyme Regis. Charles talks to his physician and friend Dr. Grogan about his interest in Sarah, justifying it as only humanitarian, but Dr. Grogan thinks it is something more. The next time Charles meets with Sarah, she tells him that she was not seduced by the French Lieutenant but willingly gave herself to him in order to free herself from the restraints of Victorian expectations of women. Charles, disillusioned with Ernestina’s simplicity and conformity to Victorian conventions, finds Sarah puzzling and irresistible.
Sarah asks Charles to...
(The entire section is 830 words.)