Saturday, 15 December 2012

Review: The French Lieutenant's Woman

The French Lieutenant's Woman
John Fowles

'An easterly is the most disagreeably wind in Lyme Bay...'

One of the first books I read when I finished my MA was The Collector by John Fowles. I think I read it in two sittings I was that engrossed. The characterisation was stunning and the plot line was just disturbing enough to make me think but not too disturbing it was a struggle to read. The last couple of pages chilled me to the bone and I was dying for someone to discuss it with. Based on that experience I searched through my mother's endless bookshelves (I know where I get it from) for other books by Fowles. I came across The French Lieutenant's Woman and Mantissa. I went for this one first because I live near Lyme Regis and whenever we go there Mum mentions this book and the film adaptation. I certainly went into with high expectations which would explain why I feel so dissatisfied now I've finished it.

The novel is set mostly in Lyme Regis, Exeter and London and tells the story of Sarah Woodruff (the French Lieutenant's Woman), her relationship with Charles Smithson and his relationship with Ernestina Freeman. At a horrendously basic level it is a love triangle without much love. It would be difficult to summarise the plot without giving everything away as it is one of those novels which does not stop moving and the plot is a slippery thing to grab hold of.

I must admit I found this book a challenging read. After four years of English at uni there aren't many books I find difficult but this one I did. I think I was thrown partially by the writing style. It has been a long time since I've read such a self-conscious novel. The author is actually there within the story and not even just as a spectral presence, he becomes a physical presence towards the end. Though it was quite entertaining at times reading the author's motivations for writing certain episodes, it was occasionally quite off-putting. I'm sure an argument can be made though for it being Fowles's intention to disconcert the reader. The puzzlement and sense of manipulation I felt whilst reading it mirrors Sarah's manipulation of Charles.

I also have to admit that I still do not know what happens in the novel. There is a story line there but the constant tangents and authorial interruptions confuse it somewhat. The writing is brilliant and makes it one of those books you just want to sit and slowly read to take it all in. One of my favourite lines that also demonstrates quite well the overall style of the novel ends the twenty-fourth chapter: 'There was thunder in the offing, as in his heart'. Utterly amazing. But if you're after a fast-paced, plot heavy historical novel I would look elsewhere.

I can see what Fowles has tried to do (satirise, almost, the Victorian novel and the Victorian way of life) and I can appreciate it because I have studied so many Victorian novels. Fowles must be an extraordinarily intelligent man because he certainly knows his stuff. It was interesting and I know in time I will re-read it in an attempt to make more sense of it but for the time being it can go back on my shelf and I will move on to other things. I have, however, ordered the film adaptation from amazon to see how it compares so I will let you know my thoughts on that.


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