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Book Review: John Fowles " The French Lieutenants Woman"

Updated on February 16, 2020
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An Air Warrior and devotee of Lord Krishna has published over 120 short stories and 15 books on fiction and 4 on military history.


Everybody likes good books. I also like to read good literature, even if it has erotic content. One of the books that I like immensely is the French Lieutenants Woman. This book written by John Fowles is considered a classic in literature. It has also been filmed by Hollywood.

John Fowles was an English writer from England ( 1926-2005). He is considered a top-drawer novelist who wrote many books like A Maggot, The Ebony Tower, Mantissa, The Magus and many more. His most famous novel is The French Lieutenants Woman. Just for the record ' The Times ' rated Fowles as one of the 50 greatest writers of the second half of the 20th century.

The Idea of the Novel

Many authors are influenced by some other greater writer. Fowles was greatly influenced by two of the greatest names in literature and philosophy namely Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. By coincidence, both these writers are from France. It is perhaps because of this coincidence that Fowles felt a great affinity with French culture.

Fowles wrote the book " The French Lieutenants Woman" in an atmosphere more prevalent in France. The book is in a way erotic literature and one can bracket it as similar to another great piece of erotic writing " Venus in India" by Charles Devereaux. The book creates a world of passion and recreates sex during the Victorian age when it was not the norm to discuss sex openly. During this period everybody talked about it in hushed tones. It is to the credit of the author, that he recreated the exact atmosphere of that era and time.

The novel was published in 1969 and was a best seller. Generally, experts feel that this novel is inspired by an 1823 novel titled Ourika by Claire de Duras. Ourika is the tale of a young slave girl from Senegal( this was a French colony earlier) who is raised by a rich family in France just after the French revolution. The themes of love and despair are common to both the books, but Fowles cannot be accused of plagiarism of any kind. This is an original work.

Fowles like the novel Ourika has set his novel in the 19th century. It requires great talent and art to recreate the atmosphere of that period, but Fowles successfully creates a most enticing and authentic scenario. This is the strong point of the novel which runs into 467 pages. I have read the book twice and both times it reads and tastes better like vintage wine.

The Plot

The novel is an out and out love story. The hero is a man named Charles Smithson, who is successful in his life. He is a go-getter and generally treats life as a great gift. To top it he is young and only 32. He has fetching looks and demeanor. But he is terribly lucky as his uncle who is childless leaves him a grand legacy. Nothing can be better for a young man than this and on top of it, he is engaged to be married to a nice young lady named Ernestina Freeman. Fowles creates love between the couple as they walk along the sea coast and beach.

The writer has an ace up his sleeve and this is where his novel takes off like a rocket. Charles the main protagonist learns that the woman is of ill repute. Despite this information, Charles falls in love with the girl and one day he goes up and talks to her. The ice is broken and despite objections from his fiancee he begins to meet Sarah. He becomes infatuated with her and longs to possess her. The depiction of these emotions is a tribute to Fowles and a reader who has been in love can appreciate the wonderful world created by Fowles. The story moves forward as Sarah injures her ankle in a fall and Charles goes to meet her. The stage is now set for an explosive act. During this visit, he seduces Sarah and makes ferocious love to her. It is sublime love, accentuated by the fact that Sarah is a virgin. Passion rises further at this discovery as Charles realizes that all tales about Sarah being a whore are false. He repeatedly loves Sarah and forgets about his betrothed.

Fowles has created a lovely tale in a Victorian setting, but the greatness of the book is towards the end as Fowles leaves two plausible endings. The first is that Charles and Sarah love each other and his uncle marries again, a young girl who gives him a child and Charles loses his inheritance. Sarah leaves him and later Charles realizes that he loves Sarah and goes in search of her. He finds her in London and learns that she has a child with him. Love triumphs and both are united.

The second ending is also plausible as Sarah leaves and later Charles searches for her. But she is cold now and is disinterested in the relationship. Charles is heartbroken and can do nothing. He migrates to America. Both endings are part of the novel and Fowles deserves credit for creating a new genre in the literature of multiple endings.

Last Word

During these walks, when sometimes the couple kisses feverishly, they espy a forlorn woman sitting alone on the ramparts of the beach. Her name is Sarah and Charles is intrigued by her. He makes inquiries and comes to know that perhaps the girl Sarah is a whore. On further inquiry, he learns that Sarah is an unfortunate girl who had a lover earlier, a French Naval officer. This man had abandoned Sarah and run away and perhaps that was the reason that she had become a whore. The story does not gel with Charles and when he repeatedly sees the girl he begins to feel a close affinity with her.

The novel makes compelling reading. In 2005 this novel was rated by Time Magazine as among the 100 great novels of the last century. An accolade well deserved. Fowles has a permanent place in English literature and I am sure another 100 years down the line, Fowles will not be forgotten. Fowles writes simple English unlike the difficult prose of James Joyce. He has a natural flair for writing and captivates the reader.

Hollywood has cashed in on the popularity of the novel and produced a lovely film with Meryl Streep as Sarah. For those who are unable to read the book, the second option is to see the film. It's a great piece of emotional entertainment.


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