The initial chapter of the novel opens with an excerpt from Thomas Hardy's poem "The Riddle," which seems to describe the French Lieutenant's Woman as she is first seen by both the reader and by other characters in the story. She appears as an anonymous figure on the seashore, tragic and full of mystery. She is dressed in black and is staring intently at the sea; she appears to be the typical woman driven mad with grief by a lover who has left her.
In addition to the French Lieutenant's Woman, this chapter also introduces us to Ernestina Freeman, a lively, though somewhat conventional young woman. In a romantic novel, a girl such as Ernestina might play one of several roles. She could be the heroine, who proves to be more unconventional and adventuresome than she first appears. But if she is not destined to become the heroine herself, as is the case in this story, she becomes the bright and pretty rich girl who is a foil for the poor but intense young woman who is the actual heroine. This is the role which we suspect Ernestina will play in contrast to the dark intensity of the woman whose only name thus far is "Tragedy."
Charles Smithson is also quite traditional, though he would like to think that he isn't. He quotes Darwin and dabbles in paleontology. He represents the fashionable young man of his day, who rebels against what he sees as the stuffiness of his society, but who never rebels "too much." The narrator, who is the persona of Fowles himself, is present at several points in the story. He both observes and manipulates his characters, as we shall see later in the novel. In keeping with the style of his tale, the narrator observes the couple and the lone figure on the beach. This device allows the author to introduce and describe his main characters, as well as allowing us a look at the setting where much of the action will take place. The chapter closes with a brief glimpse of the French Lieutenant's Woman herself.
Lyme Regis is a small English town set on a rocky shore. It was something of a resort or health retreat, as were many such villages at this time. The seaside was considered to be a healthy place to vacation because of its popular mineral springs. The larger cities were often smoke-filled, and people who could afford to travel were probably wise to go to smaller towns to breathe the fresh air.
Like many similar villages, Lyme Regis has not changed much in a hundred years, and even today one might find similar villages in some parts of the country, hardly changed except for the advent of electricity, automobiles, and television antennas. It is in just such a town that provincial attitudes might have lingered on, even at a time when many were experiencing change and upheaval in the cities. It is odd that Sarah, the French Lieutenant's Woman, chose Lyme Regis for her home, when she could have gone anywhere, for in Lyme Regis she would likely be designated as a fallen woman, whereas in London, she would have been fairly anonymous.
To introduce the second chapter, Fowles uses a quotation which states that there were at this time in England more women than men; this provides an implied commentary on the Victorian ideal of marriage as an appropriate goal for all women. If one assumes that the proper place of a woman is at a man's side, then some women will inevitably never reach that goal. Thus the character of the French Lieutenant's Woman must be defined in terms other than those defining her relationship to a man. Yet note how even her nickname, the "French Lieutenant's Woman," describes her in terms of her relationship with a, thus far, invisible man. The irony here is intentional.
This chapter delineates the interrelationships of the characters as they appear at the beginning of the story. The first focus is on the rather trite conversation between Charles and Ernestina. As they walk to the end of the Cobb, Charles sees the French Lieutenant's Woman, and Ernestina decides that she wants to turn back. In saying so, she gives Charles a brief account of the story of the "fallen woman," who, some say, is mad. Charles, who thinks of himself as a scientist, is more tolerant and more curious than Ernestina. Charles is both disturbed and fascinated by the mystery and romance that he perceives in the woman, though he will not admit that his curiosity goes beyond what he considers to be merely scientific.
Chapter 3 is largely a portrait of Charles, focusing on his relationship to his era. The author takes the opportunity to digress in a discussion of time. He compares the bustle of the twentieth century to the crawling pace of the previous century. Charles feels the ennui created by the slower pace of his century, though it should be noted that his boredom with life derives in part from the few demands which life makes upon him because of his favored social position. Charles is dissatisfied for reasons he cannot explain and, as a result, will prove to be easily attracted by that which is not only different or unusual, but which also has a hint of rarity about it. We see this already in his attraction to the mysterious woman, who represents that part of life not governed by the conventions he has unwillingly come to accept.
Charles is a rather typical romantic hero, a superficially cynical and a slightly tarnished yet inwardly idealistic Victorian gentleman. By Victorian standards he is somewhat jaded, but were he not so, he could not function as the typical romantic, rather Byronic hero. Love will rescue him. Charles' feelings about his sexuality are reminiscent of the struggles that the hero in Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man undergoes when he is repulsed by his first sexual experiences. Charles' society has trained him to think that sex is evil, but then discourages him from giving it up. His father curses him when Charles desires to take Holy Orders; he sends him to Paris. There, Charles' youthful idealism finally gives way to a more cynical attitude that at least appears to accept the double standard that allows him his freedom, yet would ruin the reputation of a young woman not unlike "poor Tragedy."
The narrator then introduces us to two characters who are examples of the sort of hypocrisy that could, and sometimes did, flourish in Victorian society. Mrs. Poulteney calculates the arithmetical advantage of saving her soul by doing the not too inconvenient good deed of taking in a poor but refined gentlewoman. Mrs. Fairley, the housekeeper, is her "spy," who succeeds in making Sarah Woodruff's life miserable after she agrees to come and live with Mrs. Poulteney.
Both characters represent types that appear often in Victorian novels; they were the sort of person that the author's social criticism was frequently directed towards. Both Mrs. Poulteney and Mrs. Fairley are self-righteous and quite malicious. Although they profess to be good and moral Christians, they possess few Christian virtues. Instead, they believe themselves superior to someone such as Sarah, whose sins, real or imagined, have not warped her nature into a parody of morality.
Whether there were many real Victorian women who were as rigid and unthinking as this pair are is something to speculate about, but such characters were often present in the popular novels read by many women who probably had suffered at one time or another from the sharp tongues of their neighbors.
The quotation that prefaces Chapter 5 is from In Memoriam, which, according to the narrator, states that love can only be lust if there is no hope for immortality. In this chapter, which is largely a portrait of Ernestina, the narrator comments briefly on Victorian attitudes towards sexuality and duty, and the problems resulting therefrom.
Charles and Ernestina part, and Charles leaves for his hotel, while Ernestina returns to her room. There she contemplates herself in the mirror while undressing, until a stray thought of sex (about which she knows virtually nothing) occurs to her and, embarrassingly, she ceases admiring herself.
Not only are the descriptions and the dialogue couched in a style suitable for a Victorian novel, but even the narrator's interruptions, referring clearly to twentieth-century events, are also written in the formal English of a Victorian stylist such as George Eliot.
Returning to Mrs. Poulteney and the vicar, who is encouraging her to help Sarah Woodruff, we receive a more detailed description of Sarah and her encounter with the shipwrecked French lieutenant during the time when she was a governess for the children of Mr. and Mrs. Talbot of Charmouth.
Mrs. Poulteney decides to interview the girl in order to decide if she is a fitting object for the lady's dubious charity. She interprets Sarah's silence and habitual sad expression as an indication of feelings of remorse and takes her in. Although Sarah has earlier refused such charitable offers of employment from other people, she is destitute now and must accept the position. One of her reasons for accepting, which would have enraged Mrs. Poulteney had she suspected, was that Marlborough House possessed a good view of Lyme Bay, enabling Sarah to maintain her vigilant watch for the French Lieutenant who promised to return to her.
Fowles gives us a closer look in Chapter 7 at the relationships between the two main social classes that appear in the novel: the well-to-do middle class and their servants. The focus here is underscored by a quotation from one of the works of Karl Marx, in which he discusses the role of the servant class in an industrial society and its exploitation by the ruling classes.
As the chapter opens, it is the next morning and Charles is with his valet, Sam Farrow. Here, Sam is compared with Charles Dickens' character Sam Weller, a low-comedy servant whose image Sam Farrow tries to rise above. Whereas the servants of the 1 830s seemed relatively content with their lot, the servants of the late 1 860s began to sense and to demand a participation in the struggle referred to today as "upward mobility." The relationship between Charles and Sam is friendly, although to the reader Charles often appears patronizing in his condescending remarks to Sam. However, the narrator comments that this teasing relationship is probably preferable to the excessive formality of the nouveau riche, themselves the wealthy descendants of a working class.
In Chapter 8, Charles examines the seashore for fossils after having called on Ernestina and found that she would be indisposed until afternoon. He spends so much time there, however, that he has to take a shortcut back by an inland path. Inserted in this chapter is a discussion of Victorian attitudes towards scientific inquiry, and the public's lack of understanding of the significance of Darwin's discoveries. The scientific method, as we perceive it, was not widely used until quite recently by many who called themselves scientists. Many Victorians believed that all essential knowledge had already been discovered and what remained was to catalogue and arrange this body of knowledge.
Rather than propose hypotheses and attempt to prove or disprove them by using empirical methods of research and experimentation, many Victorians were very talented at arriving at ingenious theories to explain why certain phenomena existed. One example of this concerns the various theories offered to explain why fossils existed when the world was supposedly created in six days, approximately four thousand years before Christ was born. Such explanations were ingenious and often scholarly, but they were not scientific.
While Charles is considerably less hampered by some preconceived notions than his contemporaries, his idea of research in collecting fossils seems to be more of an excuse to avoid facing himself, who he is and who he wants to be. He plays the role of the gentleman, the dilettante naturalist, and then wonders why he is bored and dissatisfied with life. For Fowles, Charles' sort of scientific research, and that of this period in general, represents a sterile activity, where one examines minutiae in order to avoid making major decisions and discoveries.