The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a tease of a novel, which pays tribute to the conventional Victorian novels of writers like Charles Dickens and George Eliot while playing with the reader’s expectations of what those conventions should be.
Fowles’ digressions into Victorian intellectual, social and artistic culture turn the novel into more than just a personal drama, offering the reader a sweeping panorama of the period. His main characters stand highlighted against this background as representatives of all the changes quietly revolutionising Britain: the battle between scientific faith and religious doubt, for example, or the challenging figure of the New Woman.
Consequently, the love story between Sarah and Charles has higher stakes than a normal romance. It is testament to Fowles’ talent that he manages to make Sarah and Charles fully-rounded characters as well as symbols. If anything, they are slightly too complex for easy reading: with less sympathetic guidance from the author it would be easy to dislike selfish, callow Charles and self-destructive, inscrutable Sarah. Fowles doesn’t smooth our way entirely: only one of the three alternative endings gives the couple even the most equivocal of happily-ever-afters.
Sarah is as much a mystery to the reader as to her author (if we believe his claims) – as much a mystery as Charles is to himself. There is an element of chicanery in Fowles’ claims to have relinquished control of his characters, but this legerdemain adds a suspense to the novel that might otherwise feel lacking – and without which the dual ending might fall flat. By flaunting the unconventional elements of the novel, Fowles makes us examine it with a critical eye. He equips us with the background knowledge with which to judge not only the actions of his characters, their motivations and moral worth, but the whole Victorian age.
These digressions could easily have been a failure, but the picture of the lesser-known aspects of the Victorians that they paint is captivating. Fowles does not always perfectly judge the reader’s appetite for digression: the long exposition of the case of de la Roncière can seriously strain the patience. At some points Fowles lays the allusions on so thick and fast that the reader is forced to choose between following up all the references at the expense of the story’s pace, or brushing past them and losing some of the rich context. For some readers, even his lightest salting of extraneous detail will detract from the novel’s plot.
Fowles does succeed in making the reader care about Charles and Sarah, but the secondary characters (with the exception of Sam) can seem a little roughly-sketched, or caricature-like: Aunt Tranter and Mrs Poulteney, those twin poles of Victorian matronhood, could have stepped out of Dickens. His most traditionally Victorian moments have the capacity to irritate as much as his most modern touches: there will be some readers who are neither familiar nor comfortable with the Victorian style of leading a reader by the hand through the more complex moral aspects of a story.
It is on the unique aspects of The French Lieutenant’s Woman – its hybrid of didactic, digressive Victorian narration with postmodern experimentation – that it must succeed or fail. While the games Fowles plays with conventional novel form were exciting and unusual at the time of the book’s publication, they are now commonplace. Without the special pleading that novelty affords, the reader’s final verdict will depend on whether they are engaged or irritated by the novel’s chimerical nature.
"A splendid, lucid, profundly satisfying work of art, a book which I want almost immediately to read again" - New Statesman
"Anyone who enjoys nineteenth-century fiction will be engaged by this novel, a kind of love story set in 1867, written in the style of an uncensored and emancipated Thackeray [...] Fowles has found a way, in this tour de force, to emulate the great Victorians, to supplement them without patronage" - Times Literary Supplement
"A brilliant success [...] it is a passionate piece of writing as well as an immaculate example of storytelling" - The Financial Times