The French Lieutenant’s Woman

17 January 2008
A third of the way through
I love it, again. In 1969 – eight years before I first read it, on a plane – it must have seemed extraordinary: this omniscient author who keeps stepping out of the story to let us know he’s no more omniscient than we are. He’s a bloke writing a novel… and whatever ideas he might have had about where his characters are going, they’re going to make up their own minds. The great thing is, of course, this might be just another metafictional trick: when he says he expected Charles to do one thing, but he turns out to do a different thing, he might be giving us a genuine insight into what it’s like to be a writer. Or he might be having a laugh.

What really appeals to me is the way Fowles lets you in on one particular aspect: if he’s working hard to make a character’s behaviour seem convincing, he has a chat with us about it. He’ll even draw modern-day parallels to help. And it makes us like the author, makes us want to believe his argument that a century ago this kind of character (who Fowles makes as alien as possible in some ways, like the clothes and the mid-Victorian moral stance he has to keep up) really would behave like this. Which is the trick: we like the way this author talks to us, so we buy what he’s selling.

The alienating, step outside the narrative stuff helps him to place the other characters as well. He pretends to take nothing as ‘given’, so we don’t simply have to take characters at face value. He tells us how that stereotypical ‘Victorian’ set of attitudes arose, so that Mrs Poulteney – who really is no more than a stereotype – becomes believable. So… although Fowles tells you he’s made these characters up, we believe him when he pleads that his creations have a life of their own. Not a Greek god, then, like those in Hardy (especially in Mayor of Casterbridge) but a Christian God, whose people possess free will. Well, if it works – which I think it does – good luck to him.

21 January
To Chapter 27
Charles is besotted by Sarah so, being a good Victorian, he’s gone to the doctor to help him sort himself out. This gives Fowles a chance to play another game: the doctor summarises, in role as if he is Sarah speaking, all of her motivation as a character as we might have already surmised it for ourselves. (He’s a forward-thinking Darwinist with a precocious interest in the infant science of psychology, so he’s allowed to get it spot on.) This is clever, because for several chapters Fowles has kept himself pretty well hidden, so the novel has been allowed to go on its almost parodic Victorian-style way without the usual interruptions. Shit, there’s even a lightning storm to accompany the revelations about himself that Charles has to face. And… and what? Sarah will be put in a liberal asylum (or whatever), so Charles is given the chance to step back from the brink and swallow his petty upper-class dissatisfactions like a man. Except we’re not even half-way through yet, and he can’t stop picturing those eyes. Just because he knows he’s been trapped doesn’t mean he’s free of her. Reader… you’d better play the tape.

Chapters 28-29
The first of these is a short history of hysterical women and the scrapes they got themselves and others into. In other words, Evidence, capital E: upping the plausibility rating. Chapter 29 is a flashback: Sarah, a character we can’t help but sympathise with – she is a 20th Century woman in a 19th Century body, after all – tells it like it is to her high-horse boss, Victorian Values personified. It’s a bit like the moment in Chapter 27 when the doctor says what’s going through our mind, except this time it’s the scene we’d like to witness, not what we already think (without quite having put it into words). Clever stuff.

27 January
Three-quarters of the way through…
…and Fowles has just delivered the first ending – identical, in that everything is resolved without the crises needing to come to a head – to the ‘fictional’ ending in Ian McEwan’s Atonement. But this time we aren’t given the story as written and published by one of the characters in it; it’s the story Charles has written only in his head, and only Fowles the god – he even consigns Mrs Poulteney literally to hell – is privy to what’s going on inside the head of another human being. Being an author, he tells us: that’s his job…. But this is a playful god and at first he pretends it’s what, as it were, ‘really’ happens. Then, like Eric Idle as the wag in Life of Brian he shows us how he was pulling our leg. He’s playing metafictional games again, and it’s with the lightest of touches.

This is not at all like clunky you-know-who, who has Briony the ageing author pretending she’s going for a deeper literary ‘truth’, one that’s more satisfying for everybody than the messy stuff of reality. (Come to think of it, Sebastian Faulks has his narrator do a convenient re-write as a kind of pseudo-philosophical exercise at the end of Engleby as well….) To be fair to McEwan, he does show the reader a degree of respect: we have to work out for ourselves the extent to which old Briony’s redemptive ending comes about from her own needs, specifically her need for the atonement of the title. In the ‘real’ story – which she also tells us about in a different act of atonement, this time to all us readers who bought the happy ending – her attempt to atone for her lie is merely an empty gesture. Who am I to say that it would have been a more honest way to end without the feelgood ‘false’ ending? Briony has her cake – the world thinks she really did atone for what she did – and eats it too. But so does McEwan: he lets us have the old-fashioned ending and he lets us know he’s really a postmodernist.

Shortly after Charles has done the deed
Fowles has had some more fun messing about with the idea of the fictions we live by – as in, We’re all novelists, and this time it’s Charles who’s decided to change the ending, not me. Moi? says Fowles. I’m just a humble writer telling you what he did. Fowles knows it’s a game, we know it’s a game, so everybody’s friends. And then, just when we thought we knew whose side we were on, Fowles disabuses us. This is a novel, stupid, and you’re not supposed to know everything in advance. For instance, that bit where Sarah told us about Varguennes (or whatever his name is), the nasty French lieutenant…. Turns out she’s an unreliable narrator of her own story, Charles was a fool to believe her – and so were we. She isn’t a victim, she’s a spider, Charles is the fly – and so is the reader. Just because it’s an old trick doesn’t make it any less effective: the reader, like Charles, is floored by the sucker punch. Shit, even the twisted ankle was just another strand – I’ve started this metaphor so I’ll finish – of her web.

This is a re-read for me, remember, and I knew there was something dodgy going on. But I’d sort of unremembered the details, and I was as just as impressed this time as I was when I first read it 30 years ago.

29 January
Fowles gives us a choice of endings
It turns out that the joke ‘false’ ending inside Charles’s head was just a dry run for an even more outrageous bit of exhibitionism. This time, Fowles doesn’t pretend he’s only the messenger; he puts himself right inside the story, as a character on the train that Charles catches on his disgraced way back to London. He tells us there’s a choice. He could give us the Victorian ending or the modern ending: all problems neatly solved and tidied up; or problems faced, acknowledged, unresolved and messy. He pretends to toss a coin – but it isn’t to decide which ending to give us: he’s already decided we can have both, but can’t choose which one to end with. That’s the one we’ll take away with us as the more ‘true’ one, after all.

And if you believe he really can’t decide, well, you haven’t been paying attention.

30 January
To Chapter 60
I’ve just reached the end – I think – of the right-hand fork in the road. But this is Fowles, and he makes us think we’re on the rocky road before we reach the longed-for resolution. At Rossetti’s house there’s a tortured conversation between them, and it looks as if Charles’s hopes are to come crashing to pieces against Sarah’s – what? – stubbornness, or inscrutability, or… well, he doesn’t know what’s going on any more than the reader does. When he does think he’s got it at last it turns out he’s wrong: she isn’t immured within some mystical proto-feminism with Charles forever locked out; she’s discovered… motherhood. Charles is the father, they are a family at last –and Fowles makes a joke of the moment as the cloying sound of ‘a thousand violins’ is interrupted by the percussion of their baby’s cry. Aww.

It’s no bloody wonder, 30 years after first reading it, that I couldn’t remember how the scene ended. Talk about a merry dance.

To the end
The other road only takes a few pages, and Fowles makes another appearance, this time as an impresario. He winds back his magic watch and – hey, presto – we’re back at a crucial point in the tortured conversation. Except this time Sarah doesn’t stop him from leaving, and doesn’t tell him about the baby. In this scenario she really is the arch-manipulator, offering Charles only companionship. By refusing her self-serving offer, Charles becomes a more complete person, achieves a kind of growth. And we really are in the 20th Century, where we know the difference between cheap fairytales and – what? – more expensive, reader-flattering ones. As Charles sails into the west (I’m not making this up – Charles will go back to America, across ‘the unplumb’d, salt, estranging sea’) we know he’s man enough to take it. And, as thoroughly modern readers, so are we.

I loved it. It might only be a firework display, a showcase of literary pyrotechnics, but I’ve always liked fireworks and I’ll give it 11/10. Sometimes we can just be too solemn.


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