The Story: 1867. Charles is visiting the English town of Lyme with his fiance, Ernestina. There he meets Sarah, a supposed ‘fallen woman’ who lost her virtue to a shipwrecked French naval lieutenant.
A suitably tragic Victorian romance ensues.
Why It’s Awesome: I’d been looking forward to this one for a long time. I read John Fowles’ The Collector a few years ago and polished it off in an afternoon it was that good.
Therefore, I had high expectations for The French Lieutenant’s Woman and I have to admit, I was a little disappointed. Ostensibly, it’s a Victorian novel, but Fowles employs a self-conscious 20th century narrator to comment on the class and gender inequities of the Victorian age. He also talks about Roland Barthes, Bertolt Brecht and various other contemporary theorists and how their ideas have impacted on his crafting of the story. This is interesting enough to start with, but becomes increasingly tiresome. It’s annoyingly Brechtian, in that the reader is constantly being pulled out of the story to be reminded that what they are reading is a constructed piece of fiction with broader social, philosophical, cultural and thematic resonance. Written in the late 60s, when cultural theory was incredibly hip, this was probably very exciting, but for me (who loves nothing better than a really devastating Victorian romance) it was a little frustrating.
I was also a little disappointed with the language. The writing was so confused with double negatives, I had to keep rereading sentences.
While Sarah is mildly interesting, none of the characters are particularly likeable and by the end, I didn’t particularly care what happened to any of them.
So not so awesome after all.
More Like This: In the Victorian romance department I’d recommend some Thomas Hardy. Fowles references him constantly and Tess of the D’urbervilles is one of my absolute favourites. If you want to try some other Fowles, The Collector is excellent and deeply disturbing.