The French Lieutenant’s Woman

I’m doing pretty well with my reading plans! Still working on Ivanhoe, but I finished The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles.

I’m…ambivalent about it. I had thought that it actually was a Victorian novel, before realizing it was written a century too late for that. This is clearly a modern analysis of Victorian society, and the struggle to break free from its habits and mores.

the frech lieutenant's womanCharles Smithson is a gentleman and amateur scientist enjoying a holiday at Lyme and spending time with his fiancee Ernestina.  While there, he encounters the former governess Sarah Woodruff, a strange, aloof woman who makes tongues wag by walking out alone every day. The story goes that she was jilted by her French lover. Charles can’t help but be attracted to the unconventional creature, though an attachment between them would never do.

The narrator brings a modern perspective to the story, and is almost aware that it is fiction. He (I’m assuming) is omniscient in his treatment of the characters, but will go off on asides about Charles Darwin or Thomas Hardy. I waffled between finding him interesting and intrusive. This treatment gave a level of separation to the narrative. I found myself having some sympathy for Charles and for Tina, but Sarah remained impenetrable, as I suspect she was intended to be. I cannot say that I liked her, or comprehended her. Now that time has passed I have a little more understanding for what might have motivated some of her actions, but I was very annoyed with her when reading.

Because I never fully embraced her character, I didn’t always find the romance believable, either. I almost felt that they were both just searching for something new and exciting and mysterious, a little out of reach, rather than love. ( There’s also a tutor at my job named Sarah Woodruff, so that always threw me a bit, too.)

So, still ambivalent, but I’m glad I read it, and any book that makes me think about it and look for literary criticism is good in the long run. (Except The Sound and the Fury which will forever make my list of most frustrating books.)

The French Lieutenant’s Woman is on both The Guardian and 1001 Books lists.

Published in: on March 13, 2011 at 6:45 pm  Leave a Comment  
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