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The French Lieutenant's Woman

John Fowles

Summary and Analysis Chapters 9-17

In Chapter 9, we return to Sarah and Mrs. Poulteney, and Fowles presents an account of how Sarah manages to live with the dour old woman and is even able to attain some measure of freedom. In addition, Sarah intervenes on behalf of a maid, Millie, and wins herself the affection of Millie and the other servants. The popularity which Sarah gains among the servants brings with it the enmity of Mrs. Fairley, the housekeeper, who feels somewhat upstaged by Sarah.

Mrs. Fairley spies on Sarah and reports to Mrs. Poulteney what Sarah does and where she goes on her day off. Both women interpret Sarah's gazing at the sea as evidence that she has not fully repented of her infatuation with her seducer, the French Lieutenant. Mrs. Poulteney confronts Sarah with this matter of her unconvincing remorse. While Sarah manages to appear contrite, she says nothing, merely offering to leave. But rather than lose the companion whose services she has come to depend upon, Mrs. Poulteney agrees to a compromise. If Sarah will agree not to be seen too often on the seashore, Mrs. Poulteney will not forbid her to go there; thus, Sarah may go down to the sea at least occasionally. This appears to be a solution to the problem of Sarah's vaguely improper conduct. But at the close of the chapter Mrs. Fairley reports to her mistress that Sarah is now engaged in even more scandalous behavior: She has taken to walking on Ware Commons. We have yet to see why this is shocking, but we soon will, for Fowles clearly implies that young "ladies" do not stroll on Ware Commons, ever.

Charles, as we have seen, decided not long ago to take a shortcut home through some wild patches of seaside landscape called "Ware Commons" at its eastern end. This uninhabited and secluded patch of land was often used by couples as a meeting place, which resulted in its infamous reputation. Upon reaching a grassy meadow overlooking the ocean, Charles sees Sarah sleeping on a ledge below him. Entranced, he stares down at her until she suddenly awakes. He is embarrassed by his intrusion, apologizes, and leaves.

But this chance encounter with the woman affects him deeply. He senses intuitively that she is innocent, no matter what she has done or not done. Without his being consciously aware of it, a part of him has forever rejected Victorian definitions of propriety and morality. We get a glimpse here of Victorian attitudes towards sex as revealed through Charles' concern about the woman whom society has made an outcast. He senses a disparity between what he is told is right and what he feels is right, a feeling that he cannot explain. But he knows that the cause of his discomfort is this strange woman.

Chapter 11 describes for us the meeting and subsequent engagement of Charles and Ernestina. As in many of Jane Austen's novels, the social and economic concerns that lay behind the marriage and courtship rituals of fashionable society are visible underneath all the romantic trimmings. Ernestina, deciding that she likes Charles much more than her other suitors, carefully plans how she will lure him into proposing, without seeming to be overly impressed by him at all. She succeeds. He proposes, thinking himself a fool for not having thought of it sooner.

Charles' own innocence and sexual inhibition are apparent in both this chapter and the preceding one. The author shows how Victorian ideas about such matters generally served to frustrate and confuse most people. We also see in Charles' encounters with Ernestina and with Sarah his awakening awareness of his own humanity and that of the opposite sex as well.

Charles stops at "the Dairy" on his way back to Lyme and purchases a bowl of cold milk. When Charles and the dairyman see Sarah walking back to town from Ware Commons, the man calls her "the French Loot'n'nt's Hoer," and Charles becomes angry but says nothing. He stops at Aunt Tranter's for tea with Ernestina and tells her of his hunting for fossils on Ware Commons. Although he is tempted to tell her about his meeting with Sarah, he senses that Ernestina would be disturbed, and thus carefully omits the tale of his spying on the sleeping woman. We again see Sarah and Ernestina juxtaposed and sense that both women are unconsciously acting in a manner determined for them, at least partly, by the social and economic dictates of their culture. Fowles' quotations from Marx and Tennyson at the beginning of this chapter tend to support this interpretation.

As Chapter 13 opens, Sarah is depressed after her encounter with Mrs. Poulteney, for Mrs. Poulteney has accused her of wanton behavior: she has been seen on Ware Commons, commonly believed to be a "lovers' lane." Sarah denies any such knowledge of the place and insists that she goes there simply to be alone, which is the truth. Sarah is exonerated, but just barely. We then see her at night, in her nightgown with her hair loose, staring out of her window. The narrator observes her, putting himself in the story again, as he will do at several points in the narrative. He tells us that although Sarah contemplates throwing herself from the window, she makes no move to do so.

This brings us to an important digression by the author. Fowles, the narrator, interrupts his story here to discuss the process of his writing, the autonomy of his characters, and his use of a pseudo-Victorian voice, in spite of the fact that his perspective derives strictly from the twentieth century. In this chapter he explicitly states his feelings about his style and methods that we have already perceived for ourselves in the narrative. It is for the reader to decide if such an explanation is necessary, but it might be noted that part of Fowles' purpose in writing this novel is to explore the genre of the novel and its possibilities, in addition to telling a story. Such commentary as Fowles inserts here serves to enable the reader to become aware of how this particular novel is part of a long tradition of novels in general and romantic novels in particular, and that he is as concerned with the form. of his work as he is with its content.

In Chapter 14, Charles, Ernestina, and Aunt Tranter feel that they must pay obligatory visits to various members of Lyme society. The visit with Mrs. Poulteney is a bit of a fiasco, for she and Charles disagree about the proper methods of courtship. To Mrs. Poulteney, apparently, no methods are proper. She complains of Aunt Tranter's maid's relationship with Sam Farrow. Aunt Tranter believes that Mary is above reproach, but it is Charles who enters into an argument over it with Mrs. Poulteney. In the uncomfortable silence that follows the exchange, Charles and Sarah, who is also present, pass a quick glance of understanding. Sarah's discomfort and her feelings of awkwardness about being present at a social gathering where she feels out of place arouse Charles' sympathies. In addition, her empathy and Ernestina's apparent lack of it at this time cause Charles to become somewhat irritated with his fiancée. Meanwhile, Sam and Mary, the girl whose morals were discussed so freely, share a shy but sincere conversation in Aunt Tranter's kitchen. Their honesty is compared with the artificiality of the preceding conversation in Mrs. Poulteney's drawing room.

Several actual and potential relationships present themselves here, as Fowles examines the way various Victorians of different social classes view love. Sam and Mary, who have much less interest in the kind of respectability demanded by the upper classes, nevertheless base their courtship on a solid if simpler ground of what has been considered acceptable behavior for centuries. Yet even they are affected by trends in the standards of morality demanded by their society, though they are less conscious of rigidly observing them. Perhaps Charles suffers the most on this point, for he forms the half of a double standard who benefits by its hypocrisy, whether he wishes to or not. His awareness that he is allowed to do things that no woman would be permitted to do does bother him, though he rarely reaches the point where he can question it, beyond his mild efforts here in Mrs. Poulteney's parlor.

One cannot discuss Victorian concepts of morality or appropriate behavior without noting the position of Sarah, the outcast, the fallen woman. Because of her self-admitted status, she is forever excluded from polite society. Yet we shall later see that changes in Sarah's life and in late Victorian society in general render the role she has chosen for herself obsolete.

Later, at home, Charles unkindly teases Sam about the way that he treats the local girls, but Sam asserts his sincerity — he truly loves Mary. Observing Charles and Sam together again, we notice how differently Charles acts in various social contexts, using different voices, so to speak, depending upon whether he is talking to Sam, to Sarah, to Ernestina, or to Mrs. Poulteney. Charles later becomes vaguely aware of this duplicity, but he is at a loss to understand it fully, for it is an activity in which we all participate.

In Chapter 16, we encounter some of the more domestic aspects of Charles and Ernestina's courtship. Ernestina acts as the dutiful wife-to-be, and Charles is somewhat disturbed by her meekness, perhaps because at the edge of his conscious awareness is the realization that this demure person is not the real Ernestina Freeman.

Here Fowles adds an aside on the lives and status of Victorians: There were often rebels, gentle or otherwise, but, alas, he implies Ernestina is not one of them. She is singularly ignorant of any deficiencies in the status of women in her time. By comparing the lives of Ernestina and Sarah, one could infer that part of the reason Sarah is able to see some of the injustice women experience in Victorian society is that her education and economic position are so disparate. Ernestina, by comparison, is relatively secure in her position in society, and thus is less inclined to question it. In addition, Charles accepts the way things are, for he could not imagine any other sort of society existing, but his wider experience causes him to notice anomalies and to experience discomfort because of them, without understanding why. Charles' awareness of the ambiguity created by the mores of his culture makes it possible for him to become Sarah's confidant. A different man would have seen her as a different sort of woman.

The chapter ends with another encounter between Charles and Sarah on the cliffs above the sea. While climbing the rocks in search of fossils, Charles again meets Sarah. He is struck by the intense sensuality that she radiates, but he will hardly admit this to himself. Instead, they discuss, with some awkwardness and embarrassment, Sarah's history. Then suddenly, Sarah makes a startling confession: Her French Lieutenant is married; more important, she is not waiting for him. Charles is stunned by this revelation, for it makes the motivation of her odd behavior more difficult to fathom than it was before. Charles does not yet realize it, but he is becoming more and more attracted to this strange young woman.

Later, Charles, Aunt Tranter, and Ernestina attend a concert, and although it is a Lenten concert of sacred music, even this is frowned upon by some members of the community as being too frivolous. Ernestina gaily chatters and makes comments about the people they see, and Charles is slightly irritated with her youthful flippancy. Her liveliness seems shallow to him compared with the serious intensity of Sarah. But then he feels guilty for even entertaining such unkind thoughts, and he proceeds to brood about his condition. He has a vague feeling of being trapped by the tedious conventionality of polite society without knowing why he feels so. Yet he is at the same time somewhat happily resigned to soon having Ernestina as his wife. We next see a brief scene between Sam and Mary. We are shown how completely Sam has fallen in love with Mary's innocence and her solidity. She would be a good and kind wife who would fit, he believes, into the future he plans for himself as an independent tradesman.

The complexity of Charles' feelings about Ernestina are juxtaposed with the simplicity of Sam's feelings for Mary. Sam and Mary's courtship is truly romantic, while Charles and Ernestina's is much more the result of a variety of social, economic, and personal influences that affect both his and her decision to marry one another. Thus, the closing line of this chapter is ironic in the context of the subject of this romantic novel. Sam and Mary are incidental characters, yet they are lovers in the truest sense.