The narrator opens the The French Lieutenant’s Woman with background information on Lyme Regis, where the story is initially set. He then introduces Charles Smithson, a thirty-two-year-old gentleman and his young fiancee, Ernestina Freeman, who are taking a walk along the Cobb, made famous by Jane Austen in her novel Persuasion. The action begins in 1867, but the narrator often breaks into the narrative, noting that the story is being related in the twentieth century. He does this initially by comparing the Cobb to a contemporary Henry Moore sculpture.
Charles and Tina’s walk is interrupted by the presence of a woman in a dark cape, standing alone at the end of the Cobb, staring out to sea. Tina explains to a curious Charles what she has heard about the woman, known as “Tragedy” and “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” and her status as a social outcast. Rumors suggest that Sarah Woodruff was seduced and abandoned by a French naval officer who was shipwrecked off the coast. As she nursed him back to health, he reportedly made promises to her that he did not fulfil. Destitute and rejected by most of the Lyme Regis society, Sarah is taken in by the pious Mrs. Poulteney, who plans to “save” the young woman in order to assure her own status as a worthy Christian.
The next day, Charles, whose hobby is paleontology, walks through the Undercliff searching for fossils while Tina visits her Aunt Tranter. The narrator introduces Sam, Charles’s servant, who has his eye on Mary, Aunt Tranter’s maid. During his walk, Charles comes across Sarah sleeping in a clearing. She awakens with a start, and, after apologizing for disturbing her, Charles departs.
The narrator notes Charles’s growing obsession with the mysterious Sarah. After stopping at a farmhouse to refresh himself, Charles again sees Sarah on the path. She rejects his offer to escort her home and implores him to tell no one that she has been walking there, an activity that Mrs. Poulteney has forbidden her. The next day, during a visit to Mrs. Poulteney’s, Sarah silently observes Charles and Aunt Tranter’s support of the relationship between Sam and Mary. Charles assumes that he has made a connection with Sarah, but the next time their paths cross on the Undercliff, she rebuffs his efforts to help her escape Mrs. Poulteney’s control. When she insists that she cannot leave the area, Charles assumes that her feelings for the French lieutenant are the cause. After she admits that the lieutenant...
(The entire section is 1039 words.)