If you had asked me 30 years ago to list my favourite books this would have featured prominently. I’ve always felt an attachment to it because it was one of the first novels I read when I went away to college and an essay on works by John Fowles (of which this was my favourite) scored me a rare A-Grade. I’ve read it a couple of times since but not for many years. Last summer I went for a day trip to Lyme Regis and walked along The Cobb which has a prominent part to play in the novel as well as in the 1981 film adaptation starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons and whilst doing this felt once again that I wanted to be immersed in Fowles’ 19th Century world. My copy was ancient and yellowed so I treated myself to a new one at Serendip, one of Lyme’s healthy smattering of book shops and have spent the last week or so discovering whether time has been good to this novel.
What remains impressive is how Fowles has condensed the foibles of Victorian society in a way which makes it seem authentic. This has been done many times since, most splendidly in Michel Faber’s “Crimson Petal And The White” and in other titles which tend to feature highly in my end of year lists. What I hadn’t experienced before reading this the first time was Fowles the modern author stepping back from the Victorian novel to comment and digress using a modern perspective. Once again this is a common trick now but when I first experienced it (and perhaps even more so when it was published a good decade before I got round to it) it seemed radical. It’s enough of a feature of the novel for them to attempt to convey something of this in the film (not wholly successfully) by having a modern strand which stepped back showing the making of the film and depicting actors playing Fowles’ characters, so Meryl Streep was both playing Sarah Woodruff and the actress chosen to play her.
Charles Smithson, a keen fossil-hunter and fan of Darwin spends the summer of 1867 in Lyme Regis where his betrothed, the somewhat vapid Ernestina is holidaying with her aunt. There, on The Cobb, which stretches out to the sea they encounter a swathed, mysterious figure known locally as Tragedy, reputedly waiting for her French lover to return. Charles becomes obsessed with this woman which challenges Victorian beliefs in decency, class and duty with the double standards we now expect from this period.
I love the plot. Fowles, however, does like to move away from it and remind us of the artifice of his fiction. At one point he inserts himself into the action observing Charles in the midst of his dilemmas. It is a very intelligent work which does make demands of the reader and on this re-reading I must admit it does occasionally seem a little too clever for its own good (perhaps that was also true of the me who read this many years ago!) and occasionally a little inaccessible. This accusation could be levied at other of Fowles’ work which may explain why his reputation has faded in the years since his death in 2005. There were a couple of titles I can remember abandoning (and this from someone who has done this very rarely) due to this inaccessibility, although I do have a copy of “The Collector” (1963) which I also loved and should get round to re-reading to see how that holds up.
This is an impressive novel of great richness and worthy of a five star rating yet it still has flaws which seem a little more obvious this time round. I’ve never fully got my head around the multiple endings which makes the last third of the novel less satisfying. I could tell from my trip to Lyme that the townsfolk are still proud of this novel (as they are of Jane Austen who features it in “Persuasion”) and actually it is only when it moves away from Lyme that it slightly falters. I still feel very attached to it, however.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman was first published in 1969. I read the Vintage paperback edition.