The seaside town of Lyme in 1867 holds two attractions for Charles Smithson: Miss Ernestina Freeman (a draper’s daughter, true, but a wealthy draper’s daughter) and the fine fossils to be found in the rocks about the cliffs. Although Tina’s father doesn’t care for Charles’s veneration of Darwin, he does care for the baronetcy to which he is heir presumptive. So Charles comes to Lyme, where Tina is staying with her aunt and planning for married life. He is content with his two loves until fate engineers a series of meetings with a local curiosity. Sarah Woodruff is known as ‘Tragedy’ in polite circles and ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ in others, and holds the thankless post of companion to Mrs Poulteney. The story around town is that she was a governess seduced and abandoned by a French sailor, who later turned out to be married, and that she haunts the shore watching for his ship to return.
But was she, and does she? As Charles is irresistibly drawn to her, he begins to wonder just what her nature and background really are, and what it is that drives her to set herself apart from other women. Not even local disapproval and the warnings of Dr. Grogan can deter his curiosity. But in his fascination with Sarah, he fails to see the trouble brewing right under his nose. His valet is in love with Ernestina’s maid, and has no intention of remaining a servant all his life. Sam’s ambition is a firm foothold in the haberdashery business, something which will cost far more money than he possesses. But he knows more of the goings-on of three households than Charles thinks, and is sure that he can get that better life for himself and Mary - if he only plays his cards right.
I haven’t said much about the title character, because she is still something of a mystery to me. (There was, alas, no epiphany on the second reading à la The Riders.) Was there something wrong with her mind, or was she sane and working off reasons of her own? I know how tempting it is, when you don’t fit in, to opt for defiance and be different in ways of your own choosing and control. It’s easier to bear being an outcast if it’s the result of your own choices rather than the imposition of others; and it’s a fine way of saying ‘Screw you; I never wanted to be like you anyway.’ But whether Sarah’s brain works anything like mine would take another reading to decide. (A measured, thoughtful one, not speeding through the pages for five minutes in every thirty as a study break.) I might still be puzzled by her, but I felt a connection to her as a fellow outsider.
It was the style which first drew me to this book; I came across an excerpt in a trial AST exam in Year 12 and was intrigued by the notion of a novel from the twentieth century written in the manner of one from the nineteenth. It didn’t disappoint then and I still love it now It’s got the rolling sentences and love of words of the Victorian era with the opportunity to slip in references to things post-1867, like describing Mrs. Poulteney’s laudanum habit as a ‘Victorian valley of the dolls’. The imitation goes so far as to include authorial intrusion, literally: Fowles himself appears in the book, at one stage watching Charles while contemplating what to do with him. Like Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he freely admits that it’s all unreal, and even digresses into a discussion of the writing process and the habit some characters have of escaping the control of their creator. This style allows for descriptions of life in the nineteenth century and comparisons between the time of the book and the time of writing; and means that obsolete words can be explained without the presence of the explanation seeming unnatural.
As well as the style, it is the characters that make the book. At its centre, Sarah is seen as something different by each, even as she resists looking too closely at herself. Charles is in one way ahead of his time - he accepts without doubt Darwin’s theory of natural selection and evolution. Yet in others he is almost too much a man of his time; and it is, ironically, his efforts to behave as gentleman in one regard that sink his hopes of being able to do so in another. There is no real change in Ernestina over the course of the book, simply a slow revealing of her true character as Charles began to realise it. But she was aware of her shortcomings, so there is at least the hope that, one day, she might change. Mrs. Poulteney was almost comical in her straitlaced snobbishness, ruling her household with an iron fist without ever realising how easily others could manipulate her. And although Sam uses devious means to get his start in life, it is hard to really see him as a villain. This is a book without black-and-white characters, but ones well-rounded with shades of grey. That and the style make it a book to be read and savoured many times over. Just watch you don’t trip over the endings: there are four. One in Charles’s imagination; one in Fowles’s; and two that are possible - although reading them, you can’t help knowing which is the more likely.