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Is The French Lieutenant's Woman a Victorian Novel?

Updated on June 10, 2015
The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles
The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles | Source

Lyme Regis: In nineteenth century England

As befits a gentleman from a fine family, Charles was solicitous towards his delicately flirtatious and pretty fiancée Ernestina as they walked beside the sea in the refined resort town of Lyme Regis. The weather was getting worse and it was time to return indoors.

Then he saw a lone figure standing at the end of the rough pier.

With alarm, he noticed that it wasn't a hardy fisherman as he had first thought, but a young woman. The waves were breaking perilously over the sharp rocks where she stood and he was concerned for her safety.

Ernestina allayed his fears by explaining that the young woman was often to be found there, gazing out to sea. She was lamenting, Ernestina explained, the loss of her French lover who, it had turned out, was a married man.

It had been the scandal of the town, she explained, and that the rougher element, the fishermen, had a name for her. Ernestina blushed prettily and tried to explain but couldn't bring herself to use the exact word that the men did.'They call her the French Lieutentant's ...... woman'.

Set in Victorian times, written in the nineteen sixties

You can enjoy this book as a Victorian novel. The story of Charles, Ernestina and Sarah (the scandalous woman) is fascinating in itself. Add to this the sub-plot of the blossoming relationship between Charles' manservant, Sam and Ernestina's maid. The 'below stairs' relationship differs greatly to that of their employers.

One hundred years

John Fowles, when writing this novel, was writing from the perspective of someone living and working in the nineteen sixties. The Victorian days were a time of straight-laced morals and, to a large extent, hypocrisy. The sixties were the days of the pill and free love - almost the direct opposite of one hundred years before.

From constricting corsets to burning bras

Ernestina (and her delightfully pompous aunt) are products of their time. Charles is too to some extent but seeing himself as an amateur scientist, has ideas which conflict with the mainstream thoughts of the day. He spends a lot of time searching for fossils on the beach and is therefore a Darwinist.

Sarah, possibly the most interesting character, is someone that many women today can identify with.

Reading the book today

I first read this in the early seventies.

The attitudes of the Swinging Sixties still existed. But times have changed.

Reading it now isn't just looking back at the differences between 'present day' and a hundred years ago. Now, it's reading about the differences between the Victorian era, the sixties and the twenty first century.

Truly fascinating.

Also recommended

You might also like these books.

The Magus: A Novel
The Magus: A Novel

This is another favourite of mine and it's written by the same author.

I believe that it was written prior to the book I've written about above and this too can be read as a fascinating story but also as a study of sexual morals and beliefs this time in the 1960s.

Michael Caine, who starred in the ill-advised film version said that even though he'd been in the film, he had no idea what it was about.

It was a terrible film - I'd recommend the book wholeheartedly though.


You might think that this book looks a little out of place with the two John Fowles novels. There is an obvious connection though as part of this book is also set in the town of Lyme Regis.

I've always felt that this is no coincidence.

This book was written about fifty years before The French Lieutenant's Woman and is also a study of the social mores of the day, with an emphasis on the women in 'polite society'.


The first meeting

The film that was made of this book, in the 1980s, was actually pretty disappointing. They meant well, the acting was excellent but nevertheless this is a book that should never have been filmed. There's no way that it can do justice to the book.

However,I've included this clip here because it shows, almost faithfully to the book, Charles' first meeting with Sarah Woodruff.

See images of Lyme Regis

Click thumbnail to view full-size

© 2014 Jackie Jackson


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    • BritFlorida profile imageAUTHOR

      Jackie Jackson 

      4 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @Merrci: It's lovely place - highly recommended to anyone who is visiting the UK!

    • Merrci profile image

      Merry Citarella 

      4 years ago from Oregon's Southern Coast

      Lovely review--love the photos!


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