The French Lieutenant’s Woman as a Guidebook to British Literature

John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a postmodern historical fiction set in Victorian England in 1867 surrounding a very Romantic protagonist. Fowles takes his central character—Charles Henry Smithson, amateur archaeologist—through an evolution of mindsets from Victorian to Modern and, finally, Postmodern. For a novel with so much scope and literary device, Fowles’ tale provides incredible clarity on the literary ideals of each period.

William Wordsworth’s “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads serves as a guidebook for the ideals of Romantic literature, as much as any manifesto can. Lyrical Ballads was nothing short of a revolution of poetic thought and a rejection of the stylized and structured poetry that hitherto had ruled the day. Wordsworth’s goal was to portray common occurrences with common language, as “a man speaking to men” (299), making his poetry more accessible and more emotionally bare. The job of the poet is to color his observations with imagination and thereby evoke in his reader the same excitement felt in actually observing the subject. Poetry, then, should be the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (295), generated after deep thought on the experience.

Wordsworth feels his natural poetry is especially important to his contemporary audience, as “a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind” (297). Wordsworth is mainly referring to the revolutions in America and France and the general migration into cities. As an antidote, he offers “truth, not individual and local, but general, and operative…carried alive into the heart by passion” (300). The poet’s focus on truth is central to Romantic literature and all literary movements to follow; the periods differ only in their methods for conveying truth and their perception of the truth.

Wordsworth’s partner for the Lyrical Ballads, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, shared Wordsworth’s vision of making poetry more accessible and powerful through simplicity. His poetry focusing on the supernatural began a popular subset of Romantic literature, a return to the mysticism and imagination of Shakespeare and Spenser, continued by the “Satanic School” of poets including Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. Coleridge’s epic Rime of the Ancient Mariner makes use of supernatural elements—including hypnosis, curses, spirits, angels, and zombies—in order to employ imagination in evoking real emotions regarding fanciful circumstances. Coleridge’s cursed, mysterious wanderer appears again and again in Romantic literature as a man with “strange power of speech” (line 587). Once his tale is told, the wanderer disappears in search of his next telling, not unlike what Coleridge—and later Byron and Keats—see as the compulsion of the poet.

Romantic poets often made idols of the women in their poetry, and this is especially true of women they portrayed as mysterious and unobtainable, as in George Gordon, Lord Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty.” Byron’s cousin is not simply beautiful, rather beauty envelops her like a halo round the moon, and is compared to the “tender light” of the nighttime sky “which heaven to gaudy day denies” (lines 5-6). Although Byron’s muse is serene and immovably good, there is a mystery and even a sensuality in the darkness that “meet[s] in her aspect and her eyes” (line 4) and in her raven hair.

Fowles’s use of mystery and suspense, his detailed descriptions of natural settings, and his characterization of Sarah from Charles’ perspective all betray a fondness for romanticism in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Sarah is first introduced in an almost Gothic fashion, described as “motionless, staring, staring out to sea, more like a living memorial to the drowned, a figure from myth, than any proper fragment of the petty provincial day” (5). Until the final chapters, Sarah is constantly out of place in her Victorian environs. She intentionally isolates herself in social settings, and only seems at peace in the Ware Commons, a place that takes on a romantic persona all on its own. Like the Mariner, she is the architect of her own curse. She is compelled to tell Charles her story; she singles him out as her “last resource” (143). Charles, under her influence, thinks of her in almost poetic terms, comparing her to both the Virgin Mary and Calypso in the span of a few pages. Intentionally or not, Sarah is causing Charles to imagine myth and legend coloring his reality – she is turning him into a romantic thinker.

While Romantic poetry discovered the power of ordinary language, Victorian poetry is more concerned with ordinary circumstance. The Victorian poet is often dismayed by the urban condition and social ills of the day. John Stuart Mill in his essay “The Subjection of Women” argues that the current social and domestic position of Victorian women is not only unnatural, but akin to the recent enslavement of Africans. The woman’s societal enslavement is in fact more pervasive, since she is educated with the aim of enslaving her mind and spirit to man as well as her body. He condemns the repression of women as a relic of a bygone age, writing that in this ‘modern’ world “human beings are no longer born to their place in life…but are free to employ their faculties, and such favourable chances as offer, to achieve the lot which may appear to them most desirable” (1109). The oppression of women, then, stands as an anomaly of the past in an age of mobility and opportunity.

Victorian men cannot know their own wives, as “the position of looking up to another is extremely unpropitious to complete sincerity and openness with him” (1112). Victorian women are to act as safe harbors for their husbands, and that precludes sharing any genuine opinions. Mill’s essay differs from the works of women writers of the day because he is “a man speaking to men.” Women writers don’t pause to say that their whole sex is misunderstood by men – for them it is a given. Mill’s ideal is the “free development of originality in women which is possible to men. When that time comes, and not before, we shall see, and not merely hear, as much as it is necessary to know the nature of women” (1113). Mill makes plain the chasm of social convention between husband and wife, and between the woman as she is and the woman as she could be.

Much of what the Victorian strives against is isolation in one form or another. He is on a quest to find meaning, value, and purpose in an ever-expanding, entropic world. The speaker in Matthew Arnold’s “Isolation. To Marguerite” strives against the isolation between individuals. At first, the speaker is striving to hold on to a particular romantic relationship with Marguerite: “I bade my heart more constant be. I bade it keep the world away, and grow a home for only thee” (lines 2-4). He becomes disillusioned with the idea of true loved in line 11, “self-swayed our feelings ebb and swell,” and despairs that “how vain a thing is mortal love” (line 26). The speaker chooses, instead, to strive for truth. He is alone in his knowledge that, in fact, everyone is alone. The knowledge of his isolation is his truth. The speaker pities and envies happier men, as they are ignorant of their own loneliness and the impossibility of a deep connection in modern times.

Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” depicts a journey through the wasteland of urban morality and industrialization, epitomized by the ominous brake, “that harrow fit to reel men’s bodies out like silk” (lines 141-142). He has trained his whole life for “the sight” of the Dark Tower, an ambiguous structure that brings death, not success. And yet Roland is striving, not toward victory, but to a resolution: “neither pride nor hope rekindling at the end descried, so much as gladness that some end might be” (lines 16-18). His personal success is accomplished through his striving, by enduring the barren and gruesome world until he reaches the hellish source of all the ills of the modern city, and challenges it even as he dies. Browning’s hero fulfills his purpose in showing determination and courage in the face of suffering, evil, and death. Through the lens of Keats’s philosophy, Roland becomes a true individual and wins his soul with his last act: ““And yet dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set, and blew. ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came’” (lines 202-204). His victory song is, then, that he came, that he strove.

Charles begins The French Lieutenant’s Woman as a very typical Victorian upper-class male. He participates in a society that he despises: “he had a whiff of corollary nausea for his own time: its stifling propriety, its worship not only of the literal machine in transport and manufacturing but of the far more terrible machine now erecting in social convention” (149). He is attracted to more modern, witty women, yet still expects a traditional marriage. He confronts isolation in several forms: he cannot love his shallow, innocent fiancé, Sarah’s true motives and desires are enigmatic, he is cut off from a God he cannot reason into existence, and he is disinherited.

Modernism was marked by a rejection of Victorian convention and a return to simplicity and contemporary language. Joseph Conrad in his “Preface” to The Nigger of Narcissus says his goal as an artist and a writer is to make his reader “see”. He means this literally in the sense that he conveys sharp visual images to his audience through lush descriptions. Such a visual clarity is essential to Conrad’s conception of art, since “all art…appeals primarily to the senses, and the artistic aim when expressing itself in written words must also make its appeal through the senses, if its high desire is to reach the secret spring of responsive emotions” (1950). Once the spring is reached and the audience is engaged, a second and more vital meaning of see is meant in the sense of understanding, of gaining “that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask” (1950). The truth to which Conrad alludes there is expanded on later in his preface as “a moment of vision, a sigh, a smile—and the return to an eternal rest” (1951). Not unlike the Romantics, Conrad finds the truth of life in pausing and observing and experiencing life and nature. The trick, he says, is to distill that experience into words that compel “men entranced by the sight of distant goals” (1951) to also pause for a moment and see the truth in nature.

A key aspect of the modern movement and in getting the reader to see was the shock and disillusionment present in WWI poetry. Siegfried Sassoon’s “The Rear Guard” places the character and the reader outside of the battle itself, allowing space for the refuse and death left in war’s wake to make an impression. The description is gristly but affecting: what reader would not empathize with the horror in kicking “a soft unanswering heap…terribly glaring up, whose eyes yet wore agony dying hard ten days before; and fists of fingers clutched a blackening wound” (lines 14-18). Sassoon’s aim is to disclose and ungilt the horrible truth of war. Later modernist works use the WWI poet’s techniques in creating apocalyptic settings, such as in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.

Doris Lessing’s “To Room Nineteen” criticizes the lack of an established role for middle to upper class women, especially after raising children. The selflessness that is required of the ideal mother is not compatible with the modern, fast-paced, self-centered life Susan knew as a single woman. Susan’s maternal conditioning actually prevents the self-discovery she seeks and necessitates her eventual suicide. Once she has fully realized she is no longer Susan nor has she anyway of reclaiming Susan, there is no point to carry on not-being someone for the sake of her children or husband. Lessing makes the point that the modern post-children wife has no socially dictated role, and the idea of “blossoming from the root of what she had been twenty years before” is absurd, no matter the ‘intelligence’ of the couple (2763). The modern wife and mother is still haunted by Victorian convention.

Fowles employs a few modernist elements in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, but the period is largely neglected and overshadowed by his postmodern style. Charles experiences a sort of baptism into modern thought during his inner dialogue at the church that displays a kind of modernist focus on inner psychology. He sees Victorian convention as “the great hidden enemy of all his deepest yearnings” (363) and frees himself from the grasp of “the ghostly presence of the past” (365) by imagining a future with Sarah. His years of wandering in search of Sarah (and himself) hold a faint echo of the despair and disillusionment of modernism, and Fowles’ first ending is modern in style if not in tone. Sarah, in her refusal to accept Charles’ proposal and her subtle suggestion of some new arrangement, refuses to accept the stifling life of wife and mother that kills Lessing’s Susan.

Postmodernism is, in a sense, post-apocalyptic. It recognizes that the world has broken irreparably, but life goes on. The brokenness is often mimicked in literature through non-linear storytelling, metafiction, and intertextuality. “One Out of Many” by V.S. Naipaul is a grim exploration of brokenness and acceptance through the eyes of an Indian immigrant to America. Postcolonial displacement is a large subset of the postmodern literary movement. Though Santosh loses his family, his identity, his employer, his only friend, and his freedom, he counts his losses as part of life. He sees life’s ironies–“I was good looking; I had lost my looks. I was a free man; I had lost my freedom” (2873)—and gradually relinquishes any attempt at control. His final acquiescence is in agreeing to Priya’s suggestion that he marry the hubshi woman and become legal in America. Though Santosh no longer has a reason to hide, he does not want to live his new life: “All that my freedom has brought me is the knowledge that I have a face and a body, that I must feed this body and clothe this body for a certain number of years. Then it will be over” (2878). He simply endures.

Joe, Ian McEwan’s narrator in Enduring Love, intentionally stalls and slows down his narrative to put more emphasis on the moment of crisis, and he acknowledges his technique: “I’m lingering on the prior moment because it was a time when other outcomes were still possible” (3014). McEwan sees his timeline as a sort of Schrödinger’s cat—unknowable and limitless until observed. McEwan’s narrator regularly involves the reader in his story, but because the narrator is also a character in his own story he becomes both unreliable and more engaging. In using a disaster to evaluate his character’s psychology, McEwan causes the reader to evaluate the narrator’s psychology, and the author’s, and the reader’s own.

W.H. Auden in “Musée des Beaux Arts” recognizes a kind of ‘postmodern’ attitude in the work of classical painters. He applauds their perception of “how everything turns away quite leisurely from disaster” (lines 14-15), the indifference of the world to individual suffering. The fall itself is not the focus of Brueghel’s The Fall of Icarus; we see “white legs disappearing into the green water” (line 18), but everyone else “had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on” (line 21). The focus is the ordinariness of everything else. Auden uses intertextuality—or in this case, intermediality–to enrich his message. He references three paintings of Brueghel’s before mentioning The Fall of Icarus outright, all of which portray an ironically indifferent background to the miraculous or disastrous.

Fowles gradually introduces more and more postmodernism into The French Lieutenant’s Woman as the novel progresses. In the first chapter, the narrator addresses the reader directly, using first person ‘I’ and ‘you’ and there is an immediate playfulness in tone that betrays postmodern sympathies. Chapter 13 is the narrator’s first break in his narrative to talk directly about the autonomy of his characters: “If I have pretended until now to know my characters’ minds…it is because I am writing in…a convention universally accepted at the time of my story: that the novelist stands next to God” (95). Fowles therefore erects his own limits as an omniscient narrator, giving his characters some semblance of free will and permitting Sarah her mystery. And yet, the more autonomy Fowles gives his characters the less free they become. Charles feels his own indecision “driving him towards a future it, not he, would choose” (362). With his new, modern perspective, Charles finds his loss of agency preferable to his Victorian chains.

At the close of chapter 44 and Fowles’ first, rushed ending, the novel makes a true break with its literary ancestry in revealing that his first ending is, in fact, a fiction inside a fiction—it is Charles’ imagined ending. At this point the narrator inserts himself into the story as a character and determines to present two equally plausible, less traditional (in his mind more realistic) endings to the story, and the character of the author literally manipulates time to do so. The second ending presents Charles as having reached a postmodern acceptance of his failure: he “has already begun…to realize that life…is to be…endured” (467), but in one way, it is a victory too, as he doesn’t compromise his integrity to be with Sarah on her disagreeable terms.

As postmodern as Fowles’ second ending is, Fowles’ last sentence is borrowed from Matthew Arnold’s Victorian “To Marguerite.” Charles is reminiscent of Robert Browning’s Childe Roland, having found and confronted his tower, having made the journey, having strove. And while Charles endures, he also despairs, and is emotionally drained like a character of Hemingway’s or Eliot’s. Though Sarah is a “New Woman,” she is still a Romantic figure in her mystique and her search for beauty and simplicity. Fowles’ weaves together the literary legacies of all four periods seamlessly and takes Charles on a philosophical journey from Victorian to Romantic to Modern and, finally, Postmodern.

Hannah Moseley