Bookish Discussions

The French Lieutenant’s Woman: The Greatest Post-Modern Novel Ever?



“We are all in flight from the real reality. That is the basic definition of Homo Sapiens.”

3 out of 5 stars

Read: 14 January – 17 January, 2019


I was asked to read John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman for my Victorian Afterlives seminar. I’m not saying I was glad to be assigned it, but that’s also kind of what I’m saying. It’s a tricky one to review because I loved the post-modern and neo-Victorian aspects of the book, but I hated the actual plot. Do you see what I mean? I don’t know how I can be at such crossroads with a book, but, alas, here I am.

It’s about Charles Smithson, a respectable and engaged middle-class man, who falls in love with Sarah Woodruff – the French Lieutenant’s Woman. Sarah is a fallen woman in her own right, staring out to sea, waiting for her man to return. There is much more to her story, as we see through Charles, who gradually falls in love with her. Their romance ‘defies all the stifling conventions of the Victorian age‘.

Let’s get the negatives out of the way first, yeah? Ok, I hated the plot. I thought it was going to be another Victorian style romance, where two people fall in love but some obstacle lies in the way. To some degree, this did happen. But Fowles neglected to write any ounce of chemistry between them. Their love was so false; so transparent. I wasn’t convinced by it for a second, so I didn’t really care for their ending. He should have dedicated more time to drawing up their relationship, instead of sending Charles off with some look-alike prostitute.

My only other negative was that it was far too long. Yes, he was intimating a Victorian novel, but his story was so undeveloped that it didn’t need the length.

However, I adooorreeee postmodern literature. It’s so aware, so playful, and so intrusive. I love how Fowles would break the narrative to give us a history lesson on Victorian sexuality, or how he isn’t a god of this creation. It was just so much fun. I love how the narrator is so aware of the fact that this was A) not real, and B) being told from hindsight. He would be like “but, oh, this was before so-and-so” or “oh, this happened before this law act or that law act”. It was like a non-fiction and fiction combined into one, with the added playfulness.

I also really liked how I could choose the story’s climax – I wasn’t left unsatisfied because I had three alternative endings to choose from. But, let me just say, the last ending was completely ridiculous and stupidly boring. Let’s pretend it didn’t happen, yeah?

The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a brilliant neo-Victorian novel. It felt so authentic, very redolent of George Eliot, which I find lacks from most books of this genre. Fowles was able to explore topics that were taboo or uncomfortable in Victorian society in a way that was modern but also very true to the style he was imitating. Fowles would constantly reference poets or writers from the century, or new progressions in Victorian society, and so on, which made it feel Victorian.

I am so conflicted, though. Such a good book in one respect, but such a dull one in another. I can’t make up my mind. But, I think I can say one thing for sure, this was the best postmodern novel I’ve ever read!

Have you read this book? Does it sound like something you’d like? Let’s discuss it!

Thanks for reading, Lauren X


6 thoughts on “The French Lieutenant’s Woman: The Greatest Post-Modern Novel Ever?

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