Category Archives: John Fowles

The French Lieutenant’s Woman; First Impressions

My aim to have read John Fowles ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ as one of my ‘Three for Thirty’ may just be achieved before the clock strikes midnight tonight, however my plan to have reviewed it before then hasn’t come to fruition as I haven’t quite finished it. I am actually about two thirds through at the moment, though I have a long train journey to Shropshire later so should finish it then. I thought I would do something I haven’t done before, might do again though if its popular, and give you my first impressions of the novel because I am thoroughly enjoying it, so much so I am very hesitant to rush it.

Vintage Classics, paperback, 1969 reissued 2012, fiction, 528 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Naturally with this being my first real impressions I won’t give any spoilers away, if you can avoid them in the comments that would be lovely too, but I think it is ok to say what the story is really about from the start. As the novel opens, with a superb atmosphere of Lyme Regis in the 1860’s, we follow Charles Smithson and his fiancée, Ernestina Freeman, taking a stroll. As they do they spot a lone figure staring into the sea, Ernestina tells Charles that this is Sarah Woodruff known locally in the village as ‘Tragedy’ or ‘The French Lieutenant’s Whore’ after she was disgraced when she had an a relationship with a French naval officer who was already betrothed. Shock, horror, the very idea! Charles becomes rather fascinated by her story, and so do we as the reader.

I loved how the novel started; there is a real atmosphere of some of the writing of the time, the slight sensation elements of the likes of Wilkie Collins etc, which I love anyway. There’s a certain darkness in the writing and the depiction of Lyme Regis and the people who inhabit it. This leads me to the characters, and what a marvellous bunch they are. Charles himself is both a complete charmer and a bit of a wrong ‘en as far as I was concerned, I didn’t think I would warm to him but strangely I have. Sarah is of course marvellously intriguing and Ernestine is brilliantly gossipy and demanding, I love her. My favourite character though has to be Mrs Poulteney

‘She was like some plump vulture, endlessly circling in her endless leisure, and endowed in the first field with a miraculous sixth sense as regards dust, fingermarks, insufficiently starched linen, smells, stains, breakages and all the ills that houses are heir to. A gardener would be dismissed for being seen to come into the house with earth on his hands; a butler for having a spot of wine on his stock; a maid for having slut’s wool under her bed.

Isn’t that just marvellous? Doesn’t it instantly evoke this woman? It also shows how wonderfully Fowles writes, which having not read him since ‘The Collector’ (which couldn’t be a more different book, apart from the dark tone) I had forgotten. I did worry that the way the narrator (and I have just got to the point where Fowles has introduced himself and it looks like there might be multiple endings coming) describes everything with hindsight and throwing a lot of information about the state of politics and the structure of society might get on my nerves. It isn’t hidden in the text, it’s fairly in your face, so I was worried I would feel like I was being lectured at, but I’ve gotten used to it and am learning even more about the Victorian period. Lovely stuff!

So you can imagine I am rather looking forward to several hours on the train with the characters and seeing how this possible multi-ending is going to go. I hope it carries on so wonderfully…

I am hoping to do a proper full review in timing with Cornflower Books next Book Group which ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ is the subject of, until then let me know your thoughts on this book. Though no spoilers please! Oh and let me know what you think of ‘first impressions posts’ good, bad, would prefer a full review at the end and nothing more?

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