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The French Lieutenant's Woman - John Fowles

John Fowles


  Copyright © 1969 by John Fowles

  Signet Edition

  Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 77-86616

  First Printing, august, 1970

  Every emancipation is a restoration of the human

  world and of human relationships to man himself.

  Marx, Zur Judenfrage (1844)



  I should like to thank the following for permission to quote: the Hardy Estate and Macmillan & Co. Ltd. for extracts from The Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy; the Oxford University Press for quotations from G. M. Young's Victorian Essays and Portrait of an Age; Mr. Martin Gardner and the Penguin Press for a slightly compressed quotation from The Ambidextrous Universe; and finally Mr. E. Royston Pike and Allen & Unwin Ltd., not only for permission to quote directly but also for three contemporary extracts and countless minor details I have "stolen" from his Human Documents of the Victorian Golden Age (published in the United States by Frederick A. Praeger, Inc., under the title Golden Times: Human Documents of the Victorian Age). I recommend this brilliant anthology most warmly to any reader who would like to know more of the reality behind my fiction.

  --J. F.


  Stretching eyes west

  Over the sea,

  Wind foul or fair,

  Always stood she

  Prospect-impressed;Solely out there

  Did her gaze rest,

  Never elsewhere

  Seemed charm to be.

  --Hardy, "The Riddle"

  * * *

  An easterly is the most disagreeable wind in Lyme Bay-- Lyme Bay being that largest bite from the underside of England's outstretched southwestern leg--and a person of curiosity could at once have deduced several strong probabilities about the pair who began to walk down the quay at Lyme Regis, the small but ancient eponym of the inbite, one incisively sharp and blustery morning in the late March of 1867.

  The Cobb has invited what familiarity breeds for at least seven hundred years, and the real Lymers will never see much more to it than a long claw of old gray wall that flexes itself against the sea. In fact, since it lies well apart from the main town, a tiny Piraeus to a microscopic Athens, they seem almost to turn their backs on it. Certainly it has cost them enough in repairs through the centuries to justify a certain resentment. But to a less tax-paying, or more discriminating, eye it is quite simply the most beautiful sea rampart on the south coast of England. And not only because it is, as the guidebooks say, redolent of seven hundred years of English history, because ships sailed to meet the Armada from it, because Monmouth landed beside it ... but finally because it is a superb fragment of folk art. Primitive yet complex, elephantine but delicate; as full of subtle curves and volumes as a Henry Moore or a Michelangelo; and pure, clean, salt, a paragon of mass. I exaggerate? Perhaps, but I can be put to the test, for the Cobb has changed very little since the year of which I write; though the town of Lyme has, and the test is not fair if you look back towards land.

  However, if you had turned northward and landward in 1867, as the man that day did, your prospect would have been harmonious. A picturesque congeries of some dozen or so houses and a small boatyard--in which, arklike on its stocks, sat the thorax of a lugger-- huddled at where the Cobb runs back to land. Half a mile to the east lay, across sloping meadows, the thatched and slated roofs of Lyme itself; a town that had its heyday in the Middle Ages and has been declining ever since. To the west somber gray cliffs, known locally as Ware Cleeves, rose steeply from the shingled beach where Monmouth entered upon his idiocy. Above them and beyond, stepped massively inland, climbed further cliffs masked by dense woods. It is in this aspect that the Cobb seems most a last bulwark--against all that wild eroding coast to the west. There too I can be put to proof. No house lay visibly then or, beyond

  a brief misery of beach huts, lies today in that direction.

  The local spy--and there was one--might thus have deduced that these two were strangers, people of some taste, and not to be denied their enjoyment of the Cobb by a mere harsh wind. On the other hand he might, focusing his telescope more closely, have suspected that a mutual solitude interested them rather more than maritime architecture; and he would most certainly have remarked that they were people of a very superior taste as regards their outward appearance.

  The young lady was dressed in the height of fashion, for another wind was blowing in 1867: the beginning of a revolt against the crinoline and the large bonnet. The eye in the telescope might have glimpsed a magenta skirt of an almost daring narrowness--and shortness, since two white ankles could be seen beneath the rich green coat and above the black boots that delicately trod the revetment; and perched over the netted chignon, one of the impertinent little flat "pork-pie" hats with a delicate tuft of egret plumes at the side--a millinery style that the resident ladies of Lyme would not dare to wear for at least another year; while the taller man, impeccably in a light gray, with his top hat held in his free hand, had severely reduced his dundrearies, which the arbiters of the best English male fashion had declared a shade vulgar--that is, risible to the foreigner--a year or two previously. The colors of the young lady's clothes would strike us today as distinctly strident; but the world was then in the first fine throes of the discovery of aniline dyes. And what the feminine, by way of compensation for so much else in her expected behavior, demanded of a color was brilliance, not discretion.

  But where the telescopist would have been at sea himself was with the other figure on that somber, curving mole. It stood right at the seawardmost end, apparently leaning against an old cannon barrel upended as a bollard. Its clothes were black. The wind moved them, but the figure stood motionless, staring, staring out to sea, more like a living memorial to the drowned, a figure from myth, than any proper fragment of the petty provincial day.


  In that year (1851) there were some 8,155,000 females of the age of ten upwards in the British population, as compared with 7,600,000 males. Already it will be clear that if the accepted destiny of the Victorian girl was to become a wife and mother, it was unlikely that there would be enough men to go round. --E. Royston Pike, Human Documents of the Victorian Golden Age

  I'll spread sail of silver and I'll steer towards the sun,

  I'll spread sail of silver and I'll steer towards the sun,

  And my false love will weep, and ray false love will weep,

  And my false love will weep for me after I'm gone.

  --West-country folksong: "As Sylvie Was Walking"

  * * *

  "My dear Tina, we have paid our homage to Neptune. He will forgive us if we now turn our backs on


  "You are not very galant."

  "What does that signify, pray?"

  "I should have thought you might have wished to prolong an opportunity to hold my arm without impropriety."

  "How delicate we've become."

  "We are not in London now."

  "At the North Pole, if I'm not mistaken."

  "I wish to walk to the end."

  And so the man, with a dry look of despair, as if it might be his last, towards land, turned again, and the couple continued down the Cobb.

  "And I wish to hear what passed between you and Papa last Thursday."

  "Your aunt has already extracted every detail of that pleasant evening from me."

  The girl stopped, and looked him in the eyes.

  "Charles! Now Charles, you may be as dry a stick as you like with everyone else. But you must not be sticky with me."

  "Then how, dear girl, are we ever to be glu
ed together in holy matrimony?"

  "And you will keep your low humor for your club." She primly made him walk on. "I have had a letter."

  "Ah. I feared you might. From Mama?"

  "I know that something happened ... over the port."

  They walked on a few paces before he answered; for a moment Charles seemed inclined to be serious, but then changed his mind.

  "I confess your worthy father and I had a small philosophical disagreement."

  "That is very wicked of you."

  "I meant it to be very honest of me."

  "And what was the subject of your conversation?"

  "Your father ventured the opinion that Mr. Darwin should be exhibited in a cage in the zoological gardens. In the monkey house. I tried to explain some of the scientific arguments behind the Darwinian position. I was unsuccessful. Et voila tout."

  "How could you--when you know Papa's views!"

  "I was most respectful."

  "Which means you were most hateful."

  "He did say that he would not let his daughter marry a man who considered his grandfather to be an ape.

  But I think on reflection he will recall that in my case it was a titled ape."

  She looked at him then as they walked, and moved her head in a curious sliding sideways turn away; a characteristic gesture when she wanted to show concern--in this case, over what had been really the greatest obstacle in her view to their having become betrothed. Her father was a very rich man; but her grandfather had been a draper, and Charles's had been a baronet. He smiled and pressed the gloved hand that was hooked lightly to his left arm.

  "Dearest, we have settled that between us. It is perfectly proper that you should be afraid of your father.

  But I am not marrying him. And you forget that I'm a scientist. I have written a monograph, so I must be.

  And if you smile like that, I shall devote all my time to the fossils and none to you."

  "I am not disposed to be jealous of the fossils." She left an artful pause. "Since you've been walking on them now for at least a minute--and haven't even deigned to remark them."

  He glanced sharply down, and as abruptly kneeled. Portions of the Cobb are paved with fossil-bearing stone.

  "By Jove, look at this. Certhidium portlandicum. This stone must come from the oolite at Portland."

  "In whose quarries I shall condemn you to work in perpetuity--if you don't get to your feet at once."

  He obeyed her with a smile.

  "Now, am I not kind to bring you here? And look." She led him to the side of the rampart, where a line of flat stones inserted sideways into the wall served as rough steps down to a lower walk. "These are the very steps that Jane Austen made Louisa Musgrove fall down in Persuasion."

  "How romantic."

  "Gentlemen were romantic ... then."

  "And are scientific now? Shall we make the perilous descent?"

  "On the way back."

  Once again they walked on. It was only then that he noticed, or at least realized the sex of, the figure at the end.

  "Good heavens, I took that to be a fisherman. But isn't it a woman?"

  Ernestina peered--her gray, her very pretty eyes, were shortsighted, and all she could see was a dark shape.

  "Is she young?"

  "It's too far to tell."

  "But I can guess who it is. It must be poor Tragedy."


  "A nickname. One of her nicknames."

  "And what are the others?"

  "The fishermen have a gross name for her."

  "My dear Tina, you can surely--"

  "They call her the French Lieutenant's . . . Woman."

  "Indeed. And is she so ostracized that she has to spend her days out here?"

  "She is ... a little mad. Let us turn. I don't like to go near her."

  They stopped. He stared at the black figure.

  "But I'm intrigued. Who is this French lieutenant?"

  "A man she is said to have ..."

  "Fallen in love with?"

  "Worse than that."

  "And he abandoned her? There is a child?" "No. I think no child. It is all gossip." "But what is she doing there?" "They say she waits for him to return." "But... does no one care for her?"

  "She is a servant of some kind to old Mrs. Poulteney. She is never to be seen when we visit. But she lives there. Please let us turn back. I did not see her." But he smiled.

  "If she springs on you I shall defend you and prove my poor gallantry. Come."

  So they went closer to the figure by the cannon bollard. She had taken off her bonnet and held it in her hand; her hair was pulled tight back inside the collar of the black coat--which was bizarre, more like a man's riding coat than any woman's coat that had been in fashion those past forty years. She too was a stranger to the crinoline; but it was equally plain that that was out of oblivion, not knowledge of the latest London taste. Charles made some trite and loud remark, to warn her that she was no longer alone, but she did not turn. The couple moved to where they could see her face in profile; and how her stare was aimed like a rifle at the farthest horizon. There came a stronger gust of wind, one that obliged Charles to put his arm round Ernestina's waist to support her, and obliged the woman to cling more firmly to the bollard.

  Without quite knowing why, perhaps to show Ernestina how to say boo to a goose, he stepped forward as soon as the wind allowed.

  "My good woman, we can't see you here without being alarmed for your safety. A stronger squall--"

  She turned to look at him--or as it seemed to Charles, through him. It was not so much what was positively in that face which remained with him after that first meeting, but all that was not as he had expected; for theirs was an age when the favored feminine look was the demure, the obedient, the shy.

  Charles felt immediately as if he had trespassed; as if the Cobb belonged to that face, and not to the Ancient Borough of Lyme. It was not a pretty face, like Ernestina's. It was certainly not a beautiful face, by any period's standard or taste. But it was an unforgettable face, and a tragic face. Its sorrow welled out of it as purely, naturally and unstoppably as water out of a woodland spring. There was no artifice there, no hypocrisy, no hysteria, no mask; and above all, no sign of madness. The madness was in the empty sea, the empty horizon, the lack of reason for such sorrow; as if the spring was natural in itself, but unnatural in welling from a desert.

  Again and again, afterwards, Charles thought of that look as a lance; and to think so is of course not merely to describe an object but the effect it has. He felt himself in that brief instant an unjust enemy; both pierced and deservedly diminished.

  The woman said nothing. Her look back lasted two or three seconds at most; then she resumed her stare to the south. Ernestina plucked Charles's sleeve, and he turned away, with a shrug and a smile at her.

  When they were nearer land he said, "I wish you hadn't told me the sordid facts. That's the trouble with provincial life. Everyone knows everyone and there is no mystery. No romance."

  She teased him then: the scientist, the despiser of novels.


  But a still more important consideration is that the chief part of the organization of every living creature is due to inheritance; and consequently, though each being assuredly is well fitted for its place in nature, many structures have now no very close and direct relations to present habits of life. --Darwin, The Origin of Species (1859)

  Of all decades in our history, a wise man would choose the eighteen-fifties to be young in.

  --G. M. Young, Portrait of an Age

  * * *

  Back in his rooms at the White Lion after lunch Charles stared at his face in the mirror. His thoughts were too vague to be described. But they comprehended mysterious elements; a sentiment of obscure defeat not in any way related to the incident on the Cobb, but to certain trivial things he had said at Aunt Tranter's lunch, to certain characteristic evasions he had made; to whether his interest in paleontology was a sufficie
nt use for his natural abilities; to whether Ernestina would ever really understand him as well as he understood her; to a general sentiment of dislocated purpose originating perhaps in no more--as he finally concluded--than the threat of a long and now wet afternoon to pass. After all, it was only 1867. He was only thirty-two years old. And he had always asked life too many questions. Though Charles liked to think of himself as a scientific young man and would probably not have been too surprised had news reached him out of the future of the airplane, the jet engine, television, radar: what would have astounded him was the changed attitude to time itself. The supposed great misery of our century is the lack of time; our sense of that, not a disinterested love of science, and certainly not wisdom, is why we devote such a huge proportion of the ingenuity and income of our societies to finding faster ways of doing things--as if the final aim of mankind was to grow closer not to a perfect humanity, but to a perfect lightning flash. But for Charles, and for almost all his contemporaries and social peers, the time signature over existence was firmly adagio. The problem was not fitting in all that one wanted to do, but spinning out what one did to occupy the vast colonnades of leisure available.

  One of the commonest symptoms of wealth today is destructive neurosis; in his century it was tranquil boredom. It is true that the wave of revolutions in 1848, the memory of the now extinct Chartists, stood like a mountainous shadow behind the period; but to many--and to Charles--the most significant thing about those distant rumblings had been their failure to erupt. The 'sixties had been indisputably prosperous; an affluence had come to the artisanate and even to the laboring classes that made the possibility of revolution recede, at least in Great Britain, almost out of mind. Needless to say, Charles knew nothing of the beavered German Jew quietly working, as it so happened, that very afternoon in the British Museum library; and whose work in those somber walls was to bear such bright red fruit. Had you described that fruit, or the subsequent effects of its later indiscriminate consumption, Charles would