It was not without a little trepidation that I began this novel – given that John Fowles is responsible for both one of the best (the Collector) and worst (A Maggot) books I read last year. Luckily I found it more akin to the former, although the narrative style (modern writer consciously and conspicuously imitating a Victorian author) is similar to the latter. The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a novel that I’d heard of ages ago – although I don’t really take renown as an indication that I’ll enjoy a book so didn’t really help distil my anxiety (for some reason, in my mind I associate it with Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – I suppose because of the possessive military title – which I did really enjoy).
I think the French Lieutenant’s Woman is frustrating in that it doesn’t reach a concise conclusion: instead Fowles offers a succession of endings, each of which decreases in terms of being a conventional “happy ending” – and although I do much prefer it when a book does end on a positive note (novels that haven’t stick out in my mind much more) when I started to think about this one I think that the endings seem perfectly reasonable – actually I think it made me enjoy it more. The book tells the story of a young gentleman’s (Charles) growing fascination and involvement with the eponymous woman (Sarah), despite his betrothal to the dull and slightly odious Ernestina (which is not a name I’ve encountered before but doesn’t exactly scream good graces). Sarah has a reputation as a disgraced woman (in the Victorian sense of the word) thanks to the titular French Lieutenant; and has been taken in by a deplorable old woman looking to add an act of charity to the hiring of her house servants. To be fair, Charles and Ernestina don’t seem like the worst match ever, but something in the mystery and tragedy of Sarah attracts Charles.
I’m not sure that I completely understand Sarah’s motives, and although it might have been satisfying for the story to run a more traditional course in terms of plot in hindsight I’m glad it didn’t. Sarah is even more of a complex character than she initially seems to be – and upon reflection I don’t see why she shouldn’t act in the way she did – especially given the number of novels where women are “ruined” by deceptive male would be lovers. By no means is Charles innocent in the story, but nor was he an unlikeable character – I didn’t take any satisfaction from his situation. I don’t know how much more I can expand without giving the plot away much more – anyway I would definitely recommend it and can vouch for it not being half as stuffy as the title might suggest.