Thursday, 18 May 2017

Review: The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles

Vintage edition book cover - The French Lieutenant's Wife by John Fowles
At least I know how to spell 'lieutenant' now...?

I think I'd heard of this book before, in the vague way that a book's title is occasionally ingrained into the public consciousness, without any understanding of the content or theme of the novel. Such was The French Lieutenant's Wife. I'd heard of it, but what did I know about it? Nada.

(EDIT: And apparently I've still learned absolutely nothing as I keep calling it by the wrong title... )

Plot summary: Of all John Fowles' novels The French Lieutenant's Woman has received the most universal acclaim and today holds a very special place in the canon of post-war English literature. From the god-like stance of the nineteenth-century novelist that he both assumes and gently mocks, to the last detail of dress, idiom and manners, his book is an immaculate recreation of Victorian England. Not only is it the epic love story of two people of insight and imagination seeking escape from the cant and tyranny of their age, The French Lieutenant's Woman is also a brilliantly sustained allegory of the decline of the twentieth-century passion for freedom.

I bought this after spotting it (and eleven other books - oops) in a charity shop, despite being completely unenlightened by the vagueness of the synopsis above. Even though I knew absolutely nothing about the plot, I simply had to read it based on how much I'd loved The Collector the year before. I'd adored John Fowles' formal yet chatty narrative, and the way his characters (although dislikeable) were brought to life. I knew at the time that I had to read more of his work. All of it, if possible.

And here we are. The French Lieutenant's Woman is a simpler plot than The Collector, at least prima facie. The book is set in Lyme Regis in the 1860s, and revolves around a young, recently engaged couple, Charles Smithson and Ernestina Freeman. In the same town, there's a young woman by the name of Sarah Woodruff who has been scorned for a scandal involving, you guessed it, a French lieutenant. 

That's it, really. That's the story. The beauty with this novel, however, isn't the plot, it's the beauty and ingenuity of the prose. It's sort of meta, or it would be if that didn't seem an inappropriate word to use regarding a setting of 1867. Instead of the dark, stream of consciousness narration present in The Collector, the narrator spends a lot of time talking directly to the reader, with phrases such as 'you'll have to excuse Charles, he was merely a product of his time.'

It has a similar tone to The Crimson Petal and the White, come to think of it. It's very much as if the narrator is guiding you along, nudging you to keep up and follow the characters. The author actually pops up as a minor character at one point, just to sit there and muse about the nature of novel-writing. It's odd, but not jarring.

It's balanced very well though, and stops short of becoming abstract. There's a definite story here and it's not difficult to follow, despite the frequent musings of the pecularities of the Victorian Age. If anything, that was my favourite thing, and it seems to be what has earned The French Lieutenant's Woman its glory.

She was a ploughman's daughter, fourth of eleven children who lived with their parents in a poverty too bitter to describe, her home a damp, cramped, two-room cottage in one of those valleys that radiates west from bleak Eggardon. A fashionable young London architect now has the place and comes there for weekends, and loves it, so wild, so out-of-the-way, so picturesquely rural; and perhaps this exorcizes the Victorian horrors that took place there.

I hope so; those visions of the contented country labourer and his brood... were as stupid and pernicious a sentimentalization, therefore a suppression of reality, as that un our own Hollywood films of 'real' life... Each age, each guilty age, builds high walls round its Versailles; and personally I hate those walls the most when they are made by literature and art.
I can't find the quote that I actually wanted to share, but the frequent and direct comparisons between the Victorian era and the current time (well, the 1960s) are so naturally inserted into the text, and are so imminently readable, that I just devoured them.

Honestly, without them the book wouldn't be half as interesting. The plot is simple and the main character is profoundly irritating. Charles Smithson is just awful. One minute he loves Ernestina for her little quirks, the next he can't stand the exact same little quirks... ugh. And his attitude towards Sarah Woodruff also doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

The ending is... odd. You're provided with an ending in the natural course of the novel, obviously, but then the author pops up and says 'but because I'm a writer, I can explore what also could have happened,' and then we're provided with two other endings. It doesn't state which is the 'real' one, but then that's sort of the point - Fowles states that because the whole thing is a work of fiction, each ending is as real or unreal as the next.

He's right, I suppose, but I do really prefer a fixed ending. 

It's fine though, my enjoyment of The French Lieutenant's Woman wasn't spoilt by Charles Woodruff nor John Fowles. Read this just for the prose, which reminds me quite a lot of The Crimson Petal and the White, with a smidge of The Collector. It's so, so well-written in such a unique manner, that I really do recommend that everybody pick it up.

Read my review of The Collector.

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