The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) by John Fowles is a book I keep coming back to with a fondness that overwhelms me upon opening the first page and overflows to the last line written. The language Fowles creates haunts me on sunny days beside an ocean where I know the world to be anything but ordinary. I am not sure why this book holds such an impression on me (though I do attempt to explain it here), because books should not be so powerful… should they?
The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a love story between a wealthy scientist named Charles (no doubt after Charles Darwin which is referenced a few times throughout the book) and Sarah, a woman without home or family in the 1860s. The two are an unlikely match: Charles is engaged to be married to Ernestina, daughter to a successful businessman—a class below Charles’s stature as gentleman—and Sarah, a commoner, is overshadowed by town rumors as the whore who belonged to a Frenchman who abandoned her.
But if appearances and perceptions, as in life, should be questioned, then nothing is ever as it seems in this Victorian romance that, unlike a majority of books, has two endings for the reader to choose from—but written in such a way that the reader believes both endings are as real as the beginning and both endings deserve a place in the imagination.
So where should I begin to introduce you, or reintroduce you, to Sarah and Charles? I shall go to the first passages I underlined in the book, and the first time Charles sees Sarah standing on the edge of a cliff looking out to sea as if she were a bird left behind by her flock.
John Fowles (1926-2005)
“So they went closer to the figure by the cannon bollard. She had taken off her bonnet and held it in her hand; her hair was pulled tight back inside the collar of the black coat—which was bizarre, more like a man’s riding coat than any woman’s coat that had been in fashion those past forty years. She too was a stranger to the crinoline; but it was equally plain that that was out of oblivion, not knowledge of the latest London taste. Charles made some trite and loud remark, to warn her that she was no longer alone, but she did not turn. The couple moved to where they could see her face in profile; and how her stare was aimed like a rifle at the farthest horizon…
“It was not a pretty face, like Ernestina’s. It was certainly not a beautiful face, by any period’s standard or taste. But it was as an unforgettable face, and a tragic face. Its sorrow welled out of it as purely, naturally and unstoppably as water out of a woodland spring. There was no artifice there, no hypocrisy, no hysteria, no mask: and above all, no sign of madness. The madness was in the empty sea, the empty horizon, the lack of reason for such sorrow; as if the spring was natural in itself, but unnatural in welling from a desert” (p 9-10).
And by the end of Chapter Two Fowles has the reader hooked and there’s little doubt in mind that Sarah exists and Charles will, must, come to her one day—if not for his sake then for the reader’s.
Since Time (Fowles once called it a room) is relative—especially by this book’s end—let us skip to the last passage I underlined and see the transformation of the young hero who has broken his engagement, lost his reputation and found a powerful love in the eyes of another.
“At last she looked up at him. Her eyes were full of tears, and her look unbearably naked. Such looks we have all once or twice in our lives received and shared; they are those in which worlds melt, pasts dissolve, moments when we know, in the resolution of profoundest need, that the rock of ages can never be anything else but love, here, now, in these two hands’ joining, in this blind silence in which one head comes to rest beneath the other; and which Charles, after a compressed eternity, breaks, though the question is more breathed than spoken.
“‘Shall I ever understand your parables?’
The language, as illustrated, I hope you find as breathtaking as I do, and the above selected passages, albeit a few, do quickly map out the journey—if it is one you wish to take—of two lovers who must overcome not only their torn hearts but their conflicting status in society.
But before I go, let me offer a momentary insight into Fowles’s symbolism: which often has a hand in religion (as it did in Daniel Martin) and the images most often associated with Christianity (as in the particular reference to “parables”)—let us look closely, then, at one last passage, which is as relevant today as it might have been in 1867:
“For a moment he could not seize it—and then it came.
“In a sudden flash of illumination Charles saw the right purpose of Christianity; it was not to celebrate this barbarous image, not to maintain it on high because there was a useful profit—the redemption of sins—to be derived from so doing, but to bring about a world in which the hanging man could descended, could be seen not with the rictus of agony on his face, but the smiling peace of a victory brought about by, and in, living men and women.
“He seemed as he stood there to see all his age, its tumultuous life, its iron certainties and rigid conventions, its repressed emotion and facetious humor, its cautious science and incautious religion, its corrupt politics and immutable castes, as the great hidden enemy of all his deepest yearnings. That was what had deceived him: and it was totally without love or freedom…but also without thought, without intention, without malice, because the deception was in its very nature; and it was not human, but a machine. That was the vicious circle that haunted him; that was the failure, the weakness, the cancer, the vital flaw that had brought him to what he was: more an indecision than a reality, more a dream than a man, more a silence than a word, a bone than an action. And fossils!
“He had become, while still alive, as if dead.
“It was like coming to a bottomless brink” (p 363).
So this is where I’ve decided to leave you—upon the brink.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles is a true work of art and a testament to what a mind can create if given the chance in a machine-world filled with machine-minds.
Let us hold onto love and beauty, despite the raw brutality and cruelty most often found in religions and politics. Art is what will save us in the end.
Keep reading and smiling…
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