Sarah Woodruff She is an educated but impoverished young woman. She is called "the French Lieutenant's Woman" or "Tragedy" or the "French lieutenant's whore" because it is believed that she had an affair with a shipwrecked French sailor. It is also believed that she is half-mad with grief and that she stares out to sea, vainly hoping for the day he will return to her. Because of her reputation she can no longer gain any employment until Mrs. Poulteney hires her as a paid companion. Sarah is a mysterious figure. No one knows much about her, and later we find that much of what people believe about her is untrue.
Charles Smithson He is a wealthy gentleman and is heir to a minor title. His hobby is collecting fossils and he considers himself to be something of a naturalist. He is an admirer of the controversial Darwin and he is rather pleased with himself that he is one of a minority in the 1860s to hold scientifically advanced ideas, such as the theories espoused by Darwin and others. He is both sensitive and intelligent, but he is unsure of himself. He is bored and dissatisfied with the course his life is taking. His fiancée is Ernestina Freeman, but that relationship is changed when he meets Sarah Woodruff.
Ernestina Freeman Ernestina is Charles' fiancée. She is attractive and clever but also very young and naive. Although she considers herself to be a modern young woman, her attitudes are similar, for the most part, to those of most proper young ladies. She is vacationing in Lyme when the story opens, staying with Aunt Tranter.
Aunt Tranter Ernestina's aunt is a kindly woman whose temperament contrasts greatly with that of the sharp-tongued Mrs. Poulteney. Aunt Tranter's honesty and lack of hypocrisy seem to present a welcome bright spot in the small town governed by the malicious gossip of less charitable souls.
Mrs. Poulteney The vicar convinces the wealthy widow to take in Sarah Woodruff and give her employment. Mrs. Poulteney's main motive in doing so is to show how charitable she is, and it does not stem from any real feelings of compassion for Sarah. Mrs. Poulteney is a stereotype, a conglomerate of all the malicious old villainesses who have appeared in numerous Victorian novels.
Dr. Grogan He is a friendly man whom Charles finds to be a sympathetic listener. Although he feels sorry for Sarah Woodruff, unlike Charles, he cannot take her seriously. He tries to convince Charles that she really is ill. Dr. Grogan, like Aunt Tranter, represents a type of Victorian character who seems more understanding and less hampered by convention than most people. Part of the reason for this is that both of the older people actually belong to the generation before Victoria's, an era somewhat less repressive in certain respects.
Captain and Mrs. Talbot Sarah was the governess for the Talbot's children when she met the French lieutenant. Even after she told them of her experience with him, they did not condemn her for it.
Lieutenant Varguennes Caught in a shipwreck, his leg was injured, and Varguennes was nursed at the home of the Talbots, mostly by Sarah. Although he flirted with Sarah, and wished to seduce her, he was married, as she later found out.
Mrs. Fairley She is Mrs. Poulteney's housekeeper and is as unkind as her mistress. She delights in spying on Sarah and reporting her activities to Mrs. Poulteney.
Millie Mrs. Poulteney's young maid who is befriended by Sarah.
Mary Aunt Tranter's maid whose life is considerably more pleasant than Millie's. She eventually marries Charles' man-servant, Sam Farrow.
Sam Farrow While Sam is often the object of Charles' teasing, he is not merely a humorous figure as was Dickens' Sam Weller. He takes himself seriously and is an ambitious member of the working class. He is determined to wed Mary and make a good life for the two of them.
Sir Robert Charles Smithson's uncle. It is his title that Charles hopes to inherit, although that prospect is altered when Sir Robert marries Mrs. Tomkins, an attractive widow.
Lieutenant de la Roncière and Marie de Morell These are two individuals in a case history given to Charles by Dr. Grogan for him to read. The doctor hopes that reading about how the neurotic young woman convinced the French courts that she had been assaulted and her family sent poison-pen letters by the officer would convince Charles that Sarah possibly had similar intentions regarding him. While Charles conceded that the story might be true, he did not believe it applied to Sarah.
Mr. Freeman He was a haberdasher who became very successful. One sign of his success was that he, a member of the middle class, could have his daughter marry one of the nobility.
Gabriel and Christina Rosseti They were the founders of a school of art called the Pre-Raphaelite school. In their day they were considered as radical as Mr. Freeman was conservative. However, by the time Sarah came to stay with them, their work, while still shocking to some, was coming to be more accepted.
John Fowles He is the bearded man who enters the novel several times as an observer and sometimes as a sort of theatrical director. He comments on the actions of his characters and discusses the relationship between the art of the novel and life.