The French Lieutenant’s Woman is one the the novels that seems to make all the Top 100 lists, whether personal or commercial. They even made the novel into a motion picture starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons. I never felt the need to watch the movie but I was aware that it’s structure involved the contrast between a fictional story set in the 1860s and a modern-day production being filmed of that same story. I assume the themes and ironies were developed by the contrasts between the original story and the revised story being turned into a movie. But for all I know the contrasting time periods served only to make the themes seem more complex than they were.
Unlike the film, the book never leaves the 19th century but the author interjects more than enough commentary to show that it is all fiction and the events and characters are invented and manipulated solely by the writer. So The French Lieutenant’s Woman is both a Victorian novel and also a postmodern treatise on the artificiality of the novel and the methods the author uses to create his fiction.
Unfortunately, postmodern fiction like this is not surprising or fresh nowadays and for me the novel suffered from lack of interest. The story is almost a cliché: a wealthy aristocrat destroys his life by falling in love with a woman of dubious background. Other novelists have developed the sordidness of this affair with much richer and evocative prose. Sarah, the fallen woman, is decidedly a transistional character, moving from Victorian social requirements to a freer more modern approach to life. Charles, the nobleman, unfortunately continues supporting the old ways and in the end loses pretty much everything. She grows; he doesn’t.
Although the novel was longish and ultimately tedious, it did keep up my interest for the most part. I find that John Fowles writes novels that catch my interest, sounding like something I really want to read; but I’m not sure that Fowles can follow through and deliver the novels he seems to promise. Is this just my jaundiced reader-response souring my experience with his novels, or is Fowles not as good as some seem to insist?
Some of Fowles’s other works included:
(1963) The Collector
(1964) The Aristos, essays
(1966) The Magus (revised 1977)
(1969) The French Lieutenant’s Woman
(1973) Poems by John Fowles
(1974) The Ebony Tower
(1977) Daniel Martin
(1979) The Tree
(1980) The Enigma of Stonehenge
(1982) A Short History of Lyme Regis
(1985) A Maggot
(1985) Land (with Fay Godwin)
(1990) Lyme Regis Camera
(1998) Wormholes – Essays and Occasional Writings
(2003) The Journals – Volume 1
(2006) The Journals – Volume 2