68 pages 2 hours read

John Fowles

The French Lieutenant's Woman

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1969

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Summary and Study Guide


The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a 1969 historical novel by English author John Fowles. The novel provides a postmodern exploration of Victorian society, telling a story from the era in a manner which also function as a social critique. The French Lieutenant’s Woman was widely praised on release and in the decades after. In 1981, it was adapted into a film of the same name.

This guide was written using the 2004 Vintage edition of the novel.

Plot Summary

Charles Smithson is an aristocratic gentleman who is visiting the town of Lyme Regis on England’s south coast with his fiancée, Ernestina Freeman. As they walk along the quay, they spot a woman who is nicknamed The French Lieutenant’s Woman by the local people. The woman, Sarah Woodruff, is socially ostracized because of her less-than-honorable reputation. Charles learns that Sarah fell in love with a French sailor, and she is staring out to sea, waiting for him to return. Now, Sarah works in the employ of a woman named Mrs. Poulteney, who believes that her charitable assistance to Sarah will help her get into heaven.

Charles is intrigued by Sarah. When he ventures out to collect fossils from the local sea front, he sees her again, and his fascination intensifies. Each time he meets her, he feels drawn in by her tragic story and a desire to help her. Sarah feels as though she can confide in Charles. She tells him about the French sailor, whom she now believes has abandoned her and married another woman in France. Charles does not tell Ernestina about these meetings though he speaks to a local doctor named Grogan about the tragic woman. Grogan suggests that Sarah is addicted to her tragic melancholy and offers to help Charles, though he warns Charles not to risk his reputation by becoming too involved with another woman.

During this time, Charles discovers that his wealthy uncle Sir Robert is going to marry. Though he is old, Sir Robert has fallen in love. Charles is shocked. He stood to inherit his uncle’s estates and title, but if his uncle fathers an heir, then Charles will be disinherited. Ernestina is angry but assures Charles that they should still marry. Her wealthy father can support them, though Charles is embarrassed that he is no longer the wealthier part of the couple. Simultaneously, Charles’s manservant Sam falls in love with a Lyme Regis woman named Mary. He tells her of his plan to open a haberdashery of his own one day.

Gradually, Charles begins to realize that he has fallen in love with Sarah. He encourages her to leave Lyme Regis as this is the only way in which she can be happy. When Sarah is spotted after one of their meetings, she is fired by Mrs. Poulteney. When she goes missing, Charles speaks to Grogan, and the doctor repeats his warning to Charles about becoming too involved with such a disreputable woman. Charles receives a letter from Sarah, telling him her location. He meets her the next day and they kiss. They are seen by Sam and Mary. Sam plans to blackmail his employer using this information.

Charles travels to London to tell Ernestina about the change in his prospects. As he returns, he believes that he will marry Ernestina. At this point, the narrator explains, the novel is split into a series of different endings. As they pass through Exeter, however, Charles has a change of heart. In one ending, Charles returns to Lyme Regis and marries Ernestina. In another, he seeks out Sarah. They have sex, and Charles realizes that Sarah was still a virgin, meaning the story about the French Lieutenant was a malicious lie that ruined her reputation. Afterward, he returns to Lyme Regis to end his engagement to Ernestina. Mr. Freeman is furious and sues Charles, obtaining a legal confession from Charles in which he admits that he acted dishonorably. Charles takes his friend’s advice and travels around Europe and then America. Sarah has disappeared from his life, as Sam never delivered a letter from Charles to her. Instead, he sold his information to Mr. Freeman and accepted a job in Mr. Freeman’s haberdasher’s business.

While Charles travels around America, Mary spots Sarah in London. She tells Sam, who tells Charles’s lawyer, who sends for Charles. When Charles returns to London, he seeks out Sarah. She is living with an artist who has a reputation for scandalous works. She does not seem to be working for the man, nor does she seem to be romantically involved with him. Her decidedly modern arrangement confuses Charles. The narrator intrudes on the story again, presenting two possible endings. In the first, Charles emotionally reunites with Sarah and discovers that she bore his child. In the second ending, Charles has the same emotional meeting with Sarah but he leaves before discovering about the existence of the child. He walks out, enraged with Sarah but infused with a new understanding of the world and his place within it.