For the six miles west of Lyme Regis, the coastal landscape is very strange. From the air, one can only see that the fields stop about a mile before the cliffs, turning into wild forest. Flying low, one can see that there are many chasms and towers of stone. The area feels very isolated, and people have often become lost in it. This land, called the Undercliff, is very steep and tilts towards the sun, making rare plants grow there, large and early in the year. There are many places a person can fall and not be heard shouting. In 1867 there were several cottages, but at the time of writing no one lives there, and it’s an entirely wild nature reserve. This is where Charles goes when he climbs up from the beach, and the eastern half of it is called Ware Commons.
The Undercliff is wild, frightening, and dangerous, yet also fertile and beautiful. These characteristics make it the perfect location for the impending meetings between Charles and Sarah—it’s a place which the tame conventions of society can’t penetrate, a place where anything goes. And outside of society, dangerous things can happen, but new and beautiful things can happen too (represented by the large, rare plants growing there). Fowles reminds his reader that he knows what the characters would see as the future, and the Undercliff will always defy domestication.
After Charles cools himself in the stream, he tries to look around seriously but is distracted by the beauty of his surroundings. There are flowers everywhere, of all different kinds. He can hear many types of birdsong. Turning, he sees all of Lyme Bay spread below him. Only the Renaissance had art that could capture such a scene. The Renaissance was the end of a cultural winter, and it spelled an end to confinement, praising everything good. It was everything the Victorian age wasn’t. Charles feels dissatisfied with his own era’s approach to nature, but he explains it with Rousseau’s philosophies and believes that he’s become too civilized to truly connect with nature. As a typical Victorian, he thinks he must be sad because he can’t possess nature forever. He doesn’t have the existentialist knowledge to think instead that he is happy to have it for a moment.
Fowles contrasts a number of philosophical ideologies in this scene. Charles feels a Renaissance love of nature in that he appreciates the freedom and beauty of it, whereas Victorian society’s strict moralism discourages people from basking in beauty or pleasure. Charles believes, as Rousseau taught, that people have strayed dangerously from their natural state by becoming too cultured and disciplined. Fowles suggests that Victorians want to control nature rather than appreciate it, and that Charles would be better off with insight from a philosophy that doesn’t even exist in his time—existentialism.
Charles begins to look for tests along the stream and in the woods, but he doesn’t find any. Eventually he realizes how late it is and sets off on a path towards Lyme. When he comes to a fork, he takes a lower path and luckily finds a grassy plateau from which he can orient himself. Moving to the edge of it, he sees a figure below. It’s a woman sleeping on a ledge of grass about five feet below the plateau. The rock walls around it trap the sun, but one edge drops about forty feet into brambles.
This pivotal meeting between Charles and Sarah occurs when Charles is lost, but just about to find his way. Sarah will make Charles far more lost in his life, but she’ll also illuminate the societal landscape around him. By taking a nap in this location, Sarah demonstrates her comfort with the space outside society, as well as her willingness to live on the edge of disaster.
Charles steps back out of sight, unsure what to do. Then he steps forward again, curious. The woman is deeply asleep, her coat open over a blue dress. A handful of flowers lie around her arm. Her position reminds Charles of a girl he slept with in Paris. Moving to see her face better, he realizes it’s the French Lieutenant’s Woman. Her hair is loose, and he sees that it’s richly reddish. Her skin is tan. He wishes he didn’t have to look at her upside down. He’s overcome by a strange feeling that she is innocent, outcast unfairly, and he can’t imagine why she’s here. Coming to the very edge of the plateau, he realizes that the sadness has gone from her face. Just then she wakes.
In this second meeting, Charles immediately sexualizes Sarah by conflating her with a woman—quite likely a prostitute—he once slept with. Fowles does present her in a way that, in a Victorian novel, would be quite sexual; she’s asleep and unguarded, with her hair freed from its proper confines. It’s rather ironic, then, that Charles decides Sarah doesn’t deserve to be an outcast just as he sees her in this situation that people like Mrs. Poulteney would use as proof of her sinfulness.
Though Charles tries to step back, Sarah sees him and scrambles up. He bows to her, and she looks shocked and slightly ashamed. They stare at each other until Charles apologizes quickly and walks away, not looking back. He returns to the fork in the path and only then wishes he had asked which way to go. Though he waits briefly, she doesn’t appear. Charles doesn’t realize that in those moments of waiting, the whole Victorian Age is lost. And this doesn’t mean that he took the wrong path.
Fowles presents this scene as a turning point not only for the characters, but for the Victorian Age itself, whose values depend on people adhering to them. As Charles waits for Sarah, he puts himself in her power and unconsciously begins a journey to rejecting Victorian values. Charles wants Sarah to show him the path back to civilization, but she will instead lead him far away from it.