Contents: [Epigraphs][Existentialism][Narrative][Perspectives][Sexual Repression][Style]
THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN
Sets scene, the Cobb, in Lyme Bay, with the three main characters, Charles Smithson, Ernestine, his fiancee and Sarah Woodruff. Note satirical tone, Fowles as observer, almost a voyeur, patronising in tone.
Light, brittle tone between lovers, flirtatious and typically Victorian (what is typically Victorian?). Ernestine's revulsion at Sarah because of her reputation as a "fallen woman" is not untypical, nor insincere. Tragedy is apparent in SW ; note her appearance contrasted to Ernestine's. Her effect on Charles is "like a lance" (sexual connotations here cf. what happens later)
Background detail re. Charles. Note comment about time on p15/16 "existence was firmly adagio". Fowles describes him as an intelligent idler, but he has redeeming features - he is intelligent, and not stereotyped beyond hope for that age. Although engaged and sexually experienced, he is not involved in any real affair of the heart. He is an emotional virgin.
Mrs Poultney's house. Note contrast of setting - dismal, repressed and full of hypocrisy. Cruelty masked with propriety. Mrs P. a caricature (or is she really?) of Victorian respectability. Her Christianity is surface, she fears Hell, but note how patronising she is to the vicar, who is her social inferior. Mr Forsythe suggests she employs Sarah Woodruff as a companion,out of malice or real compassion for sarah?
Ernestina introduced. Note her reaction to sexual awareness. Again not fiction. Fowles accurate in his assessment of the reaction of Victorian female of middle & upper class to sexual matters. "I must not".Sexual enjoyment was a taboo not easily broken by either men or woman, although men could and did enjoy the company of prostitutes, it was more of a gratification of the urge to copulate, than a real involvement of two people loving one another physically. Respectable women would never dream of indulging themselves in so profane a pastime as sexual pleasure. Ernestine is a prude, but a product of the age as well.
Sarah Woodruff's history. Note that she has not as far as we know, had an affair with the Frenchman, Mr.Varguennes, but has acted without respectability in following him to Weymouth on a promise of marriage. She lodged with a female cousin. Even so, this is conduct which has led to scandal. A lady could not do something like this and remain a lady. The fact that she had not slept with Varguennes is immaterial, her reputation is in ruins because she behaved without propriety in leaving her job and running after a man, and a Frenchman at that!! Note the xenophobia and the religious prejudice in Mrs P's comments about the man. it is only impending destitution which forces Sarah to take the post with Mrs P.Is Sarah lying?
Short interlude with Charles and servant Sam. The "new" breed of cockney servant. relationship between the two rather brittle and cleverly anticipates the changes in social balance which were to come with the new century and the first war.
Charles on the fossil hunt. Fowles again patronising and observant retrospectively, satirizing the Victorian amateur scientist/collector.
More information about Sarah. She is perceptive; intuitively "sees through" people - including Mrs P. She influences the Poulteney household, despite Mrs P's obvious malevolence.She is popular with other servants, except Mrs Fairley and demure. It is significant that she is concealing her real feelings. Note the hypocrisy of Mrs P. and Mrs F. as they spy and judge sarah, even to the extent of forbidding her to walk in certain places. Once judged, a "fallen woman" was never free from social or moral stigma. Sarah is a martyr and her nickname of "Tragedy" is appropriate.
Second encounter between Charles & Sarah. He sees her asleep, likens her pose to that of a French prostitute he had in Paris - again the sense of voyeurism is strongly emphasised. "There was something intensely tender and yet sexual in the way she lay. The innocence of the encounter is cleverly blended with the stirrings of sexual promise.
The servant Mary, in Ernestina's aunt's house is introduced. She is seductive and overtly sexual, and allowed to be so because of her station. She may do all the things Ernestina and sarah may not because of her social station as one of the lower classes. Both the other women are circumscribed because of their positions - Ernestina because she is middle class and Sarah because she is neither upper nor lower. What Mary can do is flirt with men and be obvious in her preferences. The explanation of Ernestina's pursuit of Charles illustrates the rigid social conventions of mid-Victorian life. Respectable women could not show a preference except by hints or innuendo, the game of courtship was very strict for the middle and upper classes. When Charles gives her the sprig of jasmine in the conservatory it becomes a symbol of the ephemeral nature of their relationship, as do the tears she sheds after his declaration of intent to marry her. The repression of Victorian society, especially with regard to sexual matters was ferocious "how can you mercilessly imprison all natural sex instinct for twenty years and then not expect the prisoner to be racked by sobs when the door is thrown open?"
Charles speaks to Sarah. their conversation is polite, but there is a strong attraction between them. She has a direct gaze which says "noli me tangere" (Christ's words to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection "do not touch me") Note that Charles does not mention the meeting to Ernestina, even though nothing at all significant has taken place yet.
The second part of the chapter deals with the reputation of Ware Commons and Mrs P's reaction to sarah walking there. Even places were tarnished by reputation of sexual use. Mrs P's assumption that Sarah is tainted by it is largely because she herself is tainted by her own repressed nature. Sarah suffers again in silence at the crass hypocrisy of Mrs P, who is ignorant as well as venomous. Her tears fall later like "blood through a bandage"
Sarah continues to go to the Commons, adding deception to her other faults in the world's eyes.It is thus that she meets Charles and sets the fatal train of events in motion.
The social call on Mrs P by Charles, Tina and Aunt Tranter enables Charles to experience the social pretence and bigotry ofthe times. Note the hostility masked by social pretence and how Tina appears as shallow and bigoted when she refers to Mary talking with sam. Sarah and Charles the only "real" people in the room. Contrast the sincerity and lack of artifice in the conversation between Sam and Mary.
Tina and Charles reconciled and Sam's attachment to Mary revealed. The relationship with Charles and Sam will be destroyed because of sam's attachment to Mary and his loathing of Charles as a master, which he cloaks well for the moment.
A domestic, boring interlude with Charles and Tina. Note the horrendous, sentimental poetry Tina reads. Romantic poetry was often a substitute for physical intimacy, as if the real emotions could be made respectable in a literary disguise. Charles falls asleep during the reading.
Later he is allowed to go off on a fossil hunting expedition where of course he meets Sarah again. Their exchange is still formal, but charged with sexual longing which Charles at least denies to himself. Does sarah? He offers help which is refused. Why? She reveals that the Frenchman is a married man. This further compounds her degrading position in her eyes and in society's.
Charles begins to be irritated by Tina, while Sam falls more deeply in love with Mary. The social trivia which serves to pass as entertainment is brilliantly caricatured by the author. sarah beginning to become an obsession to Charles, but he is realistic enough to know that his position is just as circumscribed as everyone else's. If he betrays Tina he will be ostracised, yet paradoxically he must betray her by not telling her about sarah.
Sarah asks for an assignation, for her confession of the events with Varguennes. How strange a society which would view such a request as sinful in itself. It must be remembered that even communication of the most trivial kind would be enough to compromise Charles. Her reputation is so bad that he will be tainted by it even if he only speaks to her. He knows that what he is doing is dangerous, but is drawn into it despite himself - or is it because of himself?
Dr Grogan introduced. He is eccentric and in his own way rather a social oddity, but his age and profession excuse him much, he is much more "real" than many of the characters we have met so far, and is the voice of reason regarding sarah. he warns Charles about the dangers of hysterical females (hysteros is the Greek word for womb) and there is an interesting digression into the motives of women who become "addicted to melancholia". Clearly he believes that Sarah is one such female.
The interlude which refers to the servant, Millie, at Mrs P's sleeping with Sarah should not be construed that Sarah is lesbian. Physical proximity and comfort are all that are meant to be implied here. (Interesting point - when Queen Victoria was asked to give the Royal assent to the bill making male homosexuality illegal, all reference to female homosexuality was erased from the legislation. The Queen could not even imagine such a thing being indulged in by the female sex!)
Chapter 20 & 21
Sarah tells her story. "I gave myself to him" Charles at once titillated, aroused and shocked by the revelation.Note the dual reaction, it is almost as if all these people are twin or multiple personalities. They speak in platitudes, but their emotions are raw and passionate. sarah seems to have accepted her position as a penance for her actions. Perhaps Grogan is right and she is indulging herself, perhaps she is sincere. This of course is part of the fascination which tempts Charles to continue his relationship with her. Their accidental voyeurism of Sam and Mary making love is a turning point in the relationship. The smile which she gives to Charles is that of a co-conspirator and a frank sexual acknowledgement of the real nature of their feelings for one another. He is being seduced while watching a real seduction.
Tina looks more than ever trivial to Charles especially her lack of background and her petulant attitude to his departure for his uncle's house.Note the preoccupation with material comfort. Tina reconciled to C's absence by possibility of living at Wynsiatt. She is an arrant snob, as were many of the middle classes. She wants Charles as much for her own social prospects as for himself, maybe only for her social prospects, in fact.
Charles at Wynsiatt and Sarah commits social suicide by showing herself to Mrs Fairlie on the common. Clever tactic by Fowles in not revealing the purpose of Charles' uncle's invitation (he is to be effectively disinherited by his uncle's forthcoming marriage to the widow, Mrs Tomkins)
Tina shreds her position with Charles even further with shrewish disappointment at the news of the marriage. Note the hypocrisy as well - she is desperately sorry for her own loss of social prospects, rather than for Charles. The news of Sarah's dismissal is given to C. by Tina, and her subsequent disappearance. Charles faced with a decision - does he go to Sarah or not?
Charles receives a note from sarah, and Sam sees it also. This will undermine further the relationship between master and servant. Charles makes his decision to go to her, and Sam, we presume must decide what to do about the knowledge he now has, which could compromise his master and aid himself, if it were turned to blackmail.
Sam as much of a snob as Tina, debates whether to use his knowledge to extort money from Charles, to secure his own future and Mary's. We learn of the interview between Charles and his uncle. Note the timidity mixed with bravado shown by Charles' uncle, who must know that he is being used as a meal ticket by Mrs Tomkins. Note also the civility with which the proceedings are carried out. All done in a very gentlemanly way. Note also the fact that there are no secrets whatever from the staff at the house. It is as though the upper classes live under a microscope, with all their movements closely observed and studied.
Charles meets Grogan and tells him about Sarah's note. Is he trying to make Grogan stop him from seeing her? He confesses to the doctor his previous meetings. The doctor is no fool, and knows exactly what Charles really wants. He assesses Sarah's motives shrewdly and, I think, accurately by the professional standards of the time. He believes Sarah to be a fake, and a hysteric, who is deliberately luring Charles into a compromising position. As he says of her and women like her "I am cast out, but I shall be revenged". He believes that Sarah is manipulating Charles quite callously into betraying himself and Tina, thereby wrecking his own social position and ending up as reviled as she is. Grogan's advice is to stick with Tina and he offers to see Sarah himself and have her cared for by a medical friend who owns an asylum. He advises Charles to confess to Tina and then go away. He then gives Charles a transcript(accurate) of a famous French court case involving a hysterical female and the damage she did to a young man.
The Ronciere trial material is accurate and horrific, detailing as it does the effects of severe sexual repression. Having read it Charles goes straight out to find sarah.
Chapter 29 & 30
Charles finds Sarah in the barn, asleep - vulnerable. Details of the dismissal from Mrs P's. Sarah shows spirit, but only a little in suggesting that Mrs P purchases a torture instrument with her wages. She shows more in implying that Mrs P will go to hell for what she has done to people around her. Ironic that this statement accompanied by a smile, has the effect of sending Mrs P into a swoon.
Chapter 31 32 33
Charles and sarah embrace and are seen by Sam, who has arrived in the barn with Mary coincidentally. Their reaction is suppressed hysteria, as they laugh at the discomfort of Charles. This situation really hastens the inevitable outcome of the affair, as now Charles is even more compromised than before. Remember that he has still done nothing drastic, other than kiss a female with a suspect reputation and he leaves her and goes back to Tina as soon as sam and Mary have left.
Charles manufactures an excuse to go to London. He is looking for an honourable way out of the engagement and hopes to use the disinheritance to achieve it. His leave-taking of Tina is sullied in his eyes by the stirrings of desire he feels for her as a leftover from the frustration of his encounter with sarah earlier. He is disgusted by it and as we see, his encounter later with the prostitute underlines the repression and frustration felt by men as well as women at that time.
Digression - Fowles pronounces on Victorian sexual standards and mores. (You should have full notes on this already)
Strange interlude with Sarah in the Exeter hotel which will be the scene of her seduction by Charles. She seems to be establishing herself as a spider in a web, spending charles' money on ornaments and trinkets, including the green shawl> Why? She MUST know that Charles will return. Is Grogan's assessment of her accurate, or is she just ahead of her time?
Charles interviewed by Tina's father who offers him a job. This would be and was,in fact,anathema to a person of Charles' class. He would be as much a kept man as his wife would be kept by him. He feels sullied by the encounter and thwarted in his ambition to get out of the marriage. Instead he has been drawn deeper in. He begins to perceive, dimly, that he is a misfit in the new society, a drone rather than a worker. it undermines his self esteem even more.
Reflections on Charles' place in society old and new. He knows he will always be a drone - one of the useless members of society compared to the thrusting new middle classes. The irony is that knowing this, he feels a rightness about his position, nevertheless. He feels anger, humiliation, frustration and fear. Self-knowledge of this sort is painful to him.
Chapters 39, 40 & 41
Charles and friends at the club Terpsichore. Note the mechanical posturing of the prostitutes and the way that the women are treated as objects of voyeurism by the men. Note also the child prostitute, a common sight in clubs of this kind at the time. Charles revolted once again, but still picks up the girl in the street, because she reminds him of Sarah. The encounter with her is sordid, ending in humiliation for both of them as Charles vomits on her, but she is comforting and calm. Is this an indication of female superiority? Or a class difference like that which separates Sam and Mary from Charles and Sarah? The kindness she shows is generous, as is Charles' reaction to the child. He is awkward, but there is an innocence in the encounter which brings some comfort to Charles.
Advice (good) from Grogan and Sarah's note. Sam the blackmailer decides to make a preliminary move to secure his future. Note Sam's actions - are they totally dishonest, or can we pardon his actions because he needs to secure his future with Mary? If he is dishonest, can we say that Charles isn't ? Or Sarah? The decisions they all make interact and affect all of them in the long run.
Chapter 43 & 44
The first "fake" ending. Charles arrives in Exeter, goes on to Lyme and confesses (such as it is) to Tina. Fowles ties up the loose ends in a conventional fashion, with an amusing speculation on the fate of Mrs Poultney. This is a conventional, if rather unassuming way to end the tale - virtue triumphs.
Chapter 45 - 47
The alternative course/decision. Charles sees Sarah at the hotel and the seduction/rape/copulation/lovemaking (which is it, really) takes place. In ninety seconds Charles shreds all that is left of his reputation and social standing. He realises that Sarah is a virgin, the Varguennes tale takes yet another twist - she lied to Charles, so Grogan's opinion of her as a plotter seems also to be true. We have indeed a "swarm of mysteries". Charles leaves her thinking her to be false and himself duped. BUT!! is she and was he?
Charles wrestles with his conscience and the dilemma regarding Sarah in church. He sees himself "crucified on her" and reflects on the nature of freedom. His revelation that true freedom is the casting off of hypocrisy, is profoundly significant. he realises a fundamental truth while in the church, and paradoxically this brings him closer to the essence of real Christianity. He decides to go back to her, but first he must confess to Tina.
Charles' note to Sarah,sent (and intercepted) by Sam explains his decision. Sam's decision to intercept it because of the uncertainty of the future, leads to further disaster for all.
The confession. Note the formality and even now the mannered way in which they speak to one another. Even though Charles has come to the understanding he has in the church, he still lies to Tina, not mentioning Sarah by name, but hinting that she is someone he knew before the engagement.. Her reaction is at first supplicating, then shrewish and vindictive. Her hysterical swoon is partly fake, partly real. She is angry, more than anything, I think, because of the loss of face. She counts on Charles to elevate her socially and now she will be ostracised as a rejected fiancee. Vengeance is threatened, a breach of promise action was very often the result of a broken engagement, and she threatens to destroy Charles reputation to save her own. Do not assume that she is unaffected, though, she is very upset, and extremely angry, too.
Chapter 51 & 52
Sam offers his resignation - the rat leaving the sinking ship. Even Sam expresses disdain at Charles' actions, but not because he is truly shocked - only annoyed that his own position and chances for advancement are thwarted. Mary also loses no opportunity to ingratiate herself by telling Aunt Tranter what has happened. How naive the upper classes were, really, not to realise the contempt which their servants felt for them for much of the time.
Grogan's meeting with Charles and more words of wisdom "the elect"..if they "fail the test of morality"..will become no less than "despots..mere seekers after their own pleasure and power....victims of their own baser desires". Grogan will never accept that Charles and sarah have a right to a life together, because she is labelled and categorised quite clinically as a hysterical manipulator of men.
Charles goes to find sarah and finds her gone without trace, also that his letter was never delivered and so presumably, she never realised that he was coming for her, or that he had made up his mind to marry her.. he resolves to find her (a good melodramatic Victorian ending!)
Fowles appears as "deus (?) ex machina" or perhaps just as the humble author and tells us that he will give us two endings to the story. We are left, as all the characters have been left, to make up our own minds about which we will accept as Fowles' own preferred ending, and as our own.
Charles has to sign the declaration of ungentlemanly conduct admitting the breach of promise. It is a humiliating thing, and he feels "defiled" after he has done it. Even more galling, of course is the fact that he has no idea where Sarah is and so has not even the satisfaction of being with her (she is mentioned by name , courtesy of Sam and Mary, in the document). Charles fails to find Sarah through detective agencies and is advised to leave the country and go abroad. He is beginning to believe that Grogan was right, and he has been duped.
Sam and Mary prosper, thanks to Aunt Tranter and their own shrewdness. Ironically it is Sam who works for Tina's father in the shop, now and does well as a family man. Mary sees Sarah and recognises her; telling sam that night. His conscience is stirred. Twenty months have passed since he left Charles.
Chapter 58 & 59
Charles spends time in Europe and in the USA, finding the latter a much more open place in all ways than the rigid society of England. Sam remorsefully lays anonymous information about the whereabouts of Sarah and Charles comes home to find her.
The first of Fowles' two endings is the "happy" one. The confrontation/reunion is in the house of the painter Rosetti (not named as such, but obviously one of the Pre-Raphaelite set). Sarah has finally found her metier - free and self-confident. She seems to have no need of Charles. He is still so hidebound by his perceptions of relationships that he immediately assumes she is the painter's lover. She tells him there is "another" and again he assumes it to be a man - in fact as we find out, it is his own child who has claims on her. The fact that she does not tell him is not to be cruel (is it?) but not to burden him with a sense of obligation (NB she never got his letter) that she has borne his child. He misunderstands her and it is only when he rejects her, accusing her of lack of faith and cruelty that she relents and brings the "other" woman to see him. Their subsequent reunion is passionate and touching and also very convincing. Charles is in a sense purged of his mistakes and the two can at last meet one another with no artifice or pretence between them. The child is the healer of the breach.
The other ending. Fowles (character from the train) appears and "turns back the clock" so we see what might/ did/should have happened? This time there is no understanding, nor is there any love left between them. We are led to assume that Grogan was right - that sarah was only a deceiver after all."From the first she had manipulated him..she would do so till the end" They part and Charles is left with an "atom of faith in himself"to return to America, to, presumably a new (better?) life.
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THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN - VARIOUS NOTES AND CONSIDERATIONS
Propounded by Sartre in 1940's - philosophical idea that we exist and are entirely responsible for our own lives. There is no God to be blamed when things go wrong (so Fowles should not perhaps be thought of as a "deus ex machina" at all?) and at the same time we exist in a world which has its own laws, morals and traditions and we cannot separate ourselves from it. Therefore every decision we make has to be remade or reassessed and we are constantly having to change our lives because of the changing context in which we live. This gives rise to "angst" ( a state of anxiety or anguish) because we are never free of the necessity of making choices - of which we are unable to predict the outcome. Nor can we share or pass on the choices we must make, for we alone bear the responsibility for shaping our own lives and futures.
Including an existentialist theme in FLW was rather anachronistic, because the theory was not in existence in Victorian times. Fowles sets Charles And Sarah in an existentialist image, but as a conceit of his own making, not with any intention to "Victorianise" the philosophy.
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PERSPECTIVES AND SENSIBILITIES
Although the novel is firmly set in the mid-Victorian period, it also contains 20th century sensibilities and perspectives. We can see the characters both as Victorians in their attitudes and behaviour, and also as people who occasionally glimpse a different perspective/time which gives them hope. This applies especially to Sarah, who "sees through" people with a very un Victorian directness, and to Charles who dimly perceives the shape of things to come as he speaks to Freeman and when he is in America. In FLW the characters are more important than the plot - a twentieth century literary device which enables us to understand events much more because we see the characters interior motives and thoughts unfolded as the novel progresses. Plot would have been the Victorian priority; the characters secondary to the narrative. Fowles blends plot and characterisation with a neat combination of Victorian and modern literary style.
The plot is rather cleverly stereotyped in Victorian fashion - romance, intrigue, misunderstanding, deceit, forbidden love, carnal desire, betrayal and a classic "triangle" between two women attracted to the same man. There are also villains, in the shapes of Mrs Poulteney and Mrs Fairley; rogues like the scheming widow Mrs Tomkins and a brace of lower class observers Sam and Mary, to comment and make mischief.
Sarah Woodruff - a poor, innocent (yes, she is) harshly treated woman, spurned by those who are better off socially, if not morally and Charles, the gentleman compromised by his chivalry are the "main" characters, but we must not forget Tina (Ernestina - should she have been Ernest?) who is wealthy and pampered. Does she really love Charles - or just the idea of his position - his country house - her own status as the wife of a gentleman, not the daughter of a tradesman? Should we pity her or despise her? Is she a victim as the others are victims?
Conventionally the novel seldom proceeds as we would expect it to. Charles is at first the pursuer and Sarah the pursued, but at the lowest ebb of his fortunes he is entrapped by the pursued - Sarah, and once compromised - deserted. The conventional ending is abandoned and Fowles takes us on through a dislocated time structure to two different, more twentieth century, outcomes. The seduction and consequent events are described in vivid, very un Victorian detail and we are given the choice of two alternative conclusions to the action (neither are "endings") - one Victorian, the other more "modern".
One of the most impressive aspects of the novel is Fowles ability to shift the characters and the reader back and forth between centuries. The present impinges on the past and vice versa throughout the story. This creates in us the "angst" of experiencing with Charles and Sarah the agonies of their decisions and choices, for we are never allowed to become detached from the events we see unfolding. Fowles himself at times appears and forces us, with him to participate in the action, inviting us to comment - to observe - to judge and to reflect on what happens.
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Again, Fowles cleverly uses a number of different "voices" throughout the novel. There are several narrative presences and the identity of the story-teller is always ambiguous. He appears (it is tempting to think of him as a male, isn't it?) as a raconteur, an observer, and a "god" figure (or maybe a devil?). Sometimes he is the author, dropping into a familiar style and inviting us to share his creative illusory process, using the "I" pronoun.
The novel begins "in media res" (in the middle of things); and events are unfolded in retrospect as we go along. This can be confusing, but is also a technique which serves to increase the suspense and tension. Fowles keeps his reader guessing, as he himself is guessing, or so he tells us. Time is played with - events are shown as though in sequence, when in fact they are happening at the same time, in parallel; sometimes events which have already happened are not revealed until later on. Most strikingly, though, we are deliberately told by Fowles that he has "cheated" by creating three different endings and he even appears in an enigmatic disguise as an anonymous bearded character to turn back his watch and give us the last, existential ending.
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Each chapter has at least one epigraph, taken mainly, though not exclusively, from Victorian literature (both fiction and non-fiction). The purpose of an epigraph is to set the tone for the chapter which follows.
Many of them are from the works of Alfred, Lord Tennyson and there are also examples from Thomas Hardy, Matthew Arnold, Charles Darwin, Charles Lyell, E. Royston Pike (1967) and the poet, Clough. He also alludes to Dickens, Eliot (George), Thackeray and Jane Austen.
You should look up the above authors and special note should be made of Tennyson's poems "Maud" and "In Memoriam", read them if you can. On second thoughts, if you don't have the literary background , don't try to read anything much other than the Tennyson - you haven't got time!!!
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The novel is written in a familiar style as though the narrator is conversing with the reader . It contains a mixture of straightforward prose narrative and dialogue and the dialogue does capture the tone of the Victorian period.
The imagery is vivid and taken from nature, persistently including animals and birds - preying and preyed upon. Mrs Poulteney is described as a "bulldog" , a "plump vulture" with an "eagle eye", and Mrs Fairley as a "weasel". Charles, visiting mrs P. is described as a "plump mouse dropping between the claws of a hungry cat".
Throughout the novel we have allusions to judgement, punishment, suffering and retribution.
On a more sensuous note, flower and plant imagery is included to emphasise the gentler settings associated with Sarah, especially on the common, where the two lovers further their doomed acquaintance. In fact Ware Commons is a kind of Garden of Eden, embodying the twin connotations of innocence and sin.
Parallel to the themes of nature we find colour strongly used, especially with reference to Sarah. She buys a brilliant green shawl, for the seduction scene, which contrasts with her red (Pre-Raphaelite) hair. When Charles meets her in the Rosetti house she is wearing red and blue and is flaunting bravely the colours of the "new" woman. This contrasts most sharply with the black which is her common costume throughout her time of ostracism in Lyme.
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The novel is described as a definitive study of the sexual repression of the Victorian age. There is a strong sexual/sensual element in the story and the characters react as they do largely because of the sexual mores of the time. It is interesting to speculate as to how much Fowles exaggerates the reactions and attitudes of his main characters. I suspect that he is in fact quite accurate, as we know that he researched the period quite exhaustively.
So, then, what do we have to consider?
Women of the middle and upper classes were sexually ignorant before marriage - some indeed remained so afterwards, except for the processes of childbirth, which can hardly be ignored! It was certainly not seemly for a female to invite sexual activity, or intercourse either before, or, one assumes, after marriage. there must have been exceptions, of course. It is unlikely that ALL Victorian women hated intercourse, but very probable than many of them found it at best distasteful and at worst terrifying. In the novel, we learn from Grogan that at least one couple he knew thought that the navel was the point of entry for sex!! Ernestina, who is typical of the time, will not even allow herself to look at her own naked body, or permit Charles to touch her except for the most chaste of kisses on the cheek, forehead or hand. Paradoxically, she imagines herself very much in love, preferring recitations of poetry and passionate entries (idealised) in her journal to real intimacy with her fiancee.
Ordinarily, a respectable female would not be allowed any contact before the engagement was announced with a man, without the presence of a female chaperone. Aunt Tranter is always near at hand even after Tina and Charles are engaged. There would not be any real education about what to expect after marriage, either. Women would most likely be counselled to "endure the inevitable" and regard it as their "duty" to submit to the husband's carnal desires. In a society where a wife became, literally, a chattel of the husband, her property becoming his automatically upon marriage, we can not expect any real assertive behaviour on the part of the wife. Women were subordinate to their husbands - the marriage service still contained the words "to obey". Sex was a means of fulfilling the instructions at the beginning of the marriage service to procreate (have children). Enjoyment of sex for its own sake was not a requirement of marriage - indeed it was rather an indication of a loose moral character. Look what happened to Sarah, who was presumed to have chased after a man! Some women of course could indulge themselves in sexual sport, but they could not aspire to be classed as ladies if they were too obvious about it. The higher up the social scale, the more leeway a woman had to break the rules, as long as she did not cross over the unwritten rule of being indiscreet or unladylike. TOTAL hypocrisy, but true. Neither Tina nor Sarah have the luxury, though; Tina because of her upbringing in trade and her own naivety and Sarah because she is caught between classes.
The lower orders were much more fortunate. Mary the servant girl is basic, aware and sexually active with Sam. The prostitute Sarah has no inhibitions and few illusions about the realities of life. It is only the more "refined" species of society who have to observe the taboos and keep to the rules. Who has the most fun?
And what about men?
Gentlemen were in the fortunate (?) position of being able to indulge their instincts with women of a certain sort. Prostitution was rife at the time the novel is set. Clubs like the Terpsichore certainly existed, where gentlemen (were they?) could be entertained with sexual shows and intercourse, if they wished. Mistresses were common, although discretion was the watchword. (Women, too, especially those of the aristocracy could and did have lovers, again discreetly. The hypocrisy of the age is legendary.) Men were expected to be experienced, but they must never slip from their position of "gentleman". The most humiliating experience Charles undergoes is having to sign the breach of promise papers which describe him as no longer having the right to be considered a gentleman. It is probable that some men, though, were as ignorant as women about sexual relationships. If the wife was frigid, and many of them, alas, were; then a husband was not likely to find much pleasure in the marital bed - off to the club, then!! Charles has had women (ironically of course he "has" Sarah - he does not "make love" to her as we would understand it) but he is not what we would consider an experienced lover. His relationships with both the women in the novel are crippled - one by inhibition, the other by guilt. We must feel compassion for him - the more so as he considers himself to be rather advanced for the age , a "new man" of the Darwinian period.
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Copyrightę 2000 Val Pope