One windy morning in March 1867, a couple is walking down the quay at Lyme Regis, in the southwest of England. Though the inhabitants of Lyme don’t particularly like this quay, known as the Cobb, others find it beautiful. It’s also an important piece of naval history, and it’s changed very little since 1867. Lyme itself is a picturesque place, with a few houses and a boatyard at the land end of the Cobb, and the main town half a mile away. In the other direction lie huge cliffs and wild countryside.
Even before introducing the characters, Fowles immediately locates his book in a precise time and place. He also makes it clear that he’s writing from a date later than 1867, since he knows how the Cobb has or hasn’t changed. Finally, he presents a contrast between the civilized town and the wild, lawless countryside right next to it.
Someone watching the couple on the quay might guess that these people aren’t from Lyme, or else that they’re looking for somewhere to be alone. Their clothing makes it clear that they’re well-off. The lady is wearing a rather short magenta skirt, and her hat is so fashionable that the ladies of Lyme won’t be wearing the style for at least a year. Though the colors of her clothes might seem too strong in the present, the Victorians are still thrilled with their discovery of these dyes. There’s another figure at the end of the quay, standing motionless in black and staring out to sea, that seems almost mythical.
The narrator’s attitude towards the characters here suggests what he will later state—he’s not controlling them, but instead watching them and documenting their actions. Fowles reinforces his retrospective viewpoint, bringing a “present” time into the narrative to contrast with the Victorian Era. Sarah’s position alone at the end of the quay is perfectly symbolic of her place in society as an outcast. Already she seems not quite real or able to be understood.