The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
First published: 1969
Reviewed by: Jen & Book Worm
Find it here: The French Lieutenant’s Woman
Synopsis (from Goodreads): The scene is the village of Lyme Regis on Dorset’s Lyme Bay…”the largest bite from the underside of England’s out-stretched southwestern leg.” The major characters in the love-intrigue triangle are Charles Smithson, 32, a gentleman of independent means & vaguely scientific bent; his fiancée, Ernestina Freeman, a pretty heiress daughter of a wealthy & pompous dry goods merchant; & Sarah Woodruff, mysterious & fascinating…deserted after a brief affair with a French naval officer a short time before the story begins. Obsessed with an irresistible fascination for the enigmatic Sarah, Charles is hurtled by a moment of consummated lust to the brink of the existential void. Duty dictates that his engagement to Tina must be broken as he goes forth once again to seek the woman who has captured his Victorian soul & gentleman’s heart.
I have avoided this book for many years due to my own misconceptions. I don’t typically enjoy reading romance-heavy novels because I find them formulaic and overly simplistic. I had assumed that this novel was a Victorian style romance. Boy was I wrong. I really enjoyed this book and I’m glad that others encouraged me to pick it up. First off, I loved the writing style which I found witty and at times unexpectedly snarky. Fowles injects himself into the novel, critiquing various elements of Victorian society with significant humor. For example, there is this passage (which goes on for a few pages):
What are we faced with in the nineteenth century? An age where woman was sacred; and where you could buy a thirteen-year-old girl for a few points — a few shillings, if you wanted her for only an hour or two. Where more churches were built than in the whole previous history of the country; and where one in sixty houses in London was a brothel (the modern ratio would be nearer one in six thousand). Where the sanctity of marriage (and chastity before marriage) was proclaimed from every pulpit, in every newspaper editorial and public utterance; and where never- or hardly ever – have so many great public figures, from the future king down, led scandalous private lives [page 267].
I wouldn’t quite call this a feminist book, although the author has been known to make this claim, because the main female character is never given her own voice. However, it is feminist leaning in that Sarah is a strong, independent, and intelligent woman who fails to conform to Victorian gender ideals in a magnificent way. The French Lieutenant’s Woman is not a sappy romance novel where the weak-willed woman falls in love with the strong gentleman and they all live happily ever after. Instead, it is more commentary on Victorian society (and its hypocrisy) and an analysis of gender and class restrictions than it is a romance. I highly recommend it.
Book Worm’s Review Unlike Jen I don’t mind romance stories. Sometimes there is nothing better than getting lost in happily ever after, however this book is not your traditional romance and like Jen I really enjoyed it because of that.
Jen has covered the main points that make this a great book I will just add that I love the way the author interjects and turns what you have just read onto its head. This really is at least 2 books in 1.
Want to try it for yourself? You can find it on Amazon here: The French Lieutenant’s Woman
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