March 1867. Charles Smithson and his fiancée Ernestina Freeman come upon Sarah Woodruff, 'Tragedy', staring out to sea at the end of the Cobb in the Dorset town of Lyme. Companion to the bombazined Mrs. Poulteney (whose fondness for laudanum has Fowles refer to her as "an inhabitant of the Victorian valley of the dolls"), the story goes that this scarlet woman of the town has been jilted by a French lieutenant and disgraced. Is she indeed addicted to melancholia, as Dr. Grogan suspects, so that her sadness becomes her happiness? "I have fallen in love with being a victim of fate," she says, and as a series of enounters allows feelings to develop between her and Charles, is her underlying motive pure or one of "vindictive destruction"?
That is more or less the plot of The French Lieutenant's Woman though it is played out over several hundred detailed, discursive pages - an entire chapter is a digression on the novel and the novelist, for instance - but its style is distinctive, full of authorial comment and even intrusion (Fowles himself, as a fellow passenger, observes Charles on a train, and elsewhere with the writer's usual omnipresence and with frequent references to the modern day, puts himself firmly in or about the story). I enjoyed this dimension and liked, for example, the conceit that Fowles now owns Sarah's Toby jug; there's an aspect of arrogance to it, but it gives scope as well.
Back to the plot itself, and Charles becomes obsessed with Sarah, or rather with the enigma she presents; something in her calls to "some hidden self he hardly knew existed". In true Darwinian style, he has thus far adopted "cryptic coloration, survival by learning to blend with one's surroundings", and while Ernestina virtually encouraged this camouflage, "the mask, the safe distance," Sarah "behind her façade of humility forbade it." This shadow-play, these emotional transactions based on feints and formality, are an intriguing part of the dissection of and commentary on all aspects of the Victorian age which Fowles goes in for here.
As to the book's structure - and related to that last point - the author plays with his characters, ending the story after a fashion part way through, but then going on for a further 130 pages, deciding Charles's fate on the toss of a coin, and still teasing his readers, giving alternative versions. Again, I didn't mind this, feeling that it was consistent with Fowles's involvement, but perhaps you'd have preferred something less contrary?
For anyone wanting to read on from this book, Fowles gives plenty of references to take you further, from fossil hunter Mary Anning (see Tracey Chevalier's Remarkable Creatures, for example) to Flaubert's Madame Bovary, the works of Thomas Hardy, Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and on to Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his circle, so it's a rich book in more ways then one.
It was a re-read for me, many years on from the first time, but I lapped it up, finding it thoroughly engrossing and fascinating. How about you?