In this first section of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles seems to be taking on the role of an anthropologist – observing his characters rather than just telling a story. If readers keep going with this metaphor, they will find that Fowles has a lot of biases even though anthropologists are supposed to keep their observations neutral and objective. This may be because he connects events in the story – set in the Victorian Era – to events that happen in the future – circa 1967, when the book was written. Even though I may not understand all of the historical references, it makes the story more interesting.
The story focuses on the life of Charles Smithson who is a bit odd – even by Victorian standards – because he doesn’t really care about eliminating his boredom. His uncle wants him to do something with his life so that he doesn’t end up bitter like him, but Charles doesn’t listen. He does take up archaeology – but even that seems to be a way to get the only thing he does care about – women.
Fowles then shifts the focus of the story to a completely different character, Sara Woodruff – also known as The French Lieutenant’s Woman. She’s pretty much the resident “Boo Radley”: the mysterious, creepy person whom no one cares to associate with.
She is the daughter of a farmer, but she does have an education because her father wanted to give his children every opportunity in life that he could. When Sarah first takes a job as a governess in Charmouth, everything is fine until the family extends their hospitality to a wounded French sailor. Sarah ends up falling in love with and giving herself to him, and then he just leaves. Sarah stares out at the sea, waiting for his return.
Now a fallen woman, Sarah finds herself in the charity of Mrs. Poulteney.
Meanwhile, Charles meets Ernestina at her parents’ house party. They had an unusual courtship, neither person calling attention to themselves. Charles quickly realizes her loves her and asks her to marry him. But now, just a few months later, Charles finds himself captivated by The French Lieutenant’s Woman.