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Literature / The French Lieutenant's Woman

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A 1969 Postmodern novel by English author John Fowles.

A pastiche of Victorian novels, The French Lieutenant's Woman sets up the familiar archetypes and dilemmas found in such books and set about quietly subverting them with a cavalcade of Lampshade Hangings, Shout Outs and fourth-wall breakings. Writing itself is one of the major subjects of the book, and the seemingly omniscient narrator/author's struggle to accurately convey his story are as much a concern of the book as the tribulations of the characters.

The year is 1867, and gentleman Charles Henry Smithson is fairly content with life. He is engaged to Ernestina Freeman, an industrialist's daughter who is kind, loving and rich. Within a few years he can look forward to inheriting his family's estate from his uncle. Although he has no great achievements to which to aspire, he has an agile mind and a passion for natural sciences. However, a lingering dissatisfaction with the predictability and restraint of the society around him gnaws at Charles, and this becomes increasingly hard to ignore after he meets Sarah Woodruff, a single governess variously nicknamed "Tragedy" and "the French lieutenant's woman".


Initially telling himself he is only curious, Charles is increasingly attracted to this strange, passionate woman, and finds himself at odds with the propriety that Victorian England so prizes.

Adapted as a 1981 film directed by Karel Reisz, scripted by Harold Pinter and starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons.

Provides Examples Of:

  • All Women Are Prudes: Most of the characters, male and female, believe this to be the case, but the trope itself is Double Subverted in the case of Tina, who does occasionally entertain sexual thoughts, but immediately banishes them and feels guilty for her "impurity". Mary, being of a lower class, seems quietly to avert the problem because she isn’t subject to Victorian middle class puritanism. Overall, the trope is explained by the choking sexual repression of the era.
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  • Author Avatar: Fowles himself shows up near the end of the book.
  • Babies Ever After:
    • Played straight in the first ending when Charles and Sarah are reunited and he gets to meet their little baby daughter.
    • Subverted in the second ending. Sarah has given birth to a daughter but she and Charles don't get to live together as a family. He doesn't even know he has a child.
  • Beta Couple: Sam, Charles' manservant, and Mary, one of the servants of Tina's family. Their relationship turns out to be more relevant to the main plot than it first seems.
  • Breach of Promise of Marriage: Charles, an aristocrat and an heir to his uncle's family estate, is engaged to Ernestina Freeman, a rich industrialist's daughter. Charles meets Sarah Woodruff to whom he grows increasingly attracted and later decides to break off his engagement with Tina. He has to speak with Tina's father first and he wants to drag Charles through dirt and disgrace him in the polite society, because he both broke Tina's heart and made her "a rejected fiancee", worsening her prospects of ever marrying well.
  • Consummate Liar: Sarah's accounts of her relationship with the French lieutenant, Varguennes, are incredibly convincing. But fictional.
  • Distracted by My Own Sexy: Tina has a rather longish session by the mirror when she admires herself as one of the prettiest girls she knows. She gets a bit aroused and thinks about future sex with Charles, her fiancé. She also feels guilty and thinks that it's inappropriate because she's a respectable Victorian girl.
  • Fire and Brimstone Hell: Charles imagines Mrs. Poulteney winding up in hell.
  • French Jerk: Varguennes, in all of Sarah's accounts, exacerbated by the other characters' prejudices against France in general.
  • The Fundamentalist: Mrs. Poulteney.
  • Goal-Oriented Evolution: Charles thinks that evolution works this way; the narrator points out that he has misread Darwin.
  • Historical-Domain Character: The sibling poets Christina and Dante Rossetti.
  • Hollywood History: Averted. The narration repeatedly pauses to discuss various aspects of Victorian England and point the inaccuracies of the modern era's perception of the era.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Sarah, the prostitute with whom Charles has a brief and unsuccessful encounter. She is extremely nurturing with both Charles and her daughter.
  • Innocent Blue Eyes: Mary, the servant girl, has periwinkle eyes. She's the most beautiful girl in the story and they emphasise her youthfulness.
  • In-Series Nickname: Sarah has quite a few: Tragedy, the French Lieutenant's Woman or the French Lieutenant's Whore.
  • The Jeeves: Averted. Sam is of lower social standing and, although good-hearted, is not especially competent. When push comes to shove, he is not very loyal, either.
  • Maiden Aunt: Ernestina's Aunt Tranter is an old maid, though she's referred to as Mrs Tranter (at the time, it was common to refer to unmarried women past a certain age as Mrs as a courtesy), who is a kindly woman and satisfied with her lot in life. She adores her niece Ernestina and she's a very good mistress to her servants. She's particularly fond of and even motherly to Mary (her servant girl).
  • Multiple Endings: A pair of mutually exclusive possible endings, as well as an earlier "ending" which is shown to be Charles imagining the future.
  • Nobility Marries Money: Ernestina is the only daughter of a rich industrialist and fabulously wealthy. She's engaged to Charles who is from aristocratic circles. He's not poor though and actually a future heir to his uncle's house and title. Turns out his uncle remarries and Charles is left much poorer than presumed. He's now expected to "deserve" Ernestina's dowry and correctly assumes Ernestina's father will want him to be involved in the family business. Charles doesn't show it, but his gentleman's honour is insulted. In the imagined ending, Charles expects that his resentment will gradually vanish and that he'll find his new responsibilities interesting. However, in reality he breaks off the engagement, but mainly because of his infatuation and relationship with Sarah.
  • Painting the Medium: The narrator repeatedly discusses the novel form and whether fictional characters can be said to have their own personality or will.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Kindhearted Mrs Tranter, Sarah's former employer.
  • Victorian Novel Disease: Played with in Tina's case. Her parents are positive that she's suffering from consumption (tuberculosis), and insist on treating her as a permanent invalid. In fact, Tina is completely fit.
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: Charles throws up when the prostitute tells him her name is Sarah. Described in graphic detail. Sarah the prostitute is comforting.
  • Wham Line: After an early chapter ends by posing the question of who Sarah truly is: "I do not know. This story I am telling is all imagination." Up until that point, the novel has appeared to be a fairly typical Victorian romance pastiche, albeit one which tends to refer to events and objects from well after the novel's setting. The chapter that then follows is the author engaging in metafictional musing on how his characters seem to be taking on lives of their own, independent of his attempts to control the narrative.
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: One interpretation of Sarah's lies to Charles about her history is that she was attempting to attract his attention by inhabiting the role of the tragic figure.
  • The Wrongful Heir to the Throne: Unbeknownst to Charles, he's regarded this way by the servants and tenants on his uncle's estate.

Alternative Title(s): The French Lieutenants Woman


Example of: