So I finally got around to reading The French Lieutenant’s Woman. I won this book as part of Robert’s blogoversary give away almost two years ago back in August of 2012. And all I have to say is shame on me for waiting this long to read it. Not only am I ashamed because it was such a wonderful book, but I am ashamed because it inspired one of my favorite posts of 101 Books of all time: 101 Books Guide to Carrying an Embarrassing Book in Public.
I’d love to say that Fowles’ mentioning of Jane Austen didn’t sway me, but of course it did a little, but overall that was minuscule compared to the mastery Fowles showed in this novel and he mentioned Austen and her works MULTIPLE times! But it wasn’t this that made the book so great, it was the omniscient unidentified narrator and the breaking of the fourth wall (I guess it’s called that in reading as well).
I’m still not sure how who the narrator was, 101 Books says Fowles was the narrator and this is seen through comparisons of writing the novel in the 1960s to when the novel takes place in the 1860s. I’m not 100% sure about this, but there is a point when a character appears who strongly resembles Fowles and is only a passive participant in the story.
I will say, one of the best chapters of the novel was the narrator writing about the story and about writing. He discusses how characters tell their own stories and the writer can only follow the stories as told. In contrast one of the worst (most gratuitous) chapters was the narrator doing the same thing and saying and it may have ended like this. For some reason it really rubbed me the wrong way that time. This appeared multiple times throughout the novel:
“We all write poems; it is simply that poets are the ones who write in words.” (151)
“I said earlier that we are all poets, though not many of us write poetry; and so are we all novelists, that is, we have a habit of writing fictional futures for ourselves, although perhaps today we incline more to put ourselves into a film. We screen in our minds hypotheses about how we might behave, about what might happen to us; and these novelistic or cinematic hypotheses often have very much more effect on how we actually do behave, when the real future becomes the present, than we generally allow.” (339)
And his observations on human interaction and romance are astoundingly beautiful, definitely check out a couple of the quotes below.
If there was one portion that completely shocked me it was Sarah (The French Lieutenant’s Woman)! Fowles wrote a Victorian woman who was well ahead of her time and this fascinated me. I won’t go into specifics but suffice to say that she takes charge of her own life and her own destiny. I can’t say I was super happy about any of the endings, but the one that most stood with me was so gut wrenching that I loved and hated the ending!
Recommendation: Everyone should read this book! 101 Books does a better job of explaining the book than I do, but you’re used to my ramblings. I honestly thought the book would be more daunting considering it’s place on the Time Magazine’s 100 Greatest Novels (since 1923) but I found it incredibly approachable and wonderfully easy to read.
Opening Line: “An easterly is the most disagreeable wind in Lyme Bay — Lyme Bay being that largest bite from the underside of England’s outstretched southwestern leg — and a person of curiosity could at once have deduced several strong probabilities about the pair who began to walk down the quay at Lyme Regis, the small but ancient eponym of the inbite, one incisively sharp and blustery morning in the late March of 1867.”
Closing Line: “And out again, upon the unplumb’d, salt, estranging sea.” (Whited out.)
Additional Quotes from The French Lieutenant’s Woman
“She had the profound optimism of successful old maids; solitude either sours or teaches self-dependence. Aunt Tranter had begun by making the best of things for herself, and ended by making the best of them for the rest of the world as well.” (26)
“Thus it had come about that she had red far more fiction, and far more poetry, those two sanctuaries of the lonely, than most of her kind. They served as a substitute for experience. Without realizing it she judged people as much by the standards of Walter Scott and jane Austen as by any empirically arrived at; seeing those around her as fictional characters, and making poetic judgments on them.” (53)
“I could fill a book with reasons, and they would all be true, though not true of all. Only one same reason is shared by all of us: we wish to create worlds as real as, but other than the world that is. Or was.” (96)
“Charles felt a great desire to reach out and take her shoulders and shake her; tragedy is all very well on the stage, but it can seem mere perversity in ordinary life. And that, in much less harsh terms is what he then said.” (123)
“You may wonder how I had not seen it before. I believe I had. But to see something is not the same as to acknowledge it. I think he was a little like the lizard that changes color with its surroundings. He appeared far more a gentleman in a gentleman’s house. In that inn, I saw him for what he was. And I knew his color there was far more natural than the other.” (173)
“In any case, a much more interesting ratio is between the desire and the ability to fulfill it. Here again we may believe we come off much better than our great-grandparents. But the desire is conditioned by the frequency it is evoked: our world spends a vast amount of its time inviting us to copulate, while our reality is as busy in frustrating us. We are not so frustrated as the Victorians? Perhaps. But if you can only enjoy one apple a day, there’s a great deal to be said against living in an orchard of the wretched things; you might even find apples sweeter if you were allowed only one a week.” (269)
“There are two kinds of hangover: in one you feel ill and incapable, in the other you feel ill and lucid.” (317)
“Fiction usually pretends to conform to the reality: the writer puts the conflicting wants in the ring and then describes the fight — but in fact fixes the fight, letting that want he himself favors win. And we judge writers of fiction both by the skill they show in fixing the fights (in other words in persuading us that they were not fixed) and by the kind of fighter they fix in favor of: the good one, the tragic one, the evil one, the funny one, and so on.” (406)
“I have since seen artists destroy work that might to the amateur seem perfectly good. I remonstrated once. I was told that if an artist is not his own sternest judge he is not fit to be an artist. I believe that is right. I believe i was right to destroy what had begun between us.” (448)