The Resolution Project Book Thirty-Three: The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969)

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books / the resolution project

“I do not know. This story I am telling is all imagination. These characters I create never existed outside my own mind. If I have pretended until now to know my characters’ minds and innermost thoughts, it is because I am writing in (just as I have assumed some of the vocabulary and ‘voice’ of) a convention universally accepted at the time of my story: that the novelist stands next to God.” (p. 95)

The Resolution Project: For my New Year’s resolution this year (that being 2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I exempted myself from reading ones I’ve already read, leaving some eighty-six or so to read before the end of this year. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned if you’re the type to be bothered by that.

The French Lieutenant's Woman cover

In 1867, Charles Smithson and Ernestina Freeman are on vacation in the English port town of Lyme Regis before their wedding, visiting family and engaging in Charles’ hobby of paleontology. Charles is in line to become a baronet, while Ernestina is the daughter of a successful businessman. While on the docks, the couple meet a strange woman, looking out to sea with a mournful look about her. She is known around town as “Tragedy” or, less tactfully, as “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” her heart having been broken long ago by an uncouth French naval officer. The lives of these three characters intertwine in interesting ways throughout the plot of the book, which has as one of its aims to help modern audiences understand the oft-incomprehensible social mores and taboos of the Victorian period.

This was an excellent novel, probably the most experimental of all the ones I’ve read so far going down the list (excepting The Crying of Lot 49, which I’d read before starting this project). I really enjoyed the what I like to call “anthropological” approach Fowles took to telling his story. I feel like I learned quite a lot about how people in Victorian times acted, and why. It was especially helpful when it came to Charles, who, about halfway through the book, learns that he might need to be associated with the grim specter of “trade”, in the form of his father-in-law-to-be’s store (the marriage, like most made at this time, was primarily a business venture wherein one family trades their financial largesse for the esteem and prestige of the other family’s aristocratic rank). I started to hate the insufferable man, who, for the life of him just couldn’t bear working for a living, not even for a second; he goes so far as to compare the store to a great engine that threatens to grind his frivolous life away. But right as I couldn’t stand Charles, Fowles redeemed him somewhat by explaining just why the concepts of work and commerce were so threatening to a member of the aristocracy at this time, when the bourgeoisie was just starting to loom large over the country and with Marx beginning to put forth his theories on capital and labour.

The book is just full of little things like that, taking ideas that the Victorians would have understood automatically and then translating them into terms a modern day reader can relate to in a world far removed from the adherence to duty and repression of the time. It made me think of Victorian novels I read when I was in school, and why I couldn’t really identify with anyone in them. I much preferred books from the Regency era, like those of Jane Austen, where life didn’t seem as rigid, to someone like Thomas Hardy for instance, where your life was basically forfeit from the starting point. After having read The French Lieutenant’s Woman, though, I feel as if I could revisit works from that period with the easy-to-digest concepts Fowles puts forth.

The book also plays around with its form and style in an entertaining fashion. As noted in the quote that began the piece, the narrator of the book is Fowles himself, who is able to shift some parts of the narrative around to suit his fancy. He puts forth three endings for the love triangle; forsaking the first one for having too stereotypical a resolution, he changes events to let two more endings occur, which are more painful yet also more realistic at the same time. He even shows up in the world of the characters to do so, sort of like how Kurt Vonnegut Jr. would often show up in his books as the trashy writer “Kilgore Trout’, armed with limited omniscience and the power of fiction itself. Anyway, I thought that was really cool, especially coming from a book written in the 1960s. Sure, it’s not exactly revolutionary, but it was fun.

“She made him aware of a deprivation. His future had always seemed to him of vast potential; and now suddenly it was a fixed voyage to a known place. She had reminded him of that.” (p.130)

Total pages read since January 1st: 7683 pp.

Next up on the Resolution Project: Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962)

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The Author

Matt Bowes is a self-proclaimed cultural commentator/arbiter of good taste from Edmonton, Alberta. He enjoys movies and books, and writes about them sometimes at thisnerdinglife.com.

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