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As clearly a masterpiece today as when it was published
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.