French Lieutenant's Woman (Fowles)

The French Lieutenant's Woman
John Fowles, 1969
Little, Brown & Company
467 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780316291163

In a feat of seductive storytelling, John Fowles immerses us in the emotionally charged world of a Victorian love triangle and, through a startling act of literary invention, reveals the image of modern man reflected in the past. The French Lieutenant's Woman is perhaps the most beloved of Fowles's internationally best selling novels; it is universally regarded as a modern classic. (From the publisher.)

The French Lieutenant's Woman, on one level a historical romance, is on another level an audacious, innovative experiment in storytelling. The novel portrays Victorian characters living in 1867, but the narrator / author, writing in 1967, intervenes with wry, ironic commentary. The plot centers on Charles Smithson who is engaged to Ernestina Freeman, a conventional, wealthy woman. But after a series of clandestine trysts with a beautiful, mysterious woman, he breaks off the engagement. The woman, Sarah Woodruff, a social outcast, is the reputed lover of a French lieutenant who has deserted her—and Charles first sees her waiting on the pier for his return. The intrusive narrator / author, who offers readers different endings, encourages us to reach our own conclusions. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio 
Birth—March 31, 1926
Where—Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, UK
Death—November 5, 2005
Where—Lyme Regis, Dorset, UK
Education—University of Edinburg; B.A. Oxford University
Awards—Silver Pen Award

John Robert Fowles was an English novelist and essayist. In 2008, The Times (of London) named Fowles among their list of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945."

Fowles was born in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, England, the son of Gladys May Richards and Robert John Fowles. Gladys Richards belonged to an Essex family originally from London as well. The Richards family moved to Westcliff-on-Sea during 1918, as Spanish Flu swept through Europe, for Essex was said to have a healthy climate. Robert met Gladys Richards at a tennis club in Westcliff-on-Sea during 1924. Though she was ten years younger, and he in bad health from the World War I, they were married a year later on 18 June 1925. Nine months and two weeks later Gladys gave birth to John Robert Fowles.

Fowles spent his childhood attended by his mother and by his cousin Peggy Fowles, 18 years old at the time of his birth, who was his nursemaid and close companion for ten years. Fowles attended Alleyn Court Preparatory School. The work of Richard Jefferies and his character Bevis were Fowles's favorite books as a child. He was an only child until he was 16 years old.

During 1939, Fowles won a position at Bedford School, a two-hour train journey north of his home. His time at Bedford coincided with the Second World War. Fowles was a student at Bedford until 1944. He became Head Boy and was also an athletic standout: a member of the rugby-football third team, the Fives first team and captain of the cricket team, for which he was bowler.

After leaving Bedford School during 1944, Fowles enrolled in a Naval Short Course at Edinburgh University. Fowles was prepared to receive a commission in the Royal Marines. He completed his training on 8 May 1945 — VE Day. Fowles was assigned instead to Okehampton Camp in the countryside near Devon for two years.

During 1947, after completing his military service, Fowles entered New College, Oxford, where he studied both French and German, although he stopped studying German and concentrated on French for his BA. Fowles was undergoing a political transformation. Upon leaving the marines he wrote, "I ... began to hate what I was becoming in life—a British Establishment young hopeful. I decided instead to become a sort of anarchist."

It was also at Oxford that Fowles first considered life as a writer, particularly after reading existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Though Fowles did not identify as an existentialist, their writing, like Fowles', was motivated from a feeling that the world was wrong.

Teaching Career
Fowles spent his early adult life as a teacher. His first year after Oxford was spent at the University of Poitiers. At the end of the year, he received two offers: one from the French department at Winchester, the other "from a ratty school in Greece," Fowles said, "Of course, I went against all the dictates of common sense and took the Greek job."

During 1951, Fowles became an English master at the Anargyrios and Korgialenios School of Spetses on the Peloponnesian island of Spetsai, a critical part of Fowles's life, as the island which would later serve as the setting of his novel The Magus. Fowles was happy in Greece, especially outside of the school. He wrote poems that he later published, and became close to his fellow exiles. But during 1953 Fowles and the other masters at the school were all dismissed for trying to institute reforms, and Fowles returned to England.

On the island of Spetsai, Fowles had grown fond of Elizabeth Christy, who was married to one of the other teachers. Christy's marriage was already ending because of the relationship with Fowles, and though they returned to England at the same time, they were no longer in each other's company.

It was during this period that Fowles began drafting The Magus. His separation from Elizabeth did not last long. On 2 April 1954 they were married and Fowles became stepfather to Elizabeth's daughter from her first marriage, Anna. After his marriage, Fowles taught English as a foreign language to students from other countries for nearly ten years at St. Godric's College, an all-girls in Hampstead, London.

Writing Career
During late 1960, though he had already drafted The Magus, Fowles began working on The Collector. He finished his first draft in a month, but spent more than a year making revisions before showing it to his agent. Michael S. Howard, the publisher at Jonathan Cape was enthusiastic about the manuscript. The book was published during 1963 and when the paperback rights were sold in the spring of that year it was "probably the highest price that had hitherto been paid for a first novel," according to Howard. The success of his novel meant that Fowles was able to stop teaching and devote himself full-time to a literary career. The Collector became a film in 1965.

Against the counsel of his publisher, Fowles insisted that his second book published be The Aristos, a non-fiction collection of philosophy. Afterward, he set about collating all the drafts he had written of what would become his most studied work, The Magus (1965), based in part on his experiences in Greece.

During 1965 Fowles left London, moving to a farm, Underhill, in Dorset, where the isolated farm house became the model for "The Dairy" in the book Fowles was then writing, The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969). The farm was too remote, "total solitude gets a bit monotonous," Fowles remarked, and during 1968 he and his wife moved to Lyme Regis in Dorset, where he lived in Belmont House, also used as a setting for parts of The French Lieutenant's Woman. In the same year, he adapted The Magus for cinema.

The film version of The Magus (1968) was generally considered awful; when Woody Allen was asked whether he'd make changes in his life if he had the opportunity to do it all over again, he jokingly replied he'd do "everything exactly the same, with the exception of watching The Magus."

The French Lieutenant's Woman was made into a film during 1981 with a screenplay by the British playwright Harold Pinter (who would later receive a Nobel laureate in Literature) and was nominated for an Oscar.

Later Years
Fowles lived the rest of his life in Lyme Regis. His works The Ebony Tower (1974), Daniel Martin (1977), Mantissa (1981), and A Maggot (1985) were all written from Belmont House. His wife Elizabeth died in 1990.

Fowles became a member of the Lyme Regis community, serving as the curator of the Lyme Regis Museum from 1979–1988, retiring from the museum after having a mild stroke. Fowles was involved occasionally in politics in Lyme Regis, and occasionally wrote letters to the editor advocating preservation. Despite this involvement, Fowles was generally considered reclusive. In 1998, he was quoted in the New York Times Book Review as saying, "Being an atheist is a matter not of moral choice, but of human obligation."

Fowles, with his second wife Sarah by his side, died in Axminster Hospital, 5 miles from Lyme Regis on 5 November 2005. (From Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
Fowles manipulates all the story-teller's artifices to challenge our usual assumptions about the authority of the novelist....At first the narrative voices seems to be that of the traditional Victorian author....It is appropriately enough in Chapter 13 that the new rules of the game break through the surface. [Until then Fowles has followed] "a convention universally accepted...that the novelist stands next to God; but after all he actually lives in the world of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Roland Barte [French theorists]." The dogma of the responsible omniscient narrator is dead [which allows the author a] new freedom.... Our final impression is of pleasure and even, on occasion, awe, at so harmonious a mingling of the old and the new in matter and manner.
Ian Watts - New York Times (11/09/69)

Dazzling...audacious...highly rewarding....A remarkable, original work in which at least two visions operate simultaneously, the one Victorian and melodramatic, the other modern and wise. An outlandish achievement!
Joyce Carol Oates - Washington Post Book World

By giving characters their freedom, Fowles also liberates himself from the tyranny of the rigid plan; but there remains a more basic limitation of fiction, and from this Fowles frees himself by means of his double ending: "The novelist is still a god," Fowles says in The French Lieutenant's Woman, "since he creates (and not even the most aleatory avant-garde modern novel has managed to extirpate its author completely); what has changed is that we are no longer the gods of the Victorian image, omniscient and decreeing; but in the new theological image, with freedom our first principle, not authority." Thus, although the novel seems in many ways a Victorian novel, the author reminds the reader that it is not; it is actually a novel of our time, with "this self-consciousness about the processes of art [that] is a hallmark of much twentieth-century fiction."
Gale Research

Discussion Questions 
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for The French Lieutenant's Woman

1. Charles Smithson (Fowles is playing here with James Smithson, the founder of the Smithsonian museum) is hunting fossils and meditating on Darwin's challenge to the old scientific order when he stumbles upon a new species—Sarah Woodruff. How does the idea of a new vs. old order pervade this book in terms of its characters and in terms of Fowles's reworking of fiction?

2. What is your attitude toward the book's different endings? What is Fowles trying to do? Which ending do you prefer? Which one do you think is most realistic? Would you have preferred a single ending?

3. Are you willing to give up on a narrator's or writer's authority to control events of a story? Are you comfortable or uncomfortable with that idea? (You might also consider Ian McEwan's Atonement—how that story also offers competing versions of "reality.")

2. Freedom from societal conventions is an overriding theme in this novel. How do the each of the characters respond to the social constraints of Victorian society? How does Fowles, as an author, confront the constraints of traditional storytelling?

5. Discuss the characteristics of Charles, Tina, and Sarah. Is Charles worthy of Sarah?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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