Saturday, March 19, 2016

The French Lieutenant's Woman

Of all the books on my TBR shelf, I think The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles has been there the longest.  I always meant to read it but I admit that I was put off by labels like "post-modern," "meta fiction," and the like.  I think I bought the book shortly after the 1981 movie was released with the idea that I would read it first.  That held true for the past 35 years--I still haven't watched the movie, but now I can...since I finally read the novel for my TBR Pile Challenge!

It turns out that it was extremely readable--great writing, interesting story, marvelous setting (Lyme Regis, 1867), troublesome characters, and a delightful narrator who not only didn't try to hide the fact that he was firmly planted in the 1960s but relished his puppet-master role.  Sort of reminded me of Thackeray's narrator in Vanity Fair.

There's actually a lot to write about, but I think what I want to comment on in this post is inspiration.  I really enjoy learning about the writing process and in particular what inspires, either consciously or unconsciously.  In this case, I saw the subplot of Charles Smithson's relationship to his valet Sam to be a reworking of Mr. Pickwick's relationship to the loyal Sam Weller in Dickens' The Pickwick Papers.

Not only are both valets named Sam, as the narrator helpfully points that out, both masters are involved in the breaking of an engagement--one overtly and the other completely innocently.

Both Sams fall in love with servants encountered in the homes where their masters visit, and both have the gift of the gab, are energetic, wise to the ways of the world, and ambitious.  The biggest contrast is that Samuel Weller is completely devoted to Mr. P and extricates him from countless predicaments, while Smithson's Sam betrays his master and sinks him completely in the face of his own self interest.

Just as The French Lieutenant's Woman can be seen as an ardently feminist book, I think it can also be seen as a paean on the undermining of the class system.

I really enjoyed it, so much so that I would actually like to reread it again.  Maybe I will in a couple of years when I can count it as a classic!

Meryl Streep as Sarah Woodruff, the French Lieutenant's Woman.
I know that watching the movie will put Lyme Regis even more firmly on my must-visit list.  Not only for Persuasion, but now for The French Lieutenant's Woman as well.


  1. I loved this book too when I first read it ages ago and have been meaning to re-read it ever since. I can't remember which I did first read the book or see the movie! I've been to Lyme Regis - inspired of course by Jane Austen's Persuasion and have walked along the Cobb, a bit scary when it's windy, and searched for fossils (unsuccessfully) on the beach. It's an immensely popular place and very difficult to park!!! Once when we tried to go we just had to turn round and come away - not a single parking place available!

    1. I'm very sad to hear that Lyme Regis is so popular as to be hard to visit. I think Persuasion does have a lot to do with it, and there seems to be an uptick in the publicity around the fossil finding history of the place.

  2. Great commentary on this book.

    I have wanted to read this for a long time myself.

    The connections that your draw with The Pickwick Papers is interesting. The more that I read the more I see connections such as this.

  3. What a great feeling to finally read the book that has been on your shelf the longest! I did that just over a year ago with An American Tragedy and ended up loving the book, too.

    I am encouraged by your post - The French Lieutenant's Woman has been on my to read list for a very long time!

  4. I love the movie - the look of it is so wonderful. I've always wondered about whether or not the book would live up to it. Sounds like I should definitely pick it up.

  5. I too have had Fowles' books on my shelves forever. But since you say this one is so readable -- I am game to check it out. thanks for the encouragement!