“The French Lieutenant’s Woman” by John Fowles

The-French-Lieutenants-WomanThe woman at the centre of this book is found in Victorian Lyme Regis. Sarah Woodruff is a disgraced woman, supposedly abandoned by a French naval officer and now spending much of her time staring out to the sea and offending the sensibilities of local people. We meet her on the Cobb (which is pictured on the cover of almost every edition of the book), where she is noticed by Charles Smithson, a gentleman and amateur naturalist. Charles is visiting the town with his fiance, the improbably-named Ernestina. Charles sees himself as modern and scientific in his outlook, so dispassionately sets out to help Sarah despite the opinions of others in the town. Except of course that Charles somehow doesn’t quite feel he should tell Ernestina of everything that he is doing, and despite his best intentions, finds himself drawn increasingly to Sarah. 

This summary of the plot, however, is simplistic. Wikipedia explains that the novel builds on Fowles’ authority in Victorian literature, both following and critiquing many of the conventions of period novels. It goes on to say that the novel’s reputation is based on its “expression of postmodern literary concerns through thematic focus on metafiction, historiography, metahistory, marxist criticism and feminism”. Gosh. There are several words there that I had to look up… thankfully, the links are all there in Wikipedia.

We read this in June 2014,when six people attended the meeting. Surprisingly, we missed the obvious debate around marxist criticism, yet the novel still stimulated a good discussion.

One of our group enjoyed Sarah as a character and thought her quite manipulative and possibly bordering on insanity, yet another argued that the characters were stereotypically Victorian.

There were differing views regarding the author’s intrusions and the use of multiple endings. Some of us found them enjoyable; one of us even felt that the novel would have made a not very good story without them. Others found them confusing or irritating.

One felt there was a lack of description of the Lyme Regis scenery, yet others suggested that the Cobb and undercliff were both central to the book.

Overall, the novel was felt to be a good book club choice, offering lots for discussion. Whilst no-one seemed particularly enthusiastic about arguing for the book, it still gained a respectable average score of 6.5 (from 7 votes).

Other reviews:

  • 101 Books found their preconceptions about the book entirely wrong, and ended up liking it.
  • Writing in The Guardian, John Crace cleverly reviews the novel by providing a “digested classic” in the style of Fowles, summarising the plot and making gentle fun of many of the author’s devices. Best appreciated after having read the book! 
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1 Comment

  1. malcolmbbc

     /  July 21, 2014

    Bill was on holiday but sent in these comments:

    “Any novel that begins with a Thomas Hardy poem is hard for me not to like, and I enjoyed the book. Eventually, though, I found the quotations at the start of each chapter an annoying distraction, and the intrusions of the author similarly irritating. I liked the idea that he’s looking at the late 19th century from a late 20th century perspective, and he has the skill, learning and cleverness to carry it off; but it didn’t quite work for me. The story – adeptly plotted, with hints of Hardy, Trollope, Dickens, Austen et al – was somehow lost in the rhetoric. At times I felt I was being lectured to, and under instruction to judge, both their times and ours.

    In fact, it was just the kind of book I’d like to have written!”


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