Thoughts: The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles

I mean I’m going to open with this: if you want to read the thoughts of people much more interesting and intelligent than me, read the (wonderful) Guardian reading group’s posts on it, and the comments. My thoughts are not going to be this informed or thoughtful.

It took me a little while to acclimate to Fowles’s dense narration style, being catapulted from the distant future (the year 3000) back to the 1800s, but his narrative voice (and character) was a lot of fun, and I had a great time being told this story by him. It’s often described and presented as a postmodern novel, but I didn’t feel like it was particularly out-there – the authorial interruptions and meditations on the processes of writing a novel and the multiple possible endings are about it, as far as I, a layperson, could see, and they didn’t overshadow the Victorian story itself. Maybe the fact that it didn’t feel self-consciously postmodern is some kind of success in itself. I certainly didn’t feel like it was gimmicky or being experimental for the sake of it (not that I don’t like a bit of self-indulgent experimentation when I’m in the mood).

I just really enjoyed following Charles through his premarital nerves/crisis – was he settling? Would he be happy to settle? – and having all of the privileges he’d taken for granted being taken away from him. He had told himself he didn’t care about money or status when it was Ernestina’s, because his own was assured. Once his inheritance was in doubt and he himself would have to get involved in the dreaded Trade, he realised just how strongly he actually felt about it. The same with his feelings for Sam’s future and his own part in making it a reality. He was happy when he wasn’t having to actually change his own lifestyle or give anything significant to him. The way his complacent values were questioned one by one was brilliant.

The feminism question seems to come up a lot with regards to The French Lieutenant’s Woman, so why not add my own little voice to that clamour? Was it a perfect feminist work? No, of course not, so far as such a thing could ever exist anyway. But we got Sarah at (one of) the end(s) revealing that she didn’t want to be saved by Charles, that she had her own life that she’d been living all along, independent of him, that she was happy without him, and you can see an early version of “the princess who saves herself” trope, the woman who doesn’t need a man/love interest to be happy and fulfilled.

We don’t really get to see Sarah from her own perspective; of her inner life we get only what she says to Charles. Perhaps the story is in danger of reinforcing a view of women being unknowable mysteries, but I think you could argue that a) to an extent, all people who are not us contain an element of unknowable mystery, and b) Charles and Sarah are from such different positions in a very rigid* society that yeah, I think you could say they were kind of unknowable mysteries to each other in their circumstances, desires and the ways available to them to circumvent their personal obstacles. And Sarah much more than Charles, whose gender and social class was so represented in power and considered a universal viewpoint (he’s even our protagonist), and which contained such freedoms. Even if Sarah wanted what Charles wanted, her means of getting it would necessarily be different. She would have to think and behave differently, and Charles is not particularly astute when it comes to people who are not him. He’s constantly being blindsided and swayed to other people’s ideas.

Interesting thing – Sarah staring out to sea and Charles wandering aimlessly around Europe/America later on are kind of the same thing, except that Sarah lacks the freedom of movement. She is increasingly restricted even from walking outside the town, because her unhappiness makes people uncomfortable. Charles faces no such restriction. Much more varied ways of coping with his unhappiness are available to him, and his mood/appearance is not considered to be intended for other people, so he doesn’t seem as abhorrent as her.

We get more time in the head of Charles’s manservant Sam, and his desires are certainly more simply expressed than Sarah’s, but he also has to work around Charles as an obstacle. I’ve never really read anything else that drives it home how entwined with their masters’ and mistresses’ fortunes every aspect of a servant’s life was. Sam has asked for three hundred pounds to set up his own haberdashery, a long-cherished dream of his, and to marry one of the servants of Ernestina’s Aunt Tranter’s household. Charles likes Sam, and the money is nothing to him, so he agrees.

As Charles’s impending marriage looks increasingly doubtful, and his inheritance is also put into doubt, Sam knows this promise is not looking good. He manipulates from behind the scenes as much as he can, trying to steer Charles away from Sarah and back to Ernestina, and his last resort is a particularly big betrayal to Charles, once Charles has told Sam he can’t set him free after all. I couldn’t be angry with him, though. As soon as Charles’s values are questioned, he is revealed to not be as magnanimous towards his manservant as he may originally have believed himself to be, when he was tolerating Sam’s irreverence and half-arsed work and promising him gifts of three hundred pounds. As soon as that gift would impact on Charles’s life, he decides he’d actually rather not, regardless of how this would affect Sam’s life, and how many more years of his life it would take Sam to get where Charles could have helped him to.

Eventually Sam compromises in order to get as near to what he wants as he can, through some clever use of rich contacts (the only avenue open to him) and then making use of his own skills to make his own happiness. This kind of compromise, which the lower classes will have had to accept as a necessary part of a life where dreams cannot be relied on to come true of their own accord, is something Charles isn’t used to and seems incapable of. Not his decision not to marry Ernestina (which was brilliantly handled, and I think he made the right choice) but his decision never to give up on Sarah once her position was clear. He could have been happy in America, but he wouldn’t let himself be because he hadn’t got that one thing he wanted.

So yeah. I liked it. It gave me a lot to think about, and I was sad to leave Victorian postmodern England behind, though at the same time glad I didn’t live there.

*Of course some people, Ernestina’s father, for instance, managed to travel very far up the ladder of social class, but they are naturally outliers or else nobody would be poor, would they.

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