The French Lieutenant’s Woman

The French Lieutenant’s Woman

The French Lieutenant’s Woman Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on John Fowles's The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of John Fowles

Fowles was born into a conventional family of middle-class tobacco importers. At thirteen, he began attending boarding school, where he was successful in athletic pursuits. After spending two years in the Royal Marines, Fowles earned his bachelor’s degree at New College, Oxford, in French and German. During this time he was influenced by existentialist writings. He then taught English for two years at a school in Greece. While there, he fell in love with Elizabeth Christy, who was married to one of his colleagues. Soon after returning to England, Elizabeth separated from her husband and married Fowles. Fowles spent the next ten years teaching English to foreign students at a girls’ school in London. He published his first book, The Collector, in 1963. Its success made it possible for Fowles to quit teaching and focus entirely on his writing. In 1965, Fowles and his wife moved to a farm in Dorset, though they found it too isolated and soon moved to Lyme Regis instead, where Fowles would live for the rest of his life. He worked for a decade as the curator of the Lyme Regis Museum. The Magus and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, along with The Collector, became his most popular works, though he published a number of others, as well.
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Historical Context of The French Lieutenant’s Woman

In The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Fowles explores many of the new ideas that transformed British society during the Victorian Era. Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection were increasingly coming to the public attention during this time, which led to major conflicts between science and religion, as well as a general reappraisal of the meaning of being human. The Victorian Era was also a time of political reform movements. In 1867 (the year in which most of the novel is set) the right to vote was significantly expanded to British working class men, which began to spell the decline in the power of the aristocracy. Women’s rights were also becoming a political issue around this time. Victorian women were expected to adhere to the “cult of domesticity,” which envisioned them as the pure and pious centers of the home, obedient to their husbands and dedicated to nurturing their children. However, women were fighting for increased rights in marriage as well as the right to vote. In 1867, John Stuart Mill proposed in Parliament that the Second Reform Act should give women the right to vote, but he was laughed down and the motion defeated. His famous essay “The Subjection of Women” argued for women’s equality with men.

Other Books Related to The French Lieutenant’s Woman

The French Lieutenant’s Woman contains references to a number of literary and scientific books, including On the Origin of Species (Darwin’s 1859 book proposing evolutionary theory), and the poetry of Tennyson (particularly In Memoriam and Maud) and Matthew Arnold (particularly “To Marguerite”). Fowles consciously writes in the shadow of Thomas Hardy, who is famous for writing about Dorset, where The French Lieutenant’s Woman takes place. Fowles also follows Hardy in dealing directly with issues of gender and sexuality and employing evocative descriptions of nature.
Key Facts about The French Lieutenant’s Woman
  • Full Title: The French Lieutenant’s Woman
  • When Written: 1967
  • Where Written: Lyme Regis, Dorset, England
  • When Published: 1969
  • Literary Period: Postmodernism
  • Genre: historiographic metafiction
  • Setting: Lyme Regis, Exeter, and London, England between 1867 and 1869
  • Climax: Charles and Sarah having sex in Endicott’s Family Hotel
  • Antagonist: Mrs. Poulteney, Sam, Mr. Freeman, Victorian society
  • Point of View: third person, with interjections from a first person narrator

Extra Credit for The French Lieutenant’s Woman

Setting records. When Fowles sold his book The Collector to a publisher, the publisher believed he was paying Fowles more than had ever been paid for a first novel.

Sources of inspiration. When Fowles and his wife first moved to Dorset, they lived in a farmhouse that became the basis for the Dairy in The French Lieutenant’s Woman.