The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles

The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a nov by John Fowles which was published in the year 1969 🗓️. The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a historiographic metafiction set in London. The French Lieutenant’s Woman has references several scientific books like ‘On the Origin of Species’ by Charles Darwin as well as literary works of Tennyson, Matthew Arnold and Thomas Hardy.

Charles ❤️ Ernestina

It is 1867. Charles is an amateur paleontologist who hails from an aristocratic upper class family. He is engaged to Ernestina Freeman, a rich draper’s daughter. Their relationship continues without hurdles until they meet the French Lieutenant’s woman.

Charles and Ernestina Freeman from the novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles

Who is the french lieutenant’s woman? 🤔 How is she involved in their love life? Why is she called the French Lieutenant’s woman? Let’s see… 👇

The French Lieutenant’s Woman

The French Lieutenant’s Woman in the seashore

One day, Charles and Ernestina see the French Lieutenant’s woman as they walk along the shore of Lyme Regis. They witness her staring at the sea 🌊. Ernestina and Charles think that the woman is waiting for the French Lieutenant to return.

Sarah Woodruff = The French Lieutenant’s Woman

The French Lieutenant’s Woman or Sarah Woodruff

Sarah Woodruff is the name of the French Lieutenant’s woman. She had helped to nurse a French Lieutenant when he was shipwrecked. She fell in love with him. She thought he would marry him, but he abandoned her. Sarah was titled the French Lieutenant’s woman thereafter and considered an outcast since then.

Mrs Poultney’s Charity

Mrs Poultney from The French Lieutenant’s Woman

Sarah now stays at Mrs Poultney. She is a rich and religious woman. The realisation of religion and the constant thought of hell compels her to do charities. Hiring Sarah was a charity and she has been staying there for a year.

The Search of Paleontologist

Charles being a paleontologist goes in search 🔎 of fossils in the Undercliff, a place also known for immoral acts. Sarah is seen sleeping there in the grass as Charles searches for fossils. He watches her sleeping and she wakes up noticing it. Sarah is a bit tense as she was warned not to walk in the Undercliff by Mrs Poultney.

Sam ❤️ Mary

Sam is the servant of Charles. Ernestina who stays with her aunt Mrs Tranter is often visited by Sam to forward certain news and gifts 🎁 from Charles. Meanwhile, Sam is attracted to Mary, aunt Tranter’s maid. Charles along with Ernestina and Mrs Tranter pay a visit to Mrs Poultney’s house where they also meet Sarah.

Charles Attracted to the French Lieutenant’s Woman?

Charles goes to the Undercliff often in search 🔎 of fossils and meet Sarah too. Charles tries to talk to her and tells her that she can get help from Mrs Tranter. He reveals that he has no prejudices upon her. Even though he has told Mrs Tranter to help her, they are not aware of these meetings. But fortunately, she reveals that the French Lieutenant has abandoned her, got married to someone else. Charles finally realizes that he has an attraction towards Sarah.

What will Charles do? Will he abandon Ernestina or shut his heart and no longer listen 👂 what his heart wants? 🤔

From Sarah Woodruff to The French Lieutenant’s Woman

Charles and Sarah often meet in the Undercliff. Sarah believes that it is necessary to say what she feels to someone and let out her emotions. She decides to share her story with French Lieutenant to Charles.

Sarah Woodruff and Charles from The French Lieutenant’s Woman

Charles is now afraid of Sarah who is getting attached to him day-by-day. He wants it to stop as he knows he cannot control himself. He refuses to hear her story and tells her not to meet him often. But he agrees to hear her story someday.

Charles gets in touch with Doctor Grogan. They meet up in the evening, have a drink, and discuss the case of Sarah. Grogan reveals that she suffers from melancholia, which can be cured only after letting someone hear her story. Grogan and Charles share a common belief, they believe in the theories of Charles Darwin.

Sarah’s Story

Charles and Sarah meet. She reveals that she fell in love with Vagueness, a Frenchman. She admits that she also shared her bed with him even though she was sure he wouldn’t marry her. She reveals that she wanted to be an outcast. They return after narrating her story. On the way, they watch Sam and Mary kissing. Sarah returns from the Undercliff, she is seen by Mrs Fairley, the cruel housekeeper of Mrs Poultney.

Charles to Winsyatt

Charles is called to Winsyatt by his uncle Robert who is a bachelor. Charles believed that he was going to give him his inheritance. But uncle Robert forwards him the news that he is getting married. He reveals that Charles will no longer inherit the estate if he has a son in his marriage.

Sarah is Fired

Charles gets the news to Ernestina. She is outraged to hear this. Charles then comes to know that Sarah has been fired by Mrs Poultney for walking in the Undercliff. She has sent a letter to Charles asking him to meet her one last time.

Sam smells something cooking between Sarah and Charles. He is eager to know what is going on between them. He plans to start up a venture with Mary and wants to find money. He thinks that knowing this secret will let him threaten Charles and get his money.

Charles Confesses to Grogan

Charles confesses to Grogan about his meetings with Sarah. He also shows him the letter in which she has asked him to meet her. Grogan feels that he is manipulating Charles and has deliberately got fired from Mrs Poultney. Grogan says that Grogan can meet her instead of Charles and shift her to an asylum.

It was as if the woman had become addicted to melancholia as one becomes addicted to opium. Now do you see how it is? Her sadness becomes her happiness. She wants to be a sacrificial victim, Smithson. Where you and I flinch back, she leaps forward. She is possessed, you see…. Dark indeed. Very dark.

Dr Grogan | The French Lieutenant’s Woman
Dr Grogan from The French Lieutenant’s Woman

Charles defends Sarah and says that Grogan’s conclusion about Sarah is wrong. To prove his point, Grogan gives an account of a strange trial in which a man was convicted for an attempted rape, but the girl just made it up as he had committed many crimes. He explains other cases where the hurt themselves in the process.

Charles and Sarah Kiss 💋

Charles meets Sarah in the barn where she admits that she walks in the Undercliff noticed by Mrs Fairley as she wanted to get fired. She also confesses her love for Charles. They share a kiss. He runs out of the barn, sees Mary and Sam, makes them promise to keep it a secret. Sarah leaves to Exeter.

Will Sam and Mary keep it a secret? Will Sam make use of this incident to secure his life? Charles and Sarah do love each other, what will they do now? Will Charles choose Sarah or Ernestina? 🤔

Charles to London 🚉

Charles goes to London to inform Ernestina’s father that he will not inherit his uncle’s property. Mr Freeman agrees for the marriage and advises him to take over his business even though the aristocrats don’t indulge in business. Charles agrees with no chance to refuse.

Will Charles Meet Sarah Again?

After Charles meets Mr Freeman, he reunites with some of his Cambridge friends and indulge in some wild acts. He goes to a brothel and hires a prostitute who looks like Sarah. He asks her name when they’re about to have sex, his realisation that her name is Sarah makes him vomit. She gets him a cab to return. Meanwhile, he comforts her crying 😢 baby.

From Sarah 🖋

Sarah sends a note to Charles with the name of her hotel in Exeter. He receives it. Sam tells Charles of his dream to start a shop. Charles agrees to fund for it after his marriage with Ernestina.

Happily Ever After?

How can Charles be happily ever after with Ernestina when his mind wanders between Sarah and his fiance?

Charles and Sam return to Lyme Regis. Ernestina and Charles get married. Mrs Poultney dies and goes to hell. But the reveals that this novel does not end here. This is the ending that Charles desires, a life with no conflicts.

Will Charles control himself from meeting Sarah?

Charles and Sarah Meet

Charles and Sarah from The French Lieutenant’s Woman

Charles goes to Exeter and meets Sarah in her room upstairs as she has hurt her ankle. They have sex and Charles agrees to marry her but she refuses. He is then shocked to see the blood stain upon his shirt 😲. She was a virgin. She lied about Vagueness.

Then why was she called the French Lieutenant’s woman?

Charles to Marry Sarah

Charles decides to marry Sarah. He sends a letter to Sarah and asks Sam to deliver it. He inform Sarah of his decision to break his engagement with Sarah and asks her to keep a brooch enclosed in it if she accepts to marry him or send it back if she refuses. Sam doesn’t bring anything.

Charles goes to Lyme Regis and confesses to Ernestina that he was not in love with her and he agreed to marry her for some other reasons. He also confesses that he is in love with someone else. Ernestina pleads to stay with her but it was of no use.


Dr Grogan comes to know about the morally despicable actions of Charles and is upset with him. Sam comes to know about this incident and he quits to work for him. Charles goes back to Exeter but he cannot find Sarah. He comes to know that Sam had not delivered his letter to her. He is in the train 🚉 to London. The narrator is beside him and is in doubt what to do with his character. The narrator gives us two endings.

Happily Ever After

The narrator brings Charles to Europe where he wanders for a year finding no joy. Meanwhile he had to sign a confession of guilt from Mr Freeman and his lawyers. Charles is depressed 😞. Whereas Sam has emerged successful working with Mr Freeman and married Mary. Mary one day see Sarah going to a house in Chelsea.

Charles goes to the US 🇺🇸 and travels until his lawyer sends him a telegram informing him about finding Sarah. He returns to London and goes to Sarah’s house owned by Dante Gabriel Rosetti. Even though Charles invites her to be with him, she refuses saying that she feels she belongs here. Charles decides to leave in a rage of anger but stays when he learns of his child. There’s a hope of union.

Not Happily Ever After

“I meant that I am not to be understood even by myself. And I can’t tell you why, but I believe my happiness depends on my not understanding.”

Sarah Woodruff | The French Lieutenant’s Woman

The second possible ending by the narrator is the argument between Charles and Sarah in which he refuses to accept the ideas of Sarah. He leaves at once without seeing his baby. Charles comes to a conclusion that life is something to be endured and no meaning can be attributed to life.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman

The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a novel comprising 61 chapters. The greatest mystery lies in the character of Sarah Woodruff or the character who is addressed initially as the French Lieutenant’s woman. Nobody can directly conclude why she has lied to Charles about very important things and finally her refusal to marry him. Sarah can be called as the New Woman who refuses to chain herself in the constraints of marriage and commitments.

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Naeema Jaleel

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Writer at Inclined Scorpio


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