The French Lieutenant’s Woman

John Fowles post-modern classic: The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969)

  • Author:  John Fowles  (1926-2005)
  • Rank:  #99
  • Published:  1969
  • Publisher:  Little, Brown and Company
  • Pages:  366  (Signet paperback)
  • First Line:  “An easterly is the most disagreeable wind in Lyme Bay – Lyme Bay being that largest bite from the underside of England’s outstretched southwestern leg – and a person of curiosity could at once have deduced several strong probabilities about the pair who began to walk down the quay at Lyme Regis, the small but ancient eponym of the inbite, one incisively sharp and blustering morning in the late March of 1867.”
  • Last Lines:  “He walks towards an imminent, self-given death?  I think not; for he has at last found an atom of faith in himself, a true uniqueness, on which to build; has already begun, though he would still bitterly deny it, though there are tears in his eyes to support his denial, to realize that life, however advantageously Sarah may in some ways seem to fit the role of Sphinx, is not a symbol, is not one riddle and one failure to guess it, is not to inhabit one face alone or to be given up after one losing throw of the dice; but is to be, however inadequately, emptily, hopelessly into the city’s iron heart, endured.  And out again, upon the unplumb’d, salt, estranging sea.”
  • ML edition:  None
  • Film:  1981 – ***.5  (dir. Karel Reisz)
  • Acclaim:  Time All-Time List
  • Read:  Spring, 1998

The Novel: Like so many great novelists, John Fowles later novels never lived up to his early promise.  His best novels were his first three: The Collector, The Magus and The French Lieutenant’s Woman.  In the course of less than a decade he moved from a strong short novel that looked inside the mind of a borderline psychotic to a post-modern classic that managed to tell a 19th century novel with the benefit of 20th century hindsight into science, literature, history and psychology.

Fowles tells the story of Charles, a gentleman who falls in love with Sarah, the young woman he first sees on The Cobb, the famous rock wall in Lyme Regis, but we get a modern view of these characters: “One of the commonest symptoms of wealth today is destructive neurosis; in his century it was tranquil boredom.”  We quickly get an idea of who Charles is, much more so than we will ever truly understand Sarah:

“Laziness was, I am afraid, Charles’s distinguishing trait.  Like many of his contemporaries he sensed that the earlier self-responsibility of the century was turning into self-importance: that what drove the new Britain was increasingly a desire to seem respectable, in place of the desire to do good for good’s sake.  He knew he was overfastidious.  But how could one write history with Macauley so close behind?  Fiction or poetry, in the midst of the greatest galaxy of talent in the history of English literature?  How could one be a creative scientist, with Lyell and Darwin still alive?  Be a statesman, with Disraeli and Gladstone polarizing all the available space?”

Charles, is of course, the kind of man who could fall in love with Sarah.  He has “all the Byronic ennui with neither of the Byronic outlets: genius and adultery.”  So Charles becomes interested and then obsessed with Sarah, finally approaching her, only to turn away, for he is very much a man of his era.  But then he makes that all important step of turning back and waiting to see if she follows him back.  And though he does not know it, “in those brief poised seconds above the waiting sea, in that luminous evening silence broken only by the waves’ quiet wash, the whole Victorian Age was lost.  And I do not mean he had taken the wrong path.”

This is the narrator we have been given, the reason it would take so long and the involvement of so many directors and writers before a film version could be made.  Because this narrator (ostensibly, Fowles himself) does have all this knowledge behind him before he tells us the tale.  He comes right out and tells us “I live in the age of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Roland Barthes; if this is a novel, it cannot be a novel in the modern sense of the world.”  This comes in the all important Chapter 13, some 80 pages into the book where he comes right out and tells us what a novelists can and can not do, what we might be able to learn.  But then he returns to the tale, tells us this story of Sarah and Charles, a rather heartbreaking story that moves, poetically towards its conclusion.  But not quite towards an ending.

For we are left, in a sense, without an ending.  We have choices offered to us of what might come to pass between Sarah and Charles.  Their affair, the presence (or absence of a child) and the modern tinge to a Victorian story would presage what A.S. Byatt would later do in full magnificence with Possession, but Fowles gives it to us first, a post-modernist view in some ways of Tess of the D’Urbervilles (according to Fowles himself).  And we are only with the narrator inviting us to choose for ourselves which ending comes and to only reflect on those lonely, poetic lines that close out the book.

The poster for the Oscar-nominated film version of The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981)

The Film: “John Fowles’ 1968 bestseller about a ‘free-spirited’ young woman and her passion for a betrothed army man had been eluding filmmakers for a decade.  Fred Zinnemann, Franklin J. Schaffner, Richard Lester, Michael Cacoyannis, Lindsay Anderson and Mike Nichols worked with various screenwriters to devise a viable concept for a movie and all gave up . . .  Director Karel Reisz and screenwriter Harold Pinter decided to give it a try, and Reisz admitted that they could have just told the Victorian story but, ‘what with the two points of view, it would have been cowardly not to have tried something.’  What they tried was a parallel, contemporary love story between two actors who are portraying the Victorian lovers in a movie.”  (Inside Oscar, p 601-602).

What comes out of this is an exquisite, original take on the novel.  By making use of the behind the scene actors to give an idea of the post-modernism that guides the novel, we don’t lose touch with the 20th century sensibility behind the novel, but within the film itself we get the actual 19th century story that is the heart of the novel.  As an adaptation it is smarter than almost any other choice they could have possibly made.  And for the casting they made two perfect choices: Meryl Streep is the only person who could have possibly played Sarah (when the novel was first written John Fowles thought of Vanessa Redgrave but when the novel was finally filmed he was the first to admit that Streep was the only choice) and Jeremy Irons is the perfect choice for the 19th century gentleman struggling to find adulterous love in the Victorian Era.

In a year of Chariots of Fire, Atlantic City, Reds, On Golden Pond and Raiders of the Lost Ark it was never going to manage a Best Picture nomination, but it did manage 5 Oscar nominations (Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Art Direction and Costume Design), all of which I agree with (though I would have actually given it the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay over On Golden Pond).  It is one of the finest performances in Meryl Streep’s career, coming between her two Oscar wins and a great early performance by Jeremy Irons (he and the film end up in my number six spot).  Both of them must do the difficult act of showing their acting on screen and somehow manage to convey two different romances from two different centuries.