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on August 21, 2002
John Fowles' "The French Lieutenant's Woman" is not only a masterpiece, it's an UNUSUAL masterpiece. Fowles takes the story of a mysterious, stubborn woman who clings almost proudly to her shame much in the same way that Hester Prynne does in "The Scarlet Letter"--yet it turns out that there is, after all, no actual reason for shame. But to Sarah Woodruff, the woman in question, shame equals freedom: freedom from constraints both social and emotional.
Sarah Woodruff is as full-blooded and full-bodied a literary invention as any character of the 20th century canon, yet she retains a sense of mystery which is absolutely essential. It is for this sense she projects of being impossible to know that she becomes impossibly alluring to Charles Smithson, a wealthy, not-bad-looking, touchingly innocent gentleman who thinks of himself as a man of the world. The action of the book is propelled forward by the attraction Sarah holds for Charles, especially as it is forbidden (he is engaged to marry someone else).
I will mention the film here only because it is probably the only film I've ever seen that actually adds something to the book. In the film (made in 1983, if memory serves), Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons play Sarah and Charles, but they ALSO play their modern-day counterparts, making it a movie within a movie. This layers on further depth and further despair for Charles and lends an unexpected richness to the Victorian portion of the film. Although "The French Lieutenant's Woman" stands staunchly on its own, I highly recommend seeing the movie once you've read the book--if only for the delicious sense of something wonderful having been expanded even further beyond its bookish boundaries.
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on October 2, 2000
. . . or maybe two thousand. I am another person who read this book because a friend had read it, and was so enthusiastic about it that I could not bear not knowing what she was talking about. That was two months ago. I've read it twice since then, and started college, and any myriad of other things.
In brief: It's a traditional tale; young man of means (Charles) is engaged to socially acceptable, safe young woman (Tina). He meets enigmatic, enticing other woman; finds her incredibly attractive; his life changes utterly and completely because of this. (Sounds a bit like _The Age of Innocence_.) Ah, but as a reviewer said about another eminent author, describing the plot does not begin to describe the novel. The plot is to the book as noodles are to tuna noodle casserole: important, but not half of it.
The book is set in Victorian England; it is rife with philosophical speculation, but not in such a way as to make you feel that you are reading a textbook. He sets forth Charles's experiences and his changing worldview in such a sensible way, letting you draw Charles's conclusions with him. Fowles does an amazing job of showing you his mind, as well as those of lesser characters.
Which brings me to another point. Even if you do not like the philosophical side of it, TFLW is worth reading for the language and the style. It is written in Victorian English, with a strange twist of modernity (mid-twentieth century and ageless modernity). Fowles is amazing at showing-not-telling (as the English teachers counsel) and his descriptions will blow you away.
On top of all that, it is a good story. It is not a happy story, really, but it is not, in truth, depressing. It's romantic, it's elating, it's sad, it's powerful . . . It is the kind of story you want to reread immediately. Which I did.
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on April 30, 2001
Though the story in this novel takes place in the Victorian era of England in 1869, it was written a century later, allowing the author and the reader to view the entire time period in retrospect, and make several observations on the age as it pertains to the story he tells. That story involves a young gentleman, Charles, engaged to a suitable young lady, Ernestina, the daughter of a successful tradesman. Charles becomes intrigued by the local outcast Sarah, also known (most euphemistically) as "The French Lieutenant's Woman," and they share an attraction that defies his social station and, as a societal outcast, her lack of one.

Throughout the novel, Fowles inserts information about the era, and highlights in particular the hypocrisy of sexual attitudes and roles. Charles and Sarah find themselves victims of these restrictions, and as such their romance is doomed from the start. Charles convinces himself that he has a truly selfless motive in attempting to help Sarah, whom he sees as a victim, and ends up weaving a web of deceit to himself and others as he fails to see himself falling in love with her. As the novel progresses, one can read in the comments about Victorian standards, commentary about our own modern age. By holding this bygone age up to our own, Fowles shows us how far we've come, and how little we've left behind.

To enhance the immersive storytelling, the prose is written in a style reminiscent of the Victorian authors themselves. In fact, in one section where Fowles points out such contradictions as the fact that in this age when lust was a forbidden topic, one in every sixty houses in London was a brothel, the paragraph might easily be read as "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." But even in this emulation, he uses more modern literary methods, such as giving a false ending more than a hundred pages before the real end, and inserting himself as a character in the story. These feats are done with expertise and flair, and though they are jarring at first, it quickly becomes apparent that even the tricks are part of the story.

Held up against the story of the upper-class Charles is the subplot of Sam, his manservant. Sam also has his own romance with Mary, a maid in Ernestina's aunt's household. The societal standards for Charles and for Sam are compared and contrasted throughout the book, creating an intriguing duality of storytelling, which leaves the upper-class Victorians looking somewhat the worse for comparison.

If you don't mind a novel that's hard to put down, and very tempting to re-read as soon as you've finished, I strongly recommend The French Lieutenant's Woman.
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on February 15, 2001
This is a wonderfully complex, mysterious, stunningly wrought work. Fowles succeeds in injecting his postmodern, often comical viewpoints into this "Victorian" novel. Example: I love how the narrator steps into the train compartment and sits across from Charles, contemplating his future and what he has in store for him. That is damned neat! Even more fascinating is that this narrator, god, whatever you would prefer to call him, describes himself as having a huge beard, and Fowles (if you've seen any pictures of him) has a big white beard as well.
I digress...The prose is excellent. The novel remains quite accessible and engrossing while still tackling complex ideas. I loved the exisentialism ideas swirling around the novel, and in Charles and Sarah, Fowles has created two unforgettable characters "seeking to escape the tryanny and cant of their age," as it is stated on the cover of my book. This novel captures the essence of the Victorian period as well as Dickens or Eliot would, but the difference is that Fowles skillfully penetrates through the hypocrisy and artificiality of the time with his sharp observations. Ever the postmodernist, Fowles provides us with both a Victorian ending (perhaps as Dickens would have liked it; it is practically overflowing with sentimentality) and a Modern ending. A must read!
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on May 10, 2002
What to make of a Victorian novel by a contemporary existentialist who steps into the book twice and can't decide how to end it? I cannot imagine a more satisfying inconclusive book.
Charles gets the girl. Or maybe not? It doesn't matter. Fowles' novels are always superficially simple and unplumbable in their philosophical depths: *The Collector*, *The Magus*, *The French Lieutenant's Woman*, *A Maggot*.
Sarah Woodruff is at once utterly inexplicable and absolutely believeable. And her believeability extends to the unthinkable. As well as we "understand" her, we cannot choose the "right" ending any more than Fowles can.
Humans are creatures of dizzying Hazard. I once heard Richard Loewentin argue that even if behavior could be "determined" by complete knowledge of motives and stimuli, as the social Darwinists believe, the sheer volume of those motives and causes would allow virtual free will. Even so, no depth of understanding can determine Sarah's behavior, no fount of self-knowledge binds her to any course.
Chance circumstances, trivial as the nail lost from the horse's shoe, trigger the chaotic avalanche of the action after the incredible sex scene. So it is in life; the trivial becomes the deciding element.
I lost a Sarah, as randomly and as much through my own error as Charles did. And I remain as uncertain as he of the magnitude of that loss, however familiar I am with the scale of my grief. What a heartbreaking book, what terrible truths.
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on July 16, 2001
...or not quite, as this review stands as a testament to the fact that I do have something to say about 'The French Lieutenant's Woman'. It is a quite brilliant novel: wise, stimulating, compelling, sad, extraordinary. Fowles is a twentieth century author the equal of George Eliot, Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell. He is an acute social commentator who regularly achieves what few authors are capable of - he creates a compelling story with real moral weight and makes the reader apply the questions at its core to themselves. He is a moralist without Eliot's tendency to preach, unfettered by the moral code of the nineteenth century writers, yet still not shying away from the complexities of his characters' situations. 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' brings a twentieth century view to a nineteenth century story quite brilliantly, showing how a century can change the code a society operates under, but not what drives its human beings: the need for acceptance and the desire for intimacy. Sarah is one of the great enigmas of twentieth century fiction, and casts a spell over the reader as much as she does over Charles. I shan't go into the details of the plot, but suffice to say that Fowles' prose is exemplary, his characters complex and charismatic, and his narrative masterly. And again, the denouement is astonishing.
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on May 13, 2004
In the first hundred pages of this book I had already begun to realize that this was one of the best books I have ever read. That feeling never let up; indeed, it grew even stronger as I approached the end, when I began to feel a frantic eagerness to discover what would become of these characters that I had grown to care so much for.
Sarah Woodruff (aka the French Lieutenant's Woman) is one of my favorite characters in literature. She is a complex, nuanced character, intriguingly covered by a delicate veil of mystery throughout the first half of the book. Her pain, her selfless sacrifice, and her courage are deeply and powerfully drawn. She is a true example of a woman ahead of her time, a woman who challenges the norms of her society by simply ignoring them. Her confidence and her quiet scorn for the Puritanism of the times in which she lives raise her to a level above the so-called moral leaders who condemn her. In a strange way, she is a true hero.
This book, written in the late 1960s but set one hundred years earlier, is a beautiful example of period literature. Fowles, through his remarkably genuine narrative voice, recreates the world of Victorian England in such a way that if it weren't for the occasional references to modern life you might think the book was a century older than it is. It is filled with all the pomp and formality you would expect, but also with a wit, dry humor, and quiet mocking of the period that lend it an added flavor.
But Fowles is not simply trying to create a period piece or social commentary. I believe that first and foremost he was creating a love story. I would put Charles and Sarah in the same category with Romeo and Juliet as far as love stories go. The relationship is developed slowly, so slow that it is exquisitely painful almost. And though the time they spend together is brief, it is filled with an unmistakable air of eventual tragedy.
The only question left in my mind is whether to categorize this book as a classic of modern fiction or of 19th century fiction. It could easily stand in either section of my bookshelf.
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on May 26, 2003
This novel is at once a retrospective and a prospective, a narrative that ultimately erases the temporal boundaries between the Victorian era and the modern reader's present moment. Fowles goes considerably beyond a novelist such as A. S. Byatt and even most historians in painting the portrait of an era and its citizens as well as evoking the multifarious "Victorian sensibility," with its ambivalence about social class, morality, progress, science, religion, and, of course, sex.
The affair between Charles Smithson, amateur gentleman paleontologist, and Sarah Woodruff, alluring, forbidden "outcast," is, in many respects, no more than a ruse (readers who express disappointment at the ending have no doubt swallowed too much of the bait, reading the novel as conventional romance). The epigraph to the final chapter, Matthew Arnold's "True Piety Is Acting What One Knows," can be taken as a key to the story's compelling theme and purpose. The narrative is a variation on the quest pattern, with the salvation of the story's everyman-protagonist at stake. Moreover, his progress from ignorance to self-knowledge, contrary to Marxist theory and, for that matter, inexorable Darwinian laws of natural selection, requires that he separate himself from his "age," the very culture that has formed him, defined him, and threatens to deform him.
The climax in the story is not Charles' meeting with Sarah in the home of the Rossetti's but his epiphany, in Chapter 48, while viewing a Crucifix in the sanctuary of a church. At this moment he sees his preoccupation with fossils as representative of his society's fixation on custom, externals, and respectability at the expense of the interior self and its own priorities. Charles and Sarah find their heart's bliss "through" but certainly not "with" each other.
I read this novel at the same time I was reading "The English Patient," Michael Ondaatje's poetic novel that challenges spatial boundaries much as Fowles' narrative does the same with temporal ones. Ondaatje takes fewer chances, constructing a fantastic, impressionistic narrative that makes very few mistakes and admittedly casts a lingering spell. Fowles', on the other hand, risks a lot, especially with his frequent, self-referential intrusions into the narrative--potentially alienating some readers, whether on grounds that he's violated the implict author-reader contract or that he's naively "postmodernist." Regardless, Fowles' novel is the richer, greater achievement, and ultimately the less contrived and pretentious as well.
"The French Lieutenant's Woman" is capable of satisfying at many levels. It offers a comprehensive history of the Victorian era, a Dickensian gallery of characters, an dramatization of the faith-doubt struggle found in the poetry of Tennyson and Arnold, a critique of Victorian and modern cultural malaise, a postmodernist literary conceit, an archetypal journey with an existentialist twist. Above all, the attentive reader of this allusive, multi-layered, yet remarkably focused story will be rewarded with a unique understanding of narrative and the reader's place within it. The narrator's offering the reader a choice between two endings has the effect of "liberating" the narrative and relating it to the examined life of the reader's own present.
It's difficult to see how a triumph such as this could be excluded from any short list of greatest novels written in English during the second half of the twentieth century.
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on September 7, 2000
I gave this book five stars because 20 years after having read it, I still remember it and am still flummoxed about what I really think of it. I love nineteenth century novels, and the prose in this book is amongst the best I've encountered by a 20th Century novelist. It's rich, sensuous, a tactile experience with words. When the little oddities started showing up, I couldn't figure whether I was irritated that he'd ruined a perfectly good book by adopting the rather quirky, experimental art forms common to the 1960's and 70's, or whether I was struck dumb by the sheer brilliance of the experiment. In regard to the meaning of it all, I have to agree with every reviewer here, including the one who gave it one star. I pondered the existentialism, concluded, revised, dismissed, pondered, concluded with proviso's, and on and on until I felt like Elliot's poor women, coming and going and talking about Michaelangelo. Wouldn't it be a stitch if the author meant this as a grand prank, and every single one of us has fallen into the trap? Brilliant. Buy it and read it because it just might be the masterpiece it's purported to be, and if it's not, well, it's at least an interesting puzzle.
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on April 19, 2000
I first read this wonderful book in the late 60's, shortly after it published. As a high school student, I was simply blown away by the story, the virtuosity of the endings, by its ambiguity, but most of all by the richness of its language.
The scene when Charles and Sarah confront each other in the shed in the undercliff has more tension and suspense than a thousand horror movies, because it was so real.
In the intervening 30 years, I've re-read this novel every five years or so. Like other great works, each re-reading brings something new (because I continue to change).
The great tragedy, at least in my view, is that what has followed from John Fowles has never risen to the heights of this novel. Daniel Martin was a huge disappointment to me (so self-indulgent and empty). The Maggot has some moments, but was ultimately disappointing. Only The Magus, and, to a lesser degree, The Collector, rival The French Lieutentant's Woman.
That said, Fowles has always been his own man and has stuck to his view of the world. I've read some of his philosophy of life in the Aristos and found most of it to be inconsistent with my own world view.
But in this great book, Fowles and I connected. I hope when I'm ninety, I can sit down and read it again (and find something fresh and new).
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