Nathan's Reviews > The French Lieutenant's Woman

The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles
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Dec 29, 11

Read in December, 2011

John Fowles' "The French Lieutenant's Woman" succeeds in a very difficult way. Namely, it is an example of pure storytelling, in the classic sense, sincerely conveyed without any real conceit or gimmicks, and the novel is only as compelling (and it is indeed hard to put down) as the actual plot makes it. That said, there are plenty of clever asides from the narrator which reveal Fowles' perspective and his criticism of the naivete of the era, most notably in the area of religion (Fowles is an avowed atheist. Bully for you, John.). Fowles' trademark facility for flowery Thomas Hardy-esque passages (minus Hardy's notorious loquacity, and without the metaphorical and mythological weight of "The Magus") is on display, along with a deft touch for effortlessly employed, obscure vocabulary. Each chapter begins with prescient epigraphs from the Victorian era, mainly from Marx, Darwin, and Tennyson. The plot centers around an affair in Lyme-Regis, England between an engaged aristocrat, Charles, and a commoner, Sarah, or whatever you're supposed to call them. The story centers around the choices that Charles makes to flaunt convention and to yield to his passion or his attraction to Sarah. I won't give too much away, but I will say that the majority of this is conveyed with understatement, since hey, it's the Victorian era and you can't exactly get all "Tropic of Cancer" about matters of the heart!

The narrator is especially interesting, as he/it is a decidedly wry, witty, and modern voice who offers commentary and context on the era. Comparisons to the present day, and comments on the actual craft of the novel and the choices that the author makes with his characters are included. This is done tastefully, and not couched in snark tones or irony, proof that Fowles is a meticulous craftsman who knows his classics, and is a formally trained writer- in the way that Laurence Olivier was a formally trained actor- voicing, word choice, cadences, rhythm, etc. are all used artfully, as in the best poetry. A cursory perusal of the novel would have you believe that it indeed comes from the Victorian era itself, as the English is as formal, delicate, and crisp as it seemed to have been then. I was especially impressed at how well the use of the narrator comes off, since it straddles eras, but never disrupts the Victorian tone of formality and prudence. Many writers would not be able to riff on something like that, or it would make the story become lame or tenuous; conversely, here the technique succeeds because it amplifies the weight of the events and palpably connects the reader to a bygone era, explaining the social mores and the motivations of the people that lived during that time. I'm sure there is a precedent for this technique, but I can't think of one to compare it to at the moment...It is done as satire, but the same thing happens in a similar way in William Golding's "The Princess Bride," made famous by its cinematic counterpart.
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