John Robert Fowles (1926 –2005) was an English novelist. He was greatly influenced by two famous philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. These two had a profound effect on his writing.His novel the ‘French Lieutenants woman' is a classic in its genre.
‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ is a novel by John Fowles. The title suggests that it is a work of erotic fiction in the genre of ‘Venus in India’ by Charles Devereaux. The setting is Victorian and the novel creates a world of passion and love at a time when sex was talked off in hushed tones. The novel was published in 1969 and is supposed to have been inspired by the 1823 novel 'Ourika' by Claire de Duras.
Fowles has set his romance in the 19th century. This adds to the allure of the novel which runs into 467 pages. Fowles creates a picture of the 19th century for modern readers. This is the strength of the novel.
The Plot
The story concerns a man named Charles Smithson who has everything going for him. He is young, 32 years old, handsome and well placed in life. In addition he is also due to get an inheritance from his aged uncle who is childless. He is engaged to be married to a nice girl from a business family named Ernestina Freeman. Fowles creates the beginnings of an erotic love affair when the couple on a routine walk along the sea coast espy the woman Sarah sitting all alone. She is supposed to be a whore having been abandoned by a French naval officer named Varguennes.
Charles is attracted to Sarah. He sees her as someone who could give a meaning to his life, something he may not get with Ernestina. Sarah and Charles become close and Sarah relates her story to Charles. This is the beginning of a torrid romance as Charles cannot stop himself from visiting Sarah. He goes to her residence as Sarah has suffered an ankle injury and the result is ferocious love. Charles realizes that all the tales about Sarah are wrong as she is a virgin
The Classic Ending
Fowles creates a lovely erotic Victorian romance. But as a writer of fiction he gives a twist to the novel by suggesting two very plausible endings. His first ending is that Charles and Sarah become intimate.  He breaks his engagement to Ernestina. He also loses his inheritance as his uncle marries a younger woman who gives him a child. Charles searches for Sarah for years before finding her in London. She has had a child from him and love triumphs over everything and both Sarah and Charles start a family and live happily. 
The second ending by Fowles is equally plausible as Charles searches for Sarah. He finds her, but she is cold and she does not mention anything about a child. She seems disinterested in a relationship and a disillusioned Charles returns to America. Both endings are very possible and it is to the credit of Fowles that he has incorporated them in his novel.
The Novel is Great Literature
The novel makes interesting reading and most readers will be glued to the pages till the end. The novel won accolades and in 2005, TIME magazine selected the novel as one of the one hundred best English-language novels from 1923.
John Fowles has a permanent place in English literature having been recognized as one of the masters of the modern novel.
Book Cover