French Lieutenants Woman
"French Lieutenants Woman" is a work of historical fiction that clearly represents the Victorian Age in England. The story represents the history and culture of England in the 1860's and contrasts elements of the Victorian Age with the present, with the inner plot representing the past and the outer plot representing the present. The 1981 movie "French Lieutenants Woman" was based on the 1969 novel by John Fowles. The parts of its main characters were played by Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons. Meryl Streep plays Anna in the outer plot who plays Sara Woodruff in the inner plot. Jeremy Irons plays Mike, who plays Charles in the inner plot.
The romantic story begins in the 1860's with Charles working in the field as a paleontologist. Upon his return to his office, he drops his work and calls, "Grab the horses Sam, were going to Miss Ernetines!" Charles goes to Ernestines and asks her parents if she may speak with her privately. Ernestine is the daughter of Mr. Freeman, a wealthy businessman. She is a bright young girl however naïve about the world. In a private atrium Charles asks Ernestine "if she would have this crusty old scientist for her husband." Ernestine accepts and the engagement begins. One day while Charles and Ernestine are walking on the beach, it is storming. Charles sees a woman on the outcliff overlooking the sea. The waves are swelling and he fears for her safety. He approaches the woman and begs her to retreat to safety. Their eyes meet briefly, a flame is kindled. She is Sara Woodruff, the French Lieutenants Woman. Charles hears about her reputation from the local gossip, but refuses to believe anything bad about her. He asks his friend Dr. Grogan about her. Dr.Grogan ponders some of Freud's theories about psychology and tells Charles that he believes her to have a mental disease known as melancholy. Charles meets with Sara in the woods from time to time and Sara tells Charles he must never speak of their meetings. Sara returns to her boarding house. She lives with a prudish Victorian woman, Ms. Poultney, who scolds her for such unseemly behavior. Charles and Sara continue to meet and Sara confides in Charles about how she got her reputation. Apparently she gave herself to a man she was not wed to and he left her and went to France. For years she awaited his return, walking the outcliff overlooking the sea. She feared that he would not return for she discovered he was married. Charles encouraged her to get away from Lyme and move to London. She feared that if she moved to London she should become what many already call her in Lyme, a whore. Charles goes to London, sends Sara money to meet him there. They meet, they make love and Charles leaves to Lyme to break off his engagement to Ernestine. Upon breaking the engagement, Charles has to sign a legal document declining the right to be considered a gentleman. The document becomes the property of Ernestine, and she is free to publish it if she desires. Sara, presumptuously out of fear that the past will repeat itself, runs off and starts a new life under the identity of Mrs. Roughwood. When Charles returns, Sara is gone. A few years later Sara sends for Charles and they meet again. After many questions Charles forgives Sara and I assume they lived happily-ever-after.
Although "French Lieutenants Woman" is a fictional story, it is convincing in it's historical correctness, not necessarily to the decade but atleast to Victorian times. In the inner plot we find many elements of the Victorian era, such as the way the gentleman Charles asks permission of Ernestine's parents to speak to her privately. Charles' occupation as a paleontologist who studied fossils and Darwin's theory of evolution also dates back to 1860's, however the comments made by Ernestine's family about the subject of Darwin's theory that man came form apes is ahead of it's time by a few years. "Darwin was not eager to offend people, nor did he enjoy controversy. Thus in 'The Origin of Species' (1859) he tactfully avoided any discussion of human origins... In the 'Descent of Man' (1871) he made his opinion clear: man is animal." (Longman, p.1945) Dr. Grogan's ivestigation of Freud's theories of psychology were also key to the stories historical context. It places the story in the Victorian era, however since Sigmond Freud was not born until 1856, I doubt he developed the theories mentioned by Dr. Grogan in the 1860's, the decade the story takes place. Mrs. Poultney is the stereotypic Victorian woman and her references to what is godly and seemly are clearly Victorian as well. "The terms 'lady' and 'gentleman' had enormous significance, particularly to those aspiring to those ranks and to those in danger of slipping out of them." ("Victorian Ladies and Gentleman," Longman, p.1886)
The outer plot, involving Mike and Anna is critical not only to contrast the present time with the 1860's but also to substantiate that some of the Victorian elements were researched and that the story was historically correct. We discovered through the second plot that the values of the present-day men and women were distinctly changed from those of Victorian ladies and gentlemen. Anna's reading about the social conditions and the prostitutes in London leads us to believe that what is portrayed in the inner plot is historically correct. The most amazing thing however, is that as well as presenting us with two time frames to contrast, this technique in itself confirms the historical correctness and the research that went into the story as the plot within a plot structure was a popular writing concept in the Victorian literature.
Overall, "French Lieutenants Woman" convinces me that it adequately represents Victorian times. Although the references made regarding Darwin and Freud were ahead of their time, they are still representative of the Victorian age, historically. Anna's research of prostitution in 1860's London helped confirm the historical accuracy as well. The references made to the cultural significance of being a lady or a gentleman are key cultural elements indicative of the time and the plot within a plot structure is a key literary element that correlates with the Victorian era.
The French Lieutenant's Woman
On page 316 of the novel " The French Lieutenant's Woman"
author John Fowles briefly interrupts the fiction to
discuss with the reader his role as a novelist. He has come
up with two very different endings to the novel and wishes
to share both with his readers. However, he cannot give two
storyline endings simultaneously, and if one comes before
another, the final chapter will seem more potent than the
first. In trying not to side with any particular characters
he decides on a coin toss to decide which conclusion to
give last. At this point Charles is on a train, and Fowles
considers leaving him there to allow the reader the
opportunity to devise his/her own conclusion for the novel.
I can only assume that Fowles came up with both endings at
roughly the same time, and each of them seemed as valid an
ending as the other to him. Traditionally, it would have
been up to him to chose one ending and make it final.
However it seems he was not able, or did not want to chose
just one of the endings to the novel. It would seem that
Fowles is trying to be fair to all of the characters by
including the various endings which satisfy all of them.
Fowles comments that the job of a novelist is "to put two
conflicting wants in the ring and describe the fight",
which is essentially what he has done. However, it is hard
to decide for whom to fix the fight especially since one
owns both fighters.
Fowles also briefly mentions allowing "freedom of
characters" in his writing. This concept is somewhat vague.
To allow freedom of characters is to essentially allow the
characters to do anything that the author desires. Why
would a character ever not be able to do whatever the
author thinks of ? There are no written rules that authors
must follow as to how their characters ought to behave, or
whether a character can step out of his role. The identity
of the character is constantly changing as the novel
progresses, constantly being updated since the reader has
only a brief glimpse into the life of a character in the
novel. I think it would be quite rare for an author to not
allow his characters freedom (unless of course he is living
in a country under dictatorship or communism, but that
doesn't count because the author doesn't have freedom
either so why should his characters).
"The chief argument of fight fixing is to show one's
readers what one thinks of the world around one". The
author must fix the fight in favor of one side to make the
writing a novel, to create the story with one's views on
the world implanted into it. Fowles however did not live in
the world he is fixing the fight in and can only know about
it from other readings or indirect information. Fowles
describes a story that has supposedly taken place over a
century ago, and shows several views of another world by
giving the novel two separate endings. Through this Fowles
shows two separate views , by giving us two separate
endings, which essentially changes his entire outlook on
the world from one ending to another. One is more
optimistic than the other, so he gives us an optimistic
look at the world as well as a pessimistic view of the
world in which the novel unfolds.
The bulk of Fowles comments on what a novelist should be
are somewhat contradictory to what he has done with his
novel. He has said that it is the job of the author to
describe the conflict after having chosen the outcome.
However, Fowles himself seems to play quite an active role
in The French Lieutenant's Woman , often jumping in to give
modern day references such as in the case of Mrs. Poultney
and the Gestapo. I believe this kind of writing is very
beneficial for the reader. If the author has enough
information about an era to convincingly write about it,
and make references to modern times, it seems to give the
reader a better understanding of the novel and make them
feel more involved. Although Fowles has said that his job
is simply to describe the fight it is somewhat more
interesting when he slips back into the 20th century.
In the many places in the novel when Fowles jumps in to the
novel to explain or further describe something, he often
gives away that even he does not know what is going to
happen next. It is as though he is discovering right along
with the reader, as he imagines it the reader reads it.
Writing in this style may be beneficial to the novel as it
does not bias the novel towards the protagonist or
antagonist, but makes the conflict seem realistic enough
that it's not beyond the realm of possibility for either of
the sides to take control and "win" the novel. Through this
style of writing, the novel has a more lifelike feel to it
because people don't get inside tips from one an other as
they live their real lives.
Fowles seems to believe that the novelist should not be
thinking or intentionally creating a plot, but rather to
let one unfold and simply describe it. He makes it out to
be as though authors have a peep-hole to another dimension
through which they watch and write down everything they
see. Their job is simply to fix and convincingly report on
a fight without showing too much bias for one side or the
other as to not make it too obvious for whom the fight has
been fixed. His views of what a novelist should be seem
quite unique and somewhat idealistic.