The French Lieutenant’s Woman was enormously successful. It attracted the favorable attention of critics and scholars, and it remained on the bestseller lists for more than a year. It was also, in 1981, adapted into a somewhat less compelling film, directed by Karel Reisz and starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons.
Fowles’s third published novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman reworks the theme of his first book, The Collector (1963), which explores the notion of woman as Other and the misguided attempt to possess, in the name of love, another human being. In its emphasis on game-playing and fictionalizing as a means of defining personal identity, The French Lieutenant’s Woman also echoes The Magus (1966), while it anticipates Daniel Martin (1977), which is explicitly about a writer, and Mantissa (1982), which is about a writer and his muse. A Maggot (1985) is another sophisticated historical romp, this time into the eighteenth century, but it does not surpass the achievement of The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
With his Victorian tour de force, Fowles established himself as a preeminent figure in contemporary English fiction, one who is both a stylistic virtuoso and a thinker worth studying. Though turning to the past as the setting for The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Fowles clearly aligns himself with those who, like Alain Robbe-Grillet or John Barth, are committed to innovation, to renovating the novel form. Fowles has sometimes been attacked for stylistic indulgences, for exacerbated self-consciousness, and for a preoccupation with form at the expense of content. At least in the case of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, however, his bravura flourishes are an integral part of his accomplishment. The novel is a lively exercise in and exorcism of what Fowles presents as the deadening experience of Victorianism.