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 view with Dr. Grogan; but the scientific pursuit of knowledge does not fully satisfy him, which explains why he is so easily and surprisingly taken by the mysterious woman he first sees at the end of the quay in Lyme Regis. The pursuit of Sarah becomes his...
(The entire section is 3,002 words.)