I first encountered the The French Lieutenant’s Woman after finishing The Collector by John Fowles but had to return it to the library before I had the chance to finish. I gave it another go and was able to make it to the end of the book before it was time for overdue notices!
Sarah Woodruff is a governess who is looked upon with contempt by the English community of Lyme Regis due to falling for a French naval officer who left her behind after he allegedly ‘ruined‘ her. In spite of her pious employer’s warnings, she walks by the cliffs pining for her lost love. Meanwhile Charles Smithson is a Victorian gentleman engaged to Ernestina , the daughter of a wealthy tradesman who is residing with her aunt Tranter in Lyme Regis. After Charles accidentally stumbles across Sarah, he becomes fascinated by her history and tries to convince her to go to London where her tale of scandal is less likely to be outrageous. But Sarah is not amenable to that particular course of action and asks Charles to compromise himself by meeting her in secret in order to give her emotional support while pretending she lacks the will to alter her life. During the course of these meetings, Charles begins to find himself falling for her despite warnings from her doctor that Sarah’s mind is not in the best state and may drag others down with her.
You could be forgiven for thinking this is a tragic melodrama but now the story starts to veer off in a different track as the narrator begins to intervene in the novel and supplies three possible endings. Each offers a possible ending for Charles’s pursuit of Sarah: the first ends with Charles married to Ernestina without him explaining the details of his meetings with Sarah, the second with a recreation of a relationship with Sarah which hints of a future reconciliation, and the third with Charles ending partnerless deprived of both Ernestina and Sarah. The narrator explains the fairest way to end The French Lieutenant’s Woman is to present all the ways in which it could possibly end.
I think The French Lieutenant’s Woman is really clever and ingenious with all the interpretations given to the reader to finally conclude. But I feel it also shows the limitations of plot devices and how much authors are constricted by the rules governing writing. There are few authors who pushed through that boundary and Fowles was one of the early ones.