The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969)

by John Fowles

The French Lieutenant's Woman is a Victorian novel written in the 1960s. Author John Fowles not only doesn't conceal his mid-20th-century vantage point but inserts his opinions and even occasionally himself as a character. From observations about the repression and conformity of Victorian England to discussion of 19th-century thinkers like Darwin, Fowles ranges over myriad aspects of that paradoxical era.
Charles Smithson, a descendant of aristocrats who dabbles in paleonthology and admires Darwin, is engaged to marry Ernestina Freeman, a conventionally charming young woman whose family acquired its wealth by trade. Both of them accept their shallow interaction as the way things are between the sexes — until Charles meets Sarah Woodruff, a mysterious, intriguing woman who was jilted by a French lieutenant. Her reputation ruined, the penniless Sarah is not considered a desirable candidate for employment. Charles tries to help her and in the process becomes smitten with her and the possibility of a freer, more natural, more passionate life.

Sarah remains hard to grasp even after delivering lengthy explanations of her behavior, and her calculated anticipation of how Charles will act is hard to believe. But many people love this novel, and it certainly does offer a survey of Victoriana, whatever the failings of its plot — which, by the way, comes with two possible endings for the reader to choose between.



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