Our text today is John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
There’s a lot to work with in this novel. I’ll focus on the Red Pill stuff and mostly ignore the much-celebrated metafiction aspects: Fowles frequently breaks the fourth wall, reminding you that you are reading a work of fiction, etc.
Warning: The rest of this post is spoilers.
Basic structure: The central dramatic impetus is provided by a standard Drama Queen playing a classic Attention Whore script, specifically, Damsel in Distress. Her goal is to suck the main male character into a Beta-Boy White Knight role, and he chomps down hard on the bait. There are two endings. In one she fucks him over totally. She gets him to break off his engagement to his fiancée, then ghosts. In the other ending, which I guess is supposed to be the happy ending, it’s the same, except that they have a child from the one time they had sex. I’m baffled as to why so many people like this.
Chapter 1 gives us the setting: The year is 1867 and the place is Lyme Regis, an English town on the ocean. Dramatic bluffs are in evidence, and the beach features a prominent landmark: a famous old stone wharf/ pier/ waterbreak/ wavebreak/ whatever.
In Ch. 2 the main male character, Charles Smithson, is walking with his fiancée Ernestina (Tina) Freeman out on the waterbreak. They notice a female figure standing on its end. She’s dressed all in black, standing at the end of this wave-battered rock protuberance, staring pensively out across the gray, wind-whipped ocean. Yes, seriously. I know this is supposed to be Victorian, but could you be any more fucking Gothic? Tina has spent more time at Lyme than Charles and, though the woman’s back is to them, Tina recognizes the figure when they are closer. She whispers to Charles that this is a woman the locals have sardonically nicknamed “Tragedy.” Was there ever a clearer set of warning bells and red flags?! There might as well be a neon sign blinking on and off above her head, saying Warning! Drama Queen Attention Whore! Charles, being a doofus, has his curiosity piqued, and when they have drawn close enough he addresses the woman. She turns toward them and the Drama Queen act begins immediately:
…it was an unforgettable face, and a tragic face. [Oh, for fuck’s sake.] Its sorrow welled out of it as purely, naturally [horseshit] and unstoppably as water out of a woodland spring. There was no artifice there [bullshit!], no hysteria [ha!], no mask [oh please!]…
As you can see already, we’re in for some hard core Drama Queen crap. Oddly the author has already told us the ironic nickname, which puts us on guard and gives us some distance on the drama stuff, and yet he does not seem to be describing this woman’s oh-so-sorrowful countenance with an air of detached irony. We’re not sure what to make of this yet. Is Fowles really intending us to believe that there is no artifice in Tragedy’s over-the-top aura of grief? Or is he describing her not as she really is, but as Charles perceives her? It’s unclear at this point, though by the end of the novel we know that Tragedy is putting up a front.
Ch. 12: A few days later Charles overtakes Tragedy out for a walk. Since they’re headed in the same direction he offers to accompany her. She replies, “I prefer to walk alone.” He makes a random remark or two about a mutual acquaintance, and
Her eyes were suddenly on his, and with a kind of despair beneath the timidity.
“Kindly allow me to go on my way alone… And please tell no one you have seen me in this place.”
Drama Queeeeeeeeeen! That last sentence is the real giveaway. “Please tell no one you have seen me in this place” indeed. That just screams, “Dramatic things are afoot! Dangerous things! I’m in trouble!”
In a way it’s clever of her, because it does three female things all at once: (1) It asserts drama. (2) It invites white knighting (“I’m in trouble!”). (3) It’s shit test, because she’s giving him an order. (No matter how politely it is phrased as a request, women always perceive themselves as giving you an order, if you comply with the request. It’s no good protesting that this is illogical and unfair, because this kind of female behavior does not come from the consciously purposeful parts of her brain.)
Later in that chapter we see another Game concept: Attempted cockblocking by post-wall biddies who never get any, and so who try to prevent others from getting any:
But the most serious accusation against Ware Commons had to do with a far worse infamy… the cart track to the Dairy and beyond to the wooded common was a de facto Lover’s Lane. It drew courting couples every summer. …Some said that after midnight more reeling than dancing took place; and the more draconian claimed that there was very little of either, but a great deal of something else.
…[O]nly a year before, a committee of ladies, generaled by [outrageous bluenose] Mrs. Poulteney, had pressed the civic authorities to have the track gated, fenced, and closed. But more democratic voices prevailed.
Ha! In your face, control freaks!
Ch. 16: Some background that Charles has heard from various people in Lyme: Tragedy – her real name is Sarah Woodruff – had been a children’s governess in a Lyme household. A French ship had grounded itself in a storm. A lieutenant on the ship, one Varguennes, had injured his leg during this incident and the household in which Sarah was a governess had taken him in while he recuperated. All this is publicly agreed information.
After that the details get hazier, but the town gossip is: When Varguennes was healed he left for another town. Sarah eventually followed him there and he seduced her, then returned to France. Thus she is a ruined woman, the French Lieutenant’s Whore, waiting futilely for her lover to return and marry her.
All this is in Charles’s mind when again he and Tragedy/ Sarah meet, in the woods overlooking the ocean. They converse and at one point she warns him, “No gentleman who cares for his good name can be seen with the scarlet woman of Lyme.” Oh for fuck’s sake! Charles points out that it would be better for her to leave Lyme, where everyone calls her the French Lieutenant’s Whore, and set up a new life somewhere else (this is 1867; there’s no Internet trail for her to worry about). Sarah replies that she can’t leave Lyme. Charles assumes she means that she’s waiting for her French dude to come back, and points out that he might not return, and if he does, he’ll track Sarah down if he really loves her.
In reply, Sarah gives Charles her account of what happened. The first part matches the local gossip, but then it diverges: The household in which Sarah was a governess had indeed taken in an injured lieutenant Varguennes. Sarah was the only one who spoke French in that household, so she was the only person with whom Varguennes could converse during his recovery. He charmed her. They were engaged.
When Varguennes was recovered he went to another town for some reason. Sarah eventually followed him there and he seduced her. Then he returned to France and weeks later Sarah got a letter from him saying that he was already married. She knows he won’t return.
According to Sarah, only Charles knows of the fatal letter. Everyone else thinks she is still clinging to hope about Varguennes’s return and their eventual marriage.
Okay, so she’s a ruined woman with a habit of standing on steep windswept bluffs, gazing morosely at the ocean. Her cloak billows out around her dramatically as she rues the sorrowful state to which she has fallen, etc.
Charles asks her, to put it in modern terms, why the fuck she’s still hanging around Lyme if she knows the guy isn’t coming back. Tragedy gives him some bullshit story about penance for her own stupidity or something like that. Her excuse was so transparently stupid and trite that it didn’t stick in my mind.
She’s just hanging around Lyme, where everyone knows she’s a “compromised woman,” with no hope of any payoff. Why? Drraaaaaaammmaaaaaaaaaa! She likes skulking around in her cloak, staring pensively out over the water, being all Tragic.
There’s a Rochefoucauld quote about women and pretense of tragedy which I really must look up. Ah, thank you Internet, here we are, maxim 233 (the number varies from edition to edition):
There is another kind [of grief] not so innocent because it imposes on all the world, that is the grief of those who aspire to the glory of a noble and immortal sorrow. After Time, which absorbs all, has obliterated what sorrow they had, they still obstinately obtrude their tears, their sighs, their groans, they wear a solemn face, and try to persuade others by all their acts, that their grief will end only with their life. This sad and distressing vanity is commonly found in ambitious women. As their sex closes to them all paths to glory, they strive to render themselves celebrated by showing an inconsolable affliction.
Rochefoucauld says, “As their sex closes to them all paths to glory…” because he was writing a few hundred years ago. But note drama queen behavior has not stopped as women’s prospects have expanded.
Ch. 18: Charles suggests that Sarah get out of Lyme, perhaps to London. Her reply:
“If I went to London, I know what I should become.” He stiffened inwardly. “I should become what so many women who have lost their honor become in great cities.” Now she turned fully towards him. Her color deepened. “I should become what some already call me in Lyme.”
LOL. Thank goodness she’s not a drama queen or anything. From the film version, which I once saw playing on a dozen screens in a store’s electronics division:
“I am… the French lieutenant’s… whore.” God, Tragedy’s such a melodramatic asshole. Meryl Streep played her to perfection, at least in the few seconds that I saw.
Now that I think of it, that may be a good way to watch this, if, due to morbid curiosity, you must: On a dozen screens at once, so you are reminded that you are just watching a movie, and thus have ironic distance on it. And since the author wrote this as meta-fiction, he could hardly complain (I mean, even if he weren’t dead).
Ch. 19: Charles speaks about Sarah with Dr. Grogan, a Lyme physician who is also familiar with her case.
Grogan: “Oh now come, is she the first young woman who has been jilted? I could tell you of a dozen others here in Lyme.”
Charles: “In such brutal circumstance?”
Grogan: “Worse, some of them. And today they’re as merry as crickets.”
Grogan tells Charles of another case and concludes, “It was as if the woman had become addicted to melancholia as one become addicted to opium. Her sadness becomes her happiness. She wants to be a sacrifical victim, Smithson.”
Ch. 21: Sarah to Charles. Pure drama queenery. She’s all like, “My shame! My sin!” Blah blah blah. At one point she actually says: “To be what I must be. An outcast.”
Ch. 25: Sarah has a messenger deliver a note to Charles. (By the way, the note is in French. I had to use Google Translate; what the hell did non-French speakers do when this was first published in 1967? Fowles, you asshole. Hmm, maybe this is another metafiction method: Suck the readers out of the story by getting them pissed off at the author.)
I waited for you all day I pray (to) you – a woman on her knees begs you to help her in her despair. I will spend the night in prayers for you. I will be, from dawn, in small barn near the sea reached by the first path to the left after the farm.
Ch. 27: After another drama-filled encounter with Tragedy, Charles consults with Grogan about her again. Grogan puts himself in Tragedy’s shoes:
“I am a young woman [who thinks] the world has done badly by me… What is worse, I have fallen in love with being a victim of fate. I have put out a very professional line in the way of looking melancholy. I have tragic eyes. I weep without explanation… [And now Charles Smithson appears.] I see he is interested in me. The sadder I seem, the more interested he appears to be. … I have but one weapon. The pity I inspire in this kind-hearted man. Now pity is a thing that takes a devil of a lot of feeding. I have fed this Good Samaritan my past and he has devoured it. So what can I do? I must make him pity my present.”
So she does something self-destructive; deliberately gets herself fired from her job. Grogan infers this based on what he knows, and later (Ch. 31, p.199) Sarah admits it.
Grogan finishes by saying that Sarah essentially has a disease of the mind. “You must think of her like that. Not as some malicious schemer.”
No schemer, my ass! That’s exactly what a man in Charles’s position should infer. And indeed, this is what turns out to be the case.
Ch. 46-7: Sarah has in an earlier chapter (start of Ch 43) sent Charles an imperious note: In its entirety: “Endicott’s Family Hotel.” That’s it, not even an initial or a date. Note the implicit command to Charles to go there and, as it were, attend her. He’s being summoned. And without even a pretense of politeness. She’s treating him the way a particularly obnoxious duchess would treat a servant. He fails this shit test, the fool, by actually going there. Though in his defense, he might think he doesn’t have a hell of a lot of choice at this point, since he has gotten himself into a situation that is thoroughly blackmailable by Victorian standards. If he ignores her, there’s a significant chance that this Drama Queen will show up at his fiancée’s house the night before their wedding and start blabbing. Or, worse, at their house a day or two after they return from their honeymoon, ruining their marriage right at its start. Charles has gotten himself into a bad position.
He and Sarah end up fucking at the perhaps inaptly-named Endicott’s Family Hotel, so at least he gets some trim out of all this. But – and there’s a reason for this detail – Charles orgasms almost immediately. The author tells us this, and I think it’s relevant, because it means that all the shit that’s about to land on Charles not only isn’t buying him a good, torrid long-term affair with lots of hot sex; it’s not even buying him one good fuck. It’s one very brief fuck, but it’s enough, we’ll eventually see, to get Sarah pregnant. Oy vey, Charles.
Afterward, he notices some blood on his penis, and figures out that Sarah had been a virgin. (In the heat of the moment he hadn’t noticed plunging through her hymen.) And now you go, with Charles, OH MY FUCKING GOD. Yup: Sarah’s entire story about being “ruined” by the Frenchman was bullshit. There was no affair, at least no sexual one. She’s not actually ruined. When Charles calls her out on this she tells him another story and while we never know if it’s true or false, I think it’s just more bullshit from a psychopathic manipulator.
Her new story is that she followed Varguennes to the new town, and before she could make contact, saw him walking out of a hotel with a woman who was unmistakably a prostitute. She knew she’d been scammed, so she turned around and went back to Lyme. At this point we don’t really know much except that Varguennes seems to actually exist – people besides Sarah have vouched for his existence – but whether there ever was any affair or engagement between him and Sarah we have no way of knowing. For that, we have only the word of a confirmed blatant liar.
Anyway Charles, like an ass, runs back to his fiancée Tina – remember her? – and confesses everything, except the identity of the other woman. Naturally Tina is in shock, and is hurt, and is livid.
In this period breach-of-promise lawsuits were still a thing. In Ch. 56, Tina’s father makes Charles, under threat of such a suit, sign a document confessing everything, and saying that he is forever excluded from being known as a gentleman, etc., and that the father may make use of said document in any way he wishes. Charles’s lawyer finds out that if Charles is ever engaged again, Tina’s father intends to show the document to the woman’s family. “He means you to remain a bachelor all your life.” This is part of what I meant when I referred above to “all the shit that’s about to land on Charles.” Even if he wants to get married, he can’t. (Red-pilled dudes who want to say “ha marriage sux anyway” should keep in mind that this was a time before Marriage 2.0 had legally stacked the deck against men.) Although he could get married in the U.S., where he spends a year or so later.
Ch. 60: Sarah has disappeared. After Charles has been gallivanting about the U.S. for a while, he gets a telegram from his lawyer saying Sarah has been found. He returns to England for this reason, the doofus. Some people never learn. He tracks Sarah down to her new abode, where she is a member – not a servant – of the household of a well-known painter. She says she’s not boinking the painter, but then, she’s a liar. Charles confronts her about being a manipulative psychopath. This is the last scene before the novel forks. The author tells us, in a metafiction aside, that he can’t decide on an ending so he’ll give us two, flipping a coin to decide which will be presented first.
Charles: “You have not only ruined my life. You have taken pleasure in doing so.”
Tragedy: “I knew nothing but unhappiness could come from such a meeting as this.”
Charles: “I think you lie. I think you reveled in the thought of my misery. …You forget I already know, to my cost, what an accomplished actress you can be when it suits your purpose.” [Oh, NOW he figures it out!]
Tragedy: “You misjudge me.” But she said it far too calmly, as if she remained proof to all his accusations; even, deep in herself, perversely savored them…
Charles: “No. It is as I say. You have not only planted the dagger in my breast, you have delighted in twisting it.” [True, but dude, you should realize that saying this just draws out the sadistic pleasure she’s getting from this little scene.]
This is where the final two alternative chapters split off.
Ending the first:
Sarah presents Charles with a girl about a year old, and tells him that she’s their daughter. That’s nice, but it’s still true that Sarah has scammed and manipulated Charles and generally fucked up his life. Furthermore, since Sarah’s such a slut and a liar, he can’t be sure the girl is really his daughter. (The author tells the reader, in the last sentence of this ending, that Charles is her father, but Charles can’t know that.) In any case he is cast, by his dalliance with Sarah, into a different life from the one had planned. He can never have any legitimate children (due to the document he wussily signed), unless he fetches a wife in another country.
Ending the second: After a few more harsh words, and having to endure another sentence or two of self-justifying bullshit from Tragedy, Charles leaves.
WTF? I’m not sure what the point of all this is. The metafiction stuff seems to have a gotten a lot of critics excited. There’s talk of Fowles having “reinvented the Victorian novel,” etc. I am unmoved by all this, and I’m a reader who likes metafiction when it’s done well. It does, though, serve as a fantastic lesson for inexperienced young men in what NOT to do with a Damsel in Distress, so there’s that.
1. The writing is mostly fine qua writing. It generally keeps out of the way, with occasional words and turns of phrase that are excessively decorative – I had to look up “loxodromic” – and the deliberately shocking smashings of the fourth wall. (Per InfoGalactic, Fowles is “critically positioned between modernism and post-modernism.”) These fourth wall breaks happen frequently, and in a nuclear bomb sort of way at the end of Ch 12 and start of Ch 13. If one came to this novel expecting straight-up historical romantic fiction, one would get quite the surprise.
2. Fowles indulges in occasional little Marxist lectures. Fortunately, these tend to be either limited to a sentence or two, or relegated to footnotes (or both). I actually didn’t mind these that much. I think the reason is that the particular brand of Marxism being pimped here is the fundamentalist Ollllllld Skooooool brand; Fowles is actually interested in “economic class” as old school Marxists used that term. This “class” stuff is actually a relief from today’s point of view, now that the Left has irrevocably dived into the identity politics sewer. From today’s perspective, class-based Marxism is merely quaint; it’s not nearly as nasty as the white genocide stuff we have now. Of course, Marxism was one big genocidal rampage… but at least its adherents had enough shame or circumspection to deny that that’s what they wanted. In the context of today’s white genocide crowd, Marxism actually seems humanist in comparison.
Index page for my Red Pill in Fiction posts: