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The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles

 
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Caro



Joined: 22 Nov 2008
Posts: 2982


Location: Owaka, New Zealand

PostPosted: Mon Dec 05, 2016 11:04 pm    Post subject: The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles  Reply with quote

I am nearly half-way through this now.  I am enjoying it, especially, unlike Joe, the asides from the author talking to the modern reader.  
One thing, though, I found I couldn't quite understand the woman's insistence that she had to feel her shame.  I dislike the way some modern and I assume younger readers can't put themselves into an earlier era, like the 1950s and condemn the attitudes of those times without understanding, but I find myself doing the same with this.  

Here is some of what she says, and what I can't quite understand:  "I beg you to understand not that I did this shameful thing, but why I did it.  Why I sacrificed a woman's most precious possession for the transient gratification of a man I did not love.  I did it so I could never be the same again.  I did it so that people should point at me, should say, there walks the French Lieutenant's Whore...So that they should know I have suffered as others suffer in every town and village in this land.  I could not marry that man.  So I married shame.  I do not mean that I knew what I did, that it was in cold blood that I let Varguennes have his will of me.  It seemed to me then as if I threw myself off a precipice or plunged a knife into my heart.  It was a kind of suicide. An act of despair, Mr Smithson. I knew it was wicked, blasphemous, but I knew no other way to break out of what I was.  If I had left that room, and returned to Mrs Talbot's, and resumed my former existence, I know by now I should be truly dead, and by my own hand.  What has kept me alive is my shame, my knowing that I am truly not like other women.  I shall never have children, a husband, and those innocent happiness.  And the will never understand the reason for my crime.  Sometimes I almost pity them.  I think I have a freedom they cannot have.  No insult, no blame, can touch me,  Because I set myslef beyond the pale.  I am nothing. I am beyond the pale.  I am hardly human any more. I am the French Lieutenant's Whore."

I didn't understand and still dont why she felt she had to have sex with Vargennes, and why she then had to own the shame.  There seem to me even in those judgemental times to be the option to stay away, as Charles was suggesting, or just to hold her head high, go to a more supportive employer, etc.  

And Charles is not a lot more understandable, though he may not be meant to be a totally sympathetic creation: he is shown as valuing his position as a gentleman, finding his fiancee, angry when he is disinherited (not literally, but by his uncle marrying a much younger woman who could have an heir) to be showing signs of her middle-class upbringing, and not showing the restraint he thought a partner of his class would know was the way to behave.  I am sure this was the way people thought in those days, but Charles had shown he could be sympathetic to people outside his class, so why was he so harsh on his own fiancee (who has been shown as a rather frivolous young woman, with very conventional ideas).

Have those of you who have read this any thoughts?  Or even those of you who haven't?


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Joe McWilliams



Joined: 10 Feb 2012
Posts: 689


Location: Canada

PostPosted: Tue Dec 06, 2016 8:40 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

As mentioned, I have read it, but so long ago all that remain are impressions. I enjoy nothing quite so much as being caught up in a love story and dislike nothing quite so much as having the spell broken.  Therefore, whatever 'post-modern' point the author was trying to make.... I could not care less about. He was staking out new literary ground, or thought he was, somewhere between or above or beyond Austen and Hardy. More power to him, but it's not for me.


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Caro



Joined: 22 Nov 2008
Posts: 2982


Location: Owaka, New Zealand

PostPosted: Tue Dec 20, 2016 11:13 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I have finished this, and further to the question put above, I now find that she was a virgin!  They made love at one point and he realised afterwards that the blood on his clothes came from her.  I don't in the least understand why she then felt the shame of her relationship with Varguennes.  

It was full of historical asides about the Victorian era and analysis of that epoch, though as it lasted so long, he sometimes pointed out how it changed over the 70 odd years it lasted. Some of what he said challenged the reader's ideas of Victorians, while some of them reinforced them.  Sarah went against the stereotypical thought of her times and that was what attracted Charles to her.  

I read it knowing that it had two different endings, but I am not a careful enough reader, so although I was on the lookout for them, I didn't notice them until I looked it up on wikipedia!  Now I wonder why I didn't see it.  He is a writer you need to read quite intently.  

The story is, as Joe has intimated, quite entertaining in itself but I enjoyed the authorial/narrator voice (critics apparently see the narrator as separate from the author but I took it to be Fowles himself talking to the reader and giving them information) sometimes informing me about differences in attitudes and events between the 19th and 20th centuries, and sometimes writing about styles of writing and how novelists usually write and how he is trying to write as if he doesn't know what is going to happen, as if he is not in control of his characters and their lives.  He does at times, nevertheless, act as deus ex machine, as for example, when Charles refuses the invitation to lend money to his servant and Sam in return does not deliver a letter which has consequences beyond the expected.  

At one stage the author/narrator talks of authorial control and says, “The conventions of Victorian fiction allow...no place for the open, the inconclusive ending and I preached earlier of the freedom characters must be given.  My problem is simple  – what Charles wants is clear? It is indeed.  But what the protagonist wants is not so clear; and I am not at all sure where she is at the moment... 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, letter that what he himself favours 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 favour of: the good one, the tragic one, the evil one, the funny one, and so on.
But the chief argument for fight-fixing is to show one’s reader what one thinks of the world around one – whether one is a pessimist, an optimist, what you will.  I have pretended to slip back to 1867; but of course that year is in reality a century past.  It is futile to show optimism or pessimism, or anything else about it, because we know what has happened since.  So I continue to stare at Charles and see no reason this time for fixing the fight upon which he is about to engage.  That leaves me with two alternatives.  I let the fight proceed and take no more than a recording part in it; or I take both sides in it...The only way I can take no part in it is to show two versions of it.  That leaves me with only problem:  I cannot give both versions at once, yet whichever is the second one will seem, so strong is the tyranny of the last chapter, the final, the ‘real’ version.”


So that explains the ending and the author's thought processes: whether you accept them or find them clumsy (or both) is up to the reader, I think.


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Joe McWilliams



Joined: 10 Feb 2012
Posts: 689


Location: Canada

PostPosted: Thu Dec 22, 2016 2:41 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thanks for that, Caro. As you present it, I think if I read the book again I would likely better appreciate what Fowles was doing or attempting in the way of authorial comment. I tend not to re-read books (Patrick O'Brian the great exception), but in this case I think I might.


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Caro



Joined: 22 Nov 2008
Posts: 2982


Location: Owaka, New Zealand

PostPosted: Sat Jan 07, 2017 9:27 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Last night we watched the movie of The French Lieutenant's Woman.  I wondered how they would approach this, with its unusual elements.  What they did was have Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons having an affair on set with different names.  The first time we saw them like this they were talking about Darwin and his theories, but after that mostly the two of them were just discussing the film etc.  I would have liked more of the differences between the times of the 19th C and the 20th.  

We quite enjoyed it though my husband said without me explaining how the book had done it he would have been lost. (I did wonder when I read it how the first editors understood the endings. I knew it had two and still missed it!) I think they just went with the happy ending.  

I did wonder who they would use if they were making this today.  Maybe Kate Winslet and who?  I can't think of a modern-day actor who has those qualities.  Anthony Andrews would have but he is too old now.  Adrian thingy who plays Poldark?  I don't think so.  I don't seem to know young actors.


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Hector



Joined: 10 Jan 2009
Posts: 294


Location: Leeds

PostPosted: Mon Feb 13, 2017 2:42 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Hello Caro

Thanks for your posts on this. I have this novel on my TBR and suspect I will get round to it later in the year. I've read (and commented here previously) on Fowles' other books I have read - The Magus and The Collector - both of which I thoroughly enjoyed. I'll try and return to this thread when I do get round to reading it.


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Caro



Joined: 22 Nov 2008
Posts: 2982


Location: Owaka, New Zealand

PostPosted: Tue Feb 14, 2017 6:25 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Lovely to see you back, Hector.  I saw your name and thought you might find our discussions a bit trivial now without Himadri, Evie, Mike A and yourself!

I haven't read those other Fowles, something I read about The Magus didn't make it sound my sort of thing, but maybe I shoud try it.  I just like that sort of book with asides on history and philosophy and sociology,etc.



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