Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles

"What are we faced with in the nineteenth century?  An age where woman was sacred; and where you could buy a thirteen-year-old girl for a few pounds--a few shillings, if you wanted her for only an hour or two. (…)  Where the female body had never been so hidden from view; and where every sculptor was judged by his ability to carve naked women.  (…)  Where it was universally maintained that women do not have orgasms; and yet every prostitute was taught to simulate them." Pages 276-277
Nineteenth century Victorian England is the epitome of boring in my mind, and so to find myself so heavily engrossed and throughly enjoying a novel within this setting meant that I was holding something very special in my hands.  The French Lieutenant's Woman is far from what it seems: the title is misleading as the eponymous character is secondary and merely a vehicle of destruction, the narrative is near impossible to take seriously due to the author eternally making fun of both the story he's telling and how absurd it's events can seem to modern readers, and finally--and what is the most apt reason that I could so throughly enjoy a book set in nineteenth century Victorian England--despite all Fowles' research, affected dialogue and period prose, The French Lieutenant's Woman is anything but a Victorian novel.  (Apropos the title, upon finishing the book I thought The French Lieutenant's Whore would have been a much better title, but not for the reasons you think.) 
The story is as simple as you would expect given the novel's historical setting.  Charles and Ernestina are engaged to be married.  They are both absurdly rich, and never perform any duty which would be misconstrued as work.  Ernestina has 'Oprah' money while 'Charles' is closer to a meager 'Steve Jobs.'  Much tension and drama comes due to the disparity of their financial stations.  Charles is older, educated and an experienced worldly world traveler.  Ernestina is very young, very pretty, willing sheltered and excellent in the realm of knitting and home decorating.  There is a third person, Sarah, who is everything that Ernestina is not: smart, beguiling… interesting.  Sarah's claim to fame resides in the fact that it is prominently known to all the world that she has actually had sex and a chance meeting between her and Charles changes lives.  I'm sure many a novel has been written with less material than what I have given above and I'm equally sure many a Victorian writer has written something substantial with less, however, I've yet to mention the main character in The French Lieutenant's Woman, a weapon that no writer 'of the time' could posses: John Fowles.
Authors often insert themselves in their stories; Fowles is the narrator.  He offers commentary, insight, and even explanation as to plot developments taking the course they did.  In using such a simple story as outlined above, Fowles does as many writers of the time did and subtly introduce themes of greater significance by ruining his characters lives.  What he doesn't do is apologize for the complete lack of subtly in breaking through the fourth wall.
Fowles talks directly to his readers.  He tells us of the pain and difficulty of being favored and extraordinarily wealthy in nineteenth century England.  He enlightens us to the hypocrisies of the era (as in the opening quote) and with the greatest of mocking humor he gives real insight as to why simple situations in the life and times of the fictional characters he created create such gravity and in turn enhances his own story.  
To say the book is about sex is a bit base even by my standards.  (And after all, Victorians didn't have sex.)  To say it's not about sex is false.  And therein lies one of the book's strongest enigmas and enduring accomplishments: despite all Fowles efforts and what was surely a colossal amount research he knowingly didn't--couldn't--write a Victorian era novel. 
It becomes a running joke when the narrator, Fowles, makes continued references to anachronisms as airplanes and computers; none is stronger than his mention of existentialism being the default structure of interpretation among readers of the time.  (The novel was written in 1969.)  Today's reader would reply to the drama that Fowles' characters go through in the tone of voice of, "Take your prozac, quit your bitchin' and move on…" as the narrator, Fowles gives credences and ultimately gravity to the situation by pedantically explaining why circumstances were profound to the parties involved.  It is also Fowles, the narrator, who mercilessly mocks his characters from a distance as he makes them suffer in the narrative and it is this mocking tone that we, the readers, can clearly hear the voice of Raskolnikov or Yossarian; the eye rolling levity found in a situation that is obviously very serious to one intimate with the circumstance.  There is a necessity in Fowles having this tone of voice and not his characters: at the time the story takes place,1869, existentialism had yet to hit England, yet, it is through this lense that Fowles presents the novel to his readers.
There are multiple betrayals in the novel and none greater than the shocker that befalls Charles and the manner that the truth becomes known.  At this point, about two-thirds the way through, we can see that Ernestina is and always has been a Victorian woman, and yet Charles and Sarah are unknowingly striving, perhaps even against their will, to be the harbingers of a new era.  They attempt, and utterly fail, to be more modern people: honest in all things, realistic, open and not so pretentiously phony as the cant of Victorian life.  They were way ahead of the culture curve and both end up suffering.  Should you think I've given anything away concerning the plot you're wrong: everything falls apart, there is no happily ever after; everyone dies… okay, not really. 
Sarah is perhaps one of the more destructive characters you can come across in a book.  She seems ready to ignite under the pressure of her own weight and is determined to take someone else with her.  She knowingly, or unknowingly, fights against conventions of the time and in their ruin--and through today's contemporary lense--can only be seen as progressive woman.  She forces many other characters to change and grow well beyond the perimeters of Victorian norms.  While she remains the catalyst, Charles is undoubtedly the lead character.  This may seem backward, but for women and Victorian society to progress, it was primarily men that had to change.  Men had to start seeing women as something greater than what the times allowed them to be.    
The simplicity of the plot is deceptive much like all good Victorian novels.  The rewards are a greater understanding of an era that none today can fully wrap their heads around.  This is a damn good book and one that is near impossible to stereotype; it isn't Victorian, it's too phony to be existentialism and even the catch-all, ludicrous, nomenclature 'post-modern' fails to satisfy.  There is some horrible poetry.  (Charles's own, not the chapter quotes.)  There is the worst depiction of a sex scene ever--it was unfortunately probably very true to how things where for both parties at the time.  (Well, can you imagine Victorian English actually having good sex?)  Ugh… I usually dedicate at least a paragraph to what I think are shortcomings of a novel in my commentaries, there isn't that much material to do so. 
No matter what you're reading preference, if you like to read, (or perhaps to better qualify, if you like to read and read regularly) you will find much to enjoy in The French Lieutenant's Woman.   

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