(HOST) As you’re compiling your summer reading list, you might think about re-visiting an old favorite.
When English writer John Fowles died last fall commentator Vic Henningsen re-read Fowles’ masterpiece. Ever since, he’s been considering the enduring hold some books have on their readers.
(HENNINGSEN) By some curious alchemy, certain books become lifetime companions. Held together by rubber bands, my heavily annotated copy of John Fowles’s novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman is full of makeshift bookmarks that trace re-readings over almost forty years: a fragment of a map from the summer I carried it the length of the Long Trail; a Tanzanian postage stamp; a card from a Florentine trattoria. It’s a book that won’t let me go.
Set in Victorian England, it tells of Charles Smithson, a wealthy paleontologist who is fatally smitten by the outcast Sarah Woodruff. Used and abandoned by a French sailor, Sarah has gone half-mad and haunts the shore, gazing out to sea awaiting her lover’s return.
Sarah is a modern woman thrown into a 19th century story. Her passionate independence disrupts everything, and everyone, around her. She’s the embodiment of changes, like the Darwinian revolution, that destroyed the conventions anchoring the Victorian Age. Darwinist though he is, Charles can’t escape those conventions. Though obsessed with Sarah, he can’t comprehend her or what she represents. In Fowles’s striking image, she is a door for which he lacks the key.
But the most vivid character is the author himself, who regularly intrudes with witty and erudite discussions of things like the Victorian class system; the influence of geology on modern thought; 19th century understandings of hysteria; and the difficulties of writing a novel, particularly this one. For an entire chapter he leaves Sarah poised on a high ledge, debating with himself and his readers whether she should jump. Joining his own story, he shares a railway compartment with Charles, pondering what to do with him next. He provides two different endings, inviting readers to take their choice.
Famous for bending the novel form into entirely new shapes, Fowles was also a first rate historian. His discussions of the Victorian Age reflect a deep understanding of the period and of the nature of history itself. If you want to know what that era felt like; smelled like; how they talked; why they dressed that way; if you wish to understand an age when one’s social position could be undone by a look or gesture, put away that textbook. You’ll find it done better, here.
What brings me back to this odd tale? The same thing, I suspect, that gets other people obsessed with certain books: they speak to us in profoundly personal ways. I was in a failing relationship when I first read it and it helped me learn that we can’t always understand those we love and sometimes we lose love because of it. But I keep re-reading it, never sure which ending I want; hoping that, if I read it just one more time, I’ll finally come to terms with it. Still – I never have and I think Fowles may have counted on that.
Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.