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The French Lieutenant's Woman Paperback – September 1, 1998

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Editorial Reviews


Novel by John Fowles, published in 1969. A pastiche of a historical romance, it juxtaposes the ethos of the Victorian characters living in 1867 with the ironic commentary of the author writing in 1967. The plot centers on Charles Smithson, an amateur Victorian paleontologist. He is engaged to Ernestina Freeman, a conventional, wealthy woman, but he breaks off the engagement after a series of clandestine trysts with the beautiful, mysterious Sarah Woodruff, a social outcast known locally as the forsaken lover of a French lieutenant. The author, who continually intrudes on the narration, presents three different endings, encouraging his readers to reach their own conclusions. -- The Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

John Fowles (1926-2005) was educated at Oxford and subsequently lectured in English at universities in Greece and the UK. The success of his first novel, The Collector, published in 1963, allowed him to devote all his time to writing. His books include the internationally acclaimed and bestselling novels The Magus, The French Lieutenant's Woman, and Daniel Martin. Fowles spent the last decades of his life on the southern coast of England in the small harbor town of Lyme Regis.

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Product Details

  • Series: French Lieutenant's Woman (Book 1)
  • Paperback: 467 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books; 1st Back Bay pbk. ed edition (September 1, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780316291163
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316291163
  • ASIN: 0316291161
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.3 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (115 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #68,289 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

46 of 47 people found the following review helpful By Matthew Krichman on May 13, 2004
Format: Paperback
In the first hundred pages of this book I had already begun to realize that this was one of the best books I have ever read. That feeling never let up; indeed, it grew even stronger as I approached the end, when I began to feel a frantic eagerness to discover what would become of these characters that I had grown to care so much for.
Sarah Woodruff (aka the French Lieutenant's Woman) is one of my favorite characters in literature. She is a complex, nuanced character, intriguingly covered by a delicate veil of mystery throughout the first half of the book. Her pain, her selfless sacrifice, and her courage are deeply and powerfully drawn. She is a true example of a woman ahead of her time, a woman who challenges the norms of her society by simply ignoring them. Her confidence and her quiet scorn for the Puritanism of the times in which she lives raise her to a level above the so-called moral leaders who condemn her. In a strange way, she is a true hero.
This book, written in the late 1960s but set one hundred years earlier, is a beautiful example of period literature. Fowles, through his remarkably genuine narrative voice, recreates the world of Victorian England in such a way that if it weren't for the occasional references to modern life you might think the book was a century older than it is. It is filled with all the pomp and formality you would expect, but also with a wit, dry humor, and quiet mocking of the period that lend it an added flavor.
But Fowles is not simply trying to create a period piece or social commentary. I believe that first and foremost he was creating a love story. I would put Charles and Sarah in the same category with Romeo and Juliet as far as love stories go. The relationship is developed slowly, so slow that it is exquisitely painful almost.
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109 of 120 people found the following review helpful By Giuseppe C. HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 26, 2003
Format: Paperback
This novel is at once a retrospective and a prospective, a narrative that ultimately erases the temporal boundaries between the Victorian era and the modern reader's present moment. Fowles goes considerably beyond a novelist such as A. S. Byatt and even most historians in painting the portrait of an era and its citizens as well as evoking the multifarious "Victorian sensibility," with its ambivalence about social class, morality, progress, science, religion, and, of course, sex.
The affair between Charles Smithson, amateur gentleman paleontologist, and Sarah Woodruff, alluring, forbidden "outcast," is, in many respects, no more than a ruse (readers who express disappointment at the ending have no doubt swallowed too much of the bait, reading the novel as conventional romance). The epigraph to the final chapter, Matthew Arnold's "True Piety Is Acting What One Knows," can be taken as a key to the story's compelling theme and purpose. The narrative is a variation on the quest pattern, with the salvation of the story's everyman-protagonist at stake. Moreover, his progress from ignorance to self-knowledge, contrary to Marxist theory and, for that matter, inexorable Darwinian laws of natural selection, requires that he separate himself from his "age," the very culture that has formed him, defined him, and threatens to deform him.
The climax in the story is not Charles' meeting with Sarah in the home of the Rossetti's but his epiphany, in Chapter 48, while viewing a Crucifix in the sanctuary of a church. At this moment he sees his preoccupation with fossils as representative of his society's fixation on custom, externals, and respectability at the expense of the interior self and its own priorities. Charles and Sarah find their heart's bliss "through" but certainly not "with" each other.
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48 of 55 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 19, 2000
Format: Paperback
I first read this wonderful book in the late 60's, shortly after it published. As a high school student, I was simply blown away by the story, the virtuosity of the endings, by its ambiguity, but most of all by the richness of its language.
The scene when Charles and Sarah confront each other in the shed in the undercliff has more tension and suspense than a thousand horror movies, because it was so real.
In the intervening 30 years, I've re-read this novel every five years or so. Like other great works, each re-reading brings something new (because I continue to change).
The great tragedy, at least in my view, is that what has followed from John Fowles has never risen to the heights of this novel. Daniel Martin was a huge disappointment to me (so self-indulgent and empty). The Maggot has some moments, but was ultimately disappointing. Only The Magus, and, to a lesser degree, The Collector, rival The French Lieutentant's Woman.
That said, Fowles has always been his own man and has stuck to his view of the world. I've read some of his philosophy of life in the Aristos and found most of it to be inconsistent with my own world view.
But in this great book, Fowles and I connected. I hope when I'm ninety, I can sit down and read it again (and find something fresh and new).
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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Diane Schirf on September 17, 2006
Format: Paperback
I had not seen the movie of The French Lieutenant's Woman until recently, so I did not know what to expect from the novel. I thought it might be a romantic thriller set during one of the world wars and was surprised to read a book set in one of my favorite English periods, the Victorian, written from the perspective of the late 1960s.

The waning aristocracy is represented by Charles Smithson, dilettante and heir to his aging, unmarried uncle's wealth and title. His bride-to-be, Ernestina Freeman, heiress to the fortune her father has accumulated at his enormous London emporium, represents the rising, affluent middle class. While Charles and Tina seem to share the idealized Victorian view of marriage and family life, they are also keenly aware that their engagement is a legal contract that will benefit each of them in different ways. After Mr. Freeman's death, Charles will gain control over the family's money. For Tina, marriage means an entrée into the aristocracy, elevating her above being a mere "tradesman's daughter."

This is only one of many Victorian dualities that Fowles highlights; he is not subtle about his theme. Darwin's theory, as seen by the science dabbler Charles, is as harsh as practitioners of Christianity like Mrs. Poulteney. The advantage of evolution seems to be its lack of bias and judgment. Charles, unwilling or unable to adapt to a changing society in which money is coming to matter more than manners, is as much a victim of evolution as Sarah appears to be of the hypocritical morality of Mrs. Poulteney's religion.

Idealized Victorian life centered on the home and family. The poem that Ernestina reads to her contracted lover is about a sterile, lofty form of love devoid of real passion--and it promptly puts Charles to sleep.
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