John Fowles often found his storytelling skills inspired by mental images,
scenes that evoke a sense of mystery and demand an explanation. In
December 1966, he had one of these charged visions. “A woman stands at
the end of a deserted quay and stares out to sea,” he later recalled. “This
image rose in my mind one morning when I was still in bed half asleep.”

At first, he saw the image as the representation
of a myth. He recalled the many ancient stories
of women left home while their sea-faring lovers
—Odysseus, Aeneas, or some other hero—
travel off to war or to fulfill some divine destiny.
But soon the woman in Fowles’s vision had a
name, Sarah Woodruff, and the beginnings of
a personal story. By the end of January 1967,
Fowles was immersed in the writing of
French Lieutenant’s Woman, his third novel
and the bestselling work of his career.

Other sources of inspiration shaped the
unfolding narrative. Even before his vision  
of the woman on the quay, Fowles had been
haunted by the landscape and coastal areas
of South Dorset, a locale infused with, in his
words, a “very ancient magic of place.” He may
also have drawn on a semi-autobiographical
story that he had sketched out in 1953, about a young British writer’s affair
with a mysterious older woman who is haunted by her own past betrayal by
an Austrian officer.

In the case of Sarah Woodruff, she has been abandoned by the French
lieutenant Varguennes—who, despite his prominence in the book's title,
plays almost no part in the novel's dramatic events. Fowles is more
interested in the enigma of the fallen woman, the ostracized female viewed
by her community as a source of scandal and gossip. Such women were
well-known to Victorian society, and might even appear in a story, but rarely
as more than a cardboard figure—to play a part in a moralizing tale about
female weakness or the dangers of concupiscence. Fowles wisely
understood that such characters could tell us things about nineteenth
century life that the female protagonists of Jane Austen or William
Thackeray or George Eliot would never reveal.

Fowles's fascination with Sarah Woodruff is shared by his leading male
character Charles Smithson. By the standards of Victorian England,
Smithson is highly educated, worldly and enlightened. He dabbles in
science, and admires Darwin. Despite his own advantages as an elite in a
rigidly hierarchical class structure, he prides himself on his progressive
views. Smithson finds "English society too hidebound, English solemnity
too solemn, English thought too moralistic, English religion too bigoted."  

Yet by our contemporary standards, Smithson is still repressed, and out of
touch with his own drives and unconscious desires. He doesn't know about
the Id, Ego and Superego, or the Jungian anima and animus, or Sartrean
mauvaise foi or Reichian orgones. Smithson's concept of sexuality is still
embedded in the moral and religious views of his time and place. He still
wants a respectable Victorian wife, and the proper life of a British
gentleman. Under this framework, the "French lieutenant’s whore"—as
Woodruff is known in the community—can only be treated with disdain or
perhaps, at best, a small dose of Christian charity.

But Sarah Woodruff refuses to play the role of disgraced harlot, or even of
victim. She is a powerful character with an inner life just as deep—perhaps
deeper—than the eminent Mr. Smithson.  Throughout his career, Fowles
relied on strong female characters to create the dramatic conflicts in his
stories, and Sarah Woodruff may be the most compelling of all. Even
Fowles found himself surprised at how she took over his novel. Her allure
and psychic complexity challenge Smithson’s assumptions about the world
and evoke a charged eroticism that dominates the novel. What can
Smithson do in response to it? He can hardly choose to abandon his
respectable life. Yet he is equally incapable of resisting the magnetic pull of
the French lieutenant’s woman.   

A Victorian novelist could never have told a romantic story about a
repressed but self-confident British gentleman and a fallen enchantress.
Even if the characters were familiar ones, the psychological boundaries
breached here could not be described in the language of the time. But
Fowles is under no such constraint. Here is the exact opposite of the
unreliable narrator, that now familiar device of postmodern novelists. In
French Lieutenant’s Woman
we encounter, instead, the narrator who knows
too much—who knows about Freud, and Steven Marcus’s study of The
Other Victorians, and sociological concepts and statistics that the
traditional tellers of Victorian tales aren’t allowed to know.

This double nature informs every aspect of Fowles’s novel, and draws the
reader in, mesmerizing us with the paradoxical sense that this is both a
novel of the past and of the present-day. The binary nature of the novel
extends even to the ending—or, to be more accurate, I should say
‘endings’, because our author provides two of them.  We have both
traditional romance and a deconstruction of traditional romance, although
Fowles makes clear his allegiance here. He is
one of us, a postmodern
with all the paradoxes that label conveys, but he is also deeply sympathetic
to the Victorian mindset. In the final analysis,
The French Lieutenant’s
demands respect on both levels—both as a quintessentially
postmodern work of 20th century fiction, yet also as a truer tale of Victorian
life than even the Victorians could tell. A novelist could hardly aim higher.
Does Fowles really aspire to out-do Hardy and Dickens at their own game?
Yet he also wants to show us that he knows as many avant-garde tricks as
Pynchon and Barth.

Perhaps the biggest surprise here is the public’s reception of this avant-
garde novel, rich with metanarrative, textual games, and deeply embedded
ambiguity. In February 1967,
The French Lieutenant’s Woman dislodged
Mario Puzo’s
The Godfather from the top spot in the New York Times
bestseller list, and would retain that position for another twelve weeks—and
stay on the list for an entire year. It later spawned a successful film,
nominated for five Academy Awards, and a stage play. Fowles would never
again savor the triumph and success achieved by this mid-career work—to
some extent, he avoided even trying. He would live almost forty more years,
but only publish three more novels during this span. At an age when many
other authors are still producing new works every two or three years,
Fowles devoted himself to a strange, assortment of tasks—serving  as
curator of a local museum, writing letters to the editor of a small town
newspaper, giving a talk on geology, contributing an article on cricket to a
sports magazine, and the like.

One almost suspected that Fowles wished the literary world would go away,
and forget he even existed.  And it just might have done so, if he hadn’t left
behind such a visionary work, the great Victorian novel that never was.

Ted Gioia writes on literature, music and popular culture.  His most recent
book is
Love Songs: The Hidden History, published by Oxford University Press.

Published November 6, 2015
Revisiting John Fowles's The
French Lieutenant's Woman
by Ted Gioia
a website devoted to radical,
unconventional and experimental
fiction with a particular focus on the
rise of modernism and its aftermath.
Essays on John Fowles (1926-2005)

Ten years after his death in November 2005, novelist John
Fowles is an almost forgotten figure. His novels, once widely
discussed and debated, are seldom read and rarely even
mentioned in current-day literary circles. I am both saddened
and surprised by this state of affairs. I believe that John Fowles
ranks among the half-dozen finest novelists of his generation,
and his books still have much to teach us. With the goal of
spurring more interest in this seminal figure in 20th century
literature, I am commemorating the 10th anniversary of
Fowles's death by publishing 5 online essays on his work.
Ted Gioia
fractious fiction
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