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The French Lieutenant's Woman is a 1969 postmodern historical fiction novel by John Fowles. The plot explores the fraught relationship of gentleman and amateur naturalist Charles Smithson and Sarah Woodruff, the former governess and independent woman with whom he falls in love. The novel builds on Fowles' authority in Victorian literature, both following and critiquing many of the conventions of period novels.[2]

The French Lieutenant's Woman

Fowles described his main inspiration for The French Lieutenant's Woman to be a persistent image of a "Victorian Woman", who later developed into the novel's titular character Sarah Woodruff. In a 1969 essay entitled "Notes on an Unfinished Novel", Fowles reflects on his writing process. He said he had an image during the autumn of 1966 of: "A woman [who] stands at the end of a deserted quay and stares out to sea."[8] He determined that she belonged to a "Victorian Age" and had "mysterious" and "vaguely romantic" qualities.[8] He made a note at the time about the function of the novel:

Throughout the essay, Fowles describes multiple influences and issues important to the novel's development, including his debt to other authors such as Thomas Hardy.[11] In the essay, he describes surprise that the female character Sarah had taken the primary role in the novel.[11] Later, Fowles described other influences shaping the characters development, noting that the characters and story of The French Lieutenant's Woman were loosely derived from the Claire de Duras novel Ourika (1823), which features a tragic affair between an African woman and French military man.[2] Fowles later published a 1977 translation of Ourika into English.[2]

Set in the mid-nineteenth century, the narrator identifies the novel's protagonist as Sarah Woodruff, the Woman of the title, also known as "Tragedy" and as "The French Lieutenant's Whore". She lives in the coastal town of Lyme Regis as a disgraced woman, supposedly abandoned by a French ship's officer named Varguennes who had returned to France and married. Employed as a servant in the household of the very pious Mrs. Poulteney, she spends some of her limited free time on The Cobb, a stone jetty where she stares out to sea.

One day, Charles Smithson, an orphaned gentleman, and Ernestina Freeman, his fiancée and a daughter of a wealthy tradesman, see Sarah walking along the cliffside. Ernestina tells Charles something of Sarah's story, and he becomes curious about her. Though continuing to court Ernestina, Charles has several more encounters with Sarah, meeting her clandestinely three times. During these meetings, Sarah tells Charles of her history, and asks for his emotional and social support. During the same period, he learns of the possible loss of his place as heir to his elderly uncle, who has become engaged to a woman young enough to bear a child. Meanwhile, Charles's servant Sam falls in love with Mary, the maid of Ernestina's aunt.

A number of critics have treated the work as a feminist novel, while other have debated whether it offers a sufficiently transformative perspective on women. The novel's narrator demonstrates and proclaims a feminist approach to women:[29] Sarah is presented as a more liberated and independently willed woman as compared to the other model female characters, such as Ernestina and her aunt. In a 1985 interview by Jan Relf, Fowles declared himself a "feminist".[30]

Magali Cornier Michael criticises this reading of the text, saying that the novel's overwhelming reliance on male perspectives on women and feminism prevents the novel from meeting feminist objectives.[15] Similarly, Michelle Phillips Buchberger argues that The French Lieutenant's Woman, along with Fowles' two earlier novels The Collector (1963) and The Magus (1965), proclaimed a "pseudo-feminism" while advocating some feminist ideas; but, she says, they are permeated by a "fetishism [of women that] perpetuates the idea of woman as 'other'".[29] Alice Ferrebe also notes that, despite Fowles' attempts to critique masculine values, his novels remain male fantasies demonstrative of the "compromises and contradictions" created by the gendered situation in which he was writing.[31] Other literary critics, such as William Palmer, Peter Conradi, Bruce Woodcock and Pamela Cooper, have also critiqued Fowles' claims to a feminist perspective and representation.[notes 1]

Fowles's presentation of Sarah, one of the most enigmatic female characters in literary history, is also psychoanalytically informed. Fowles himself was interested in the psychology of men and women. The enigma of femininity, myth of masculinity, and impossibility of man-woman relationship are some of the crucial themes. Through Sarah's deliberate spreading of lies about herself and her relationship with Charles, Fowles brilliantly brings about the various aspects of femininity that has the potential to authenticate, threaten, and expose the vanity of the male subjects.[32]

The text's representations of the past introduce anachronistic perspectives on the time and the characters. For example, in her queer studies-based article, "Historical Romance, Gender and Heterosexuality", Lisa Fletcher argues that The French Lieutenant's Woman, by relying on a "good love story" as the central means of representing the past, projects a contemporary hetero-normative sexuality on the history of Victorian England.[33] For Fletcher, Fowles' paradoxical treatment of Sarah as both a Victorian character and as a desirable "modern woman," through feminist gestures and sexual tension between Charles and Sarah, confines the historical set characters and their experience to stereotypical heterosexual romance.[34] Fletcher believes that overall the text creates a stereotypical and limited perspective on the past, essentially "heterosexualising the passage of (and relationship to) history".[35]

The film intercuts the stories of two romantic affairs. One is within a Victorian period drama involving a gentleman palaeontologist, Charles Smithson, and the complex and troubled Sarah Woodruff, known as "the French lieutenant's woman". The other affair is between the actors Mike and Anna, playing the lead roles in a modern filming of the story. In both segments, Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep play the lead roles.

This is a device that works, I think.Frankenheimer was right in arguing that just telling the Victorian love storywould leave you with É just a Victorian love story. The modern framing storyplaces the Victorian lovers in ironic relief. Everything they say and do hasanother level of meaning, because we know the "real" relationshipbetween the actors themselves. Reisz opens his film with a shot that boldlystates his approach: We see Streep in costume for her role as Sarah, attendedby a movie makeup woman. A clapboard marks the scene, and then Streep walksinto the movie's re-creation of the British coastal village of Lyme Regis.

The French lieutenant's woman is one of the mostintriguing characters in recent fiction. She is not only apparently the victimof Victorian sexism, but also (as Charles discovers) its manipulator andmaster. She cleverly uses the conventions that would limit her, as a means ofobtaining personal freedom and power over men. At least that is one way to lookat what she does. Readers of the novel will know there are others.

One day, while walking by the sea with his betrothed, and exchanging hyperbolical pleasantries, Charles comes upon a strange young woman standing forlornly, "her stare aimed like a rifle at the farthest horizon." Upon asking Ernestina about the woman's identity, he learns that she is Sarah Woodruff, known to the residents of Lyme Regis, Dorset, as the abandoned lover of a French naval officer, and a "hoer."

Charles Smithson, a respectable engaged man, meets Sarah Woodruff as she stands on the Cobb at Lyme Regis, staring out to sea. Charles falls in love, but Sarah is a disgraced woman, and their romance will defy all the stifling conventions of the Victorian age.

The year is 1867, and gentleman Charles Henry Smithson is fairly content with life. He is engaged to Ernestina Freeman, an industrialist's daughter who is kind, loving and rich. Within a few years he can look forward to inheriting his family's estate from his uncle. Although he has no great achievements to which to aspire, he has an agile mind and a passion for natural sciences. However, a lingering dissatisfaction with the predictability and restraint of the society around him gnaws at Charles, and this becomes increasingly hard to ignore after he meets Sarah Woodruff, a single governess variously nicknamed "Tragedy" and "the French lieutenant's woman".

Mr. Fowles has written a Victorian novel. An eminently Victorian novel filled with the hindsights of many of its more recent commentators (Marcus, et al) as well as his own amplifying asides as he appears in the wings to interrupt the narrative with a sometimes magisterial disregard for its progression. But then, certainly for the first two thirds, this is not so much a novel as a portrait of an era as heavily burdened with duty and piety and conformity as with marble and mahogany. What story there is (and some of Fowles' readers will perhaps regret its yielding to edification) deals with the tri-cornered relationship between Charles Smithson, Ernestina, his fiancee, and Sarah Woodruff, reputed and professing to be a French Lieutenant's discarded woman. Charles is a wellborn young man of scientific bent and dilettante pursuits; Ernestina, up from trade, is petulant, conventional and well endowed; while Sarah, briefly taken in as a companion to an old tartar who sacks her, is mistily romantic as she takes solitary walks. Charles tries and fails to resist her. By the close, after having introduced his readers to just about every aspect of Victorian life on several levels and to the ideas then in ferment (not only Darwin and Marx and Freud but also Hardy and Matthew Arnold and Tennyson) Mr. Fowles is back again in form and the drama intensifies with all the false starts and wrong turns and stunning reverses which he handles so well. Period parody or pastiche, it again reveals Fowles' manifest erudition as well as understanding of the unhallowed virtues of this opening dosed society. 041b061a72


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