Chapters 1-3 Summary
The French Lieutenant's Woman is set in England in the coastal town of Lyme Regis. (A similar setting is found in Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion, which similarity Fowles acknowledges at the beginning of this story.) The year is 1867; the social constraints of the Victorian age are a major influence on the characters. However, this is written as a Victorian novel with a twist, which will become more evident as the story progresses.
The novel opens with the three main characters: Charles Smithson; his betrothed, Ernestina Freeman; and the novel’s mysterious female protagonist, Sarah Woodruff, the so-called French lieutenant’s woman. The three characters are either standing on or walking along the Cobb, the town’s infamous harbor wall. From the start, the narrator makes the reader very much aware of the differences between Sarah and Ernestina. Sarah stands alone, staring out at sea, while wrapped in a nondescript coat that looks as if it is a size or two too big for her. Ernestina, on the other hand, is very properly dressed according to the latest fashion. Charles is accompanying her. He notices Sarah and is slightly stunned by the serious look on her face; he sees it as an unusual expression for a woman. He also is taken aback by the intensity of her eyes.
When he asks Ernestina about this strange woman, whom he has never seen before, Ernestina is embarrassed. There are rumors about Sarah, she tells him. Sarah is called many different names, Ernestina says, and some of them are very crude. Most people refer to her as the French lieutenant’s woman. The town gossip claims that Sarah is a little mad, and Ernestina does not want to walk near Sarah. When Ernestina balks at Charles’s suggestion that they stroll nearer to Sarah so he can see her, Charles tells Ernestina, half mockingly, that he will protect her. As they pass Sarah, Charles becomes concerned. He tells Sarah that he is afraid for her well-being. The waves are strong, and she is standing too close to the edge of the wall and might be swept away. Sarah says nothing. She merely looks at...
(The entire section is 551 words.)