The trial of Lieutenant Emile de La Roncière in 1835 is very psychologically interesting. La Roncière was rather frivolous. His commanding officer, the Baron de Morell, had a sixteen-year-old daughter named Marie. One evening the Baron ordered him to leave the house, and the next day he produced a number of letters threatening the Morells, all signed with the lieutenant’s initials. Later, Marie woke her governess, crying, to tell her that La Roncière had forced his way into her bedroom and injured her. The next morning, another lieutenant received a letter supposedly from La Roncière, and they fought a duel. However, the other lieutenant forced La Roncière to sign a confession of guilt. La Roncière went to Paris, believing that everything would be forgotten, but the Morells continued to receive threatening letters. The Baron had La Roncière arrested.
In bringing this trial into the novel, Fowles goes farther back in history. By implying that events of 1835 can directly influence characters’ decisions in 1867, he also suggests that a story set in 1867 can impact his readers more than a century later. No matter Grogan’s purpose in giving Charles this account, the story of La Roncière parallels the novel in its sense of confusion—things happen seemingly without explanation, much to the consternation of those whom they affect. In the broader novel, Sarah’s actions often seem unexplainable.
It seems incredible that La Roncière was convicted. First, many people knew that Marie was jealous of La Roncière’s attention to her mother. There were sentries surrounding the Morell house on the night La Roncière supposedly forced his way in, and no one saw him. Besides, he would have had to use a ladder to reach Marie’s room, and there were no marks of one. The broken glass of her window fell outside. Marie never screamed for help, and her wounds weren’t examined until months later. She lived perfectly normally until the arrest, when she had a nervous breakdown. The letters continued to arrive even when La Roncière was in jail, and it doesn’t make sense that he would sign his name to them—sometimes spelled wrong. Besides, the paper matched that in Marie’s desk.
It becomes clear that Grogan wants Charles to draw parallels between Marie’s destructive actions and those of Sarah. No matter what, it’s true that Marie constructed a story around her, leaving evidence to make people believe a certain false narrative. Sarah works in a similar way, manipulating the story people believe about her. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Sarah has the same intent to harm. The other astonishing part of this story is the innocence that people automatically assigned to Marie just because she was female and young—she was believed incapable of such duplicity.
No cross-examination of Marie was allowed at the trial because of her modesty and weakness. La Roncière was sentenced to ten years in prison, though many people protested. In fact, the verdict was the result of social differences, the desire to preserve the purity of virgins, and a lack of psychological knowledge. Dr. Grogan gave Charles a book by Dr. Karl Matthaei, a German doctor, which he wrote to support an appeal for La Roncière. He notes that the letters were written in a pattern that would coincide with a menstrual cycle, and he explains the illness of hysteria, which is now known to be caused by sexual repression.
This case is permeated by gender-based assumptions. Marie essentially avoided justice because she was female and acted publicly in a way that fit people’s standards of how young women should act. These stereotypes were so strong that those around her couldn’t imagine, despite the clear evidence, that Marie could herself come up with the kinds of improprieties assigned to La Roncière. Matthaei, however, swings the other direction, blaming Marie’s actions on her femaleness in a typically sexist interpretation.
In the passage Dr. Grogan marked, Matthaei recalls the family of a lieutenant-general who lived six miles out of a town. His sixteen-year-old daughter wanted them to live in the town, probably for the society that could be had there. In order to make this happen, she set fire to their house. The damaged part was rebuilt, but she attempted arson thirty more times. The culprit wasn’t discovered for several years, but she was eventually sentenced to life in prison. Another girl in a German city sent anonymous letters to try to break up a marriage and spread cruel rumors about an admired young lady. This went on for several years before she was caught.
These cases prove little more than that women and girls can be scheming and cruel. The fact that Matthaei and Grogan think this is remarkable enough to make specific scientific note of it demonstrates the degree to which women were seen as pure and innocent in the nineteenth century, incapable of crimes such as these. Grogan apparently wants Charles to recognize, in part, that Sarah might be as cruel as these women, and that she’s not to be trusted.
Matthaei points out that, though it may seem that Marie de Morell wouldn’t have hurt herself in order to achieve her goal, there are other examples of women doing so. One woman in Copenhagen stuck herself with needles and had parts of her body removed when they became swollen as a result. She had her urine removed with a catheter every morning after injecting air into her bladder. She pretended to faint and have seizures. Everyone pitied her suffering. Finally, it was discovered that she only acted so to attract men’s attention and make a fool of them.
Although Sarah hasn’t physically damaged herself as this woman did, she has, it seems, purposefully damaged herself socially and perhaps emotionally. However, Matthaei considers only the male viewpoint on this case—it’s possible that this woman’s actions proceeded from a sense of uselessness or a desire to make the pain of her social oppression recognizable by others.
Another girl and her mother schemed to create sympathy for themselves. The girl pretended to have an awful pain in one breast that continued no matter what the doctors tried. She decided to have the breast removed, and no cancer was found. Years later, she did the same thing with the other breast. Later, she pretended her hand hurt, and she wanted it removed, but she was found out and sent to prison. In another instance, a girl put over a hundred stones in her own bladder over ten months, even though the operations to remove them were very painful. These examples show that girls can quite feasibly hurt themselves in order to achieve their goals.
Both of these cases involve girls causing pain to be inflicted on them in areas of their bodies that distinctly mark them as female, symbolically linking their psychological issues and their self-destruction to their femaleness and the way in which society treats them as a result of it. Though Matthaei clearly proves that girls can hurt themselves, he doesn’t seem to address the issue of what their goals are in doing so, leaving Sarah’s motivations to remain mysterious.
Charles is shocked by what he has read. He can’t recognize hysteria as a desire for love. He sympathizes with La Roncière, and he’s disturbed to find that he himself was born on the day that La Roncière was convicted. Reason and science seem to disappear, and Charles feels a lack of freedom.
Although Fowles doesn’t agree with Charles’s nineteenth-century understanding of hysteria, he also fails to recognize it as a result of women’s oppression. Charles feels an almost supernatural kinship to La Roncière that implies that fate is, and has always been, set for him.
Though it’s almost four in the morning, Charles is wide awake. He opens a window and wonders where Sarah is. He feels very guilty and begins to suspect that Dr. Grogan will tell everyone his secrets. He feels he’s lost respect for himself and everything around him. He rereads some of the passages about hysteria and begins to see the malady in Sarah less than he had. He struggles to remember her clearly, but he realizes that he probably knows her better than anyone does. He feels he has warped her character in his account to Grogan in order to exonerate himself.
In the Victorian era, women who acted in any socially unusual way were frequently diagnosed with hysteria, making it an implicitly oppressive diagnosis that no longer exists. Grogan’s attempt to paint the unconventional Sarah as hysterical, then, follows a common trend. Charles, however, is taken in only temporarily. Perhaps this is a turning point where he begins to think more for himself.
Charles paces his room, wondering if Sarah is, after all, brave for facing up to her sin and now in need of help. He feels he’s allowed Grogan to mislead him because he wanted to save his reputation and because he had no free will. He thinks everything has happened as it has because he forced her to discuss her situation when they met for the second time. Dawn is about to break, and he makes a decision for the sake of his conscience. He begins to change clothes.
At this point, accepting Grogan’s interpretation of Sarah’s actions would be an easy way out for Charles that would absolve him of at least some of his guilt. He finally demonstrates his free will by deciding for himself that Grogan is wrong about Sarah. Admittedly, this path also allows him to pursue the woman he’s attracted to.