Film: United Artists, directed by Karel Reisz (1981)
The French Lieutenant's Woman follows a Victorian love triangle that ensues after Charles Smithson, a well-to-do, wholesome English gentleman falls in love with the mysterious Sarah Woodruff by a strike of cruel fate after many wanderings in the Undercliff. Woodruff is the novel's protagonist and the "Woman" in the title. She is also dubbed the unkind "Tragedy" or even worse "The French Lieutenant's Whore" after her tragic story becomes known to the close-minded British town. Due to her unfortunate history with a French Lieutenant (Vargueness) who did not turn out as expected, Woodruff is left in perpetual sorrow. However, she soon reaches out to Charles for assistance, which naturally results in complications because Charles is engaged to the shallow, but beautiful Ernestina Freeman. There is more that meets the eye in this tragic Victorian love story that explores the lengths that one will go to in pursuit of "love", as well as the constraints of one's society, desires, ambitions and pursuits.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. At first glance, the plot is nothing out of the ordinary, but as the novel progresses, more information is revealed which adds considerable interest to the seemingly simple plot. While reading this book, I found myself consistently engaged in the story. This may be a cliché, but I felt as if I were in the story. The characters and their locations were thoroughly developed, and various character interactions were added to the main story to create a multi-layered story. For example, Fowles includes the relationships between Charles and his servant (Sam), the doctor, Ernestina's wealthy father, his uncle and the love story of Sam and Mary (Ernestina's maid). Every so often, Fowles would end a chapter with a cliffhanger involving one character and then switch to another character's tale, which of course, adds to the anticipation of what is yet to come.
Most importantly, Fowles writes about the Victorian sexual and social oppression with a 1970s outlook. Fowles adds anecdotes of his then-modern outlook upon the Victorian age. Although the 1970s have passed, this novel has perhaps improved with age. As a modern-day 2012 reader, I am given two time periods at which to marvel at because our society no longer holds the same 1970s perspective from which Fowles is writing from.
Above all, Fowles writing is intelligent and honest. He is not so much a narrator in the story as he is a writer. Fowles clearly lets the audience know that even he does not know all the solutions to each of his characters problems. He often remarks that his characters have "disobeyed his orders" or that he cannot say what they will do next. Fowles use of this writing technique makes his writing charming and even personal. One of my favorite lines from the book is this: "There are tears in her eyes? She is too far away for me to tell; no more now, since the windowpanes catch the luminosity of the summer sky, than a shadow behind a light" (466). Finally, Fowles kindly salutes other great poets, writers and thinkers such as Darwin, Thomas Hardy, G.M. Young and Matthew Arnold by inserting quotes and poems before each chapter begins.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman was simply amazing. It is no wonder that this is a modern classic.
*As for the Meryl Streep movie, I have yet to watch it. Although this basically defies the purpose of this blog (not to mention within the first review), I plan to eventually acquire the movie. I will watch it and add my thoughts on how The French Lieutenant’s Woman went from page to screen.