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Free Study Guide-The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles-BookNotes
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LITERARY/ HISTORICAL INFORMATION

In this novel, Fowles is interested in the genre of the nineteenth- century romantic or gothic novel and successfully recreates typical characters, situations and even dialogue. Yet his perspective is that of the twentieth century as can be noted in the authorial intrusions and opening quotations drawn from the works of Victorian writers whose observations were uniquely different from the assumptions that most Victorians held about their world. In this way, he attempts to critique those values that Victorians most heralded.

Until today, the Victorian Age was seen to be a Golden Age where Reason and Rationality were proclaimed as dogma and faith. People were beginning to question the claims that religion made about the existence of God and the beginning of man. Anything that could not be proven through experimentation and science was immediately treated with suspicion. With Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859) the biblical myth of Adam and Eve and the origins of man were shattered. Darwin’s work created quite an uproar as it succeeded it in shattering the Victorian people’s unquestioning religious faith.

The Victorian society imposed a great deal of repressive conventions and norms on its people, especially women and the working class. Victorian women were socially conditioned to believe that their rightful place was at home with their husbands and children. A Victorian woman was expected to accept the patriarchal norm unhesitatingly. Her duty was to her husband and children. Only if she toed this social line would she be deemed a proper young Victorian lady. The institution of marriage was often a contract agreement. Money often married into a titled family as in Charles and Ernestina’s case, thereby reinforcing the dominant society’s power. Money and nobility were often the main criteria for a Victorian marriage.

The practice of prostitution was a topic that Victorian archivists rarely touched upon. Most historians up until recently thought that the Victorian age was known for its virtuous and pure qualities yet Fowles’ novel reveals that even during the Age of Propriety prostitution flourished and consequently women were often victims of sexual abuse or social rejects. By giving prostitutes a mention in his novel, Fowles is attempting to be realistic about their situation. He is obviously concerned about the role of women in Victorian England and society’s treatment of them. As is apparent women of all classes right from the aristocracy to the prostitutes were exploited by society which was largely patriarchal and this practice continues even today.


The aristocrats were a dominant class once upon a time in England yet it is during Queen Victoria’s time that the class hierarchy began to dismantle. The nobility were no longer all powerful. The rising middle-class was a new class coming into existence and successful businessmen in the trade and commerce industry were now socially prominent leaders of society. London was the place where all urban activity took place partly due to its reputation as an industrial capital. The working classes in industrial London consisted of the lower classes that had migrated from the countryside to better their prospects. The middle class had the largest population. Class structure was based more on money than breeding in the changing Victorian social scene. Successful members of the trade and commerce industry now held the upper rungs of the social ladder although there was still some resistance in terms of acceptance into certain social circles.

A Victorian gentleman was expected to have a sense of duty and propriety. He was expected to stick to his commitments, be they legal or marital. They were expected to keep up the facade of a proper gentleman. But Fowles informs the reader that very often the norm was flouted to the advantage of men. In a telling chapter, Fowles comments on upper class men patronizing the prostitution dens. There were one set of social rules for men and one for women. Rules of propriety were started by the middle classes in order to keep their members from straying from the ‘proper’ pathway. The upper classes and the lower classes had no hang-ups about pre-marital sex yet the middle classes treated this as a taboo subject.

Fowles is interested in society’s effects on its members and the concerns that arise from it. Much of the novel is geared towards analyzing particular roles that various members of society had to play due to societal pressure to conform to a particular behavior. His characters often act and react to how they are supposed to be behaving rather than to any individual agency. Fowles is also interested in twentieth century novel conventions and the Victorian romantic novel conditions and their treatment of realism. The Victorians were trying to write in a realistic manner whereas their modern counterparts were attempting to clearly define the meaning of realism through their writings.

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