It was Harold Pinter’s brilliant movie that led me to read The French Lieutenants’ Woman. The haunting image of the motionless and mythical figure clad in black, staring out to sea at the edge of The Cobb, sets the scene for an uncannily beautiful movie.
I first read the book in 1981. The copy was old, from the local book exchange, with its cover torn. I was twenty-one, a medical student, and I had not read much contemporary literature. In a most masterful fashion, the author transports us into the nineteenth-century-an era I knew little about. The reader is allowed to listen in, to discourse among the well-born as well as the plebs.
What then follows is an intriguing, philosophical and even humorous narrative. It is thick with mystery and full of memorable words and verse.
“But where the telescopist would have been at sea himself was with the other figure on that sombre, curving mole. It stood right at the seawardmost end, apparently leaning against an old cannon-barrel up-ended as a bollard. It clothes were black. The wind moved them, but the figure stood motionless, staring or to sea, more like a living memorial to the drowned, a figure from myth, than any proper fragment of the petty provincial day.”
Watching the “forlorn” figure, Sarah Woodruff, clad in black, are the doomed lovers: Charles Smithson, one of London’s most handsome and eligible bachelors, and his fiancée, Ernestina Freeman. Sarah is an enigmatic character believed to be mad and ostracized because of her affair with a French officer, who later abandoned her. But, when Charles first laid eyes on her at the Cobb, there was to him no madness in her face: no mask and no hysteria. If there was any madness, it was in society for its lack of empathy for the woman’s sorrow.
Even as Sarah turned to look at him: “it was not so much what was positively in that face which remained with him after that first meeting, but all that was not as he had expected; for theirs was an age when the favoured feminine look was the demure, the obedient, the shy.”
Even though Sarah’s “look” lasted for no more than a few seconds, it lit a fire in Charles, leading to his rejection of values that were the foundation of his Victorian society.
Like Ryabovich, in Chekov’s story “The Kiss”, driven to despair by a kiss from a strange woman, the “look” from Sarah causes Charles mad exultation. It is the most pivotal moment in the book. The woman’s “look” destroys Charles. He loses control, and an obsession for Sarah takes over his heart.
The book is mainly about the apocalyptic convergence of their paths. One day, like a poodle, Charles follows Sarah into the woods:
“I have come because I have satisfied myself that you do indeed need help. And although I still don’t understand why you should have honoured me by interesting me in your… ” he faltered here, for he was about to say “case”, which would have betrayed that he was playing doctor as well as the gentleman: “… I have come prepared to listen to what you wished me to hear.”
“I know a secluded place nearby. May we go there?” she said.
In an act of lunacy, Charles throws in his lot with her. From the beginning of the book, the reader can almost smell the fate awaiting him. We accompany Charles in his doomed journey, with sadness and pity. We ask ourselves: why does a man forsake his standing for a woman he hardly knows. Perhaps there was a part of his fickle soul that he would not allow society to rule over. For Sarah, Charles was the dupe of all ages, a tool to be used to stick a dagger, metaphorically, into the very heart of high society.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman, a book with two endings, is a charming tale and is meticulously written. John Fowles peoples his story with many interesting characters. The reader is equally captivated by the book’s beginning as well the end. The writer is very much the craftsman, with almost every sentence perfect.
Over a half century after its first publication, its theme is still fresh since modern societies still retain the two-fold paradigm of the rich, destined to a life of privilege, and the wretched fate of the poor. Strangely, many of our lives have a presence in the book, evoked less literally than philosophically. A novel that in my youth felt so foreign contained a chart of my future and the reckless decisions I was to make with my life.