Her name is Sarah Woodruff. Sympathisers identify her as “poor Tragedy” and scandal mongers have labelled her “the French Lieutenant’s whore”. In the small fishing village of Lyme Regis in South England, the penurious Sarah often walks alone on a windy promontory. When she is not dangerously close to the swirling waters of the Cobb, she is found wandering beneath the dense green boughs of the Undercliff. A striking young woman with “uncanny” intelligence and perspicacity, she reads “far more fiction and far more poetry, those two sanctuaries of the lonely, than most of her kind”.

It is believed that after a lover’s betrayal she suffers from a medical condition – “obscure melancholia.”

Charles Smithson, a young paleontologist, is drawn to the mysterious Sarah. “I feel like a man possessed against his will – against all that is better in his character,” he confesses. As he grows more and more obsessed with her, he becomes “increasingly unsure of the frontier between the real Sarah and the Sarah he had created in so many such dreams: the one Eve personified, all mystery and love and profundity, and the other a half scheming, half crazed governess from an obscure seaside town”. In pursuit of Sarah, Charles gambles away his sanity, his fiancée and his reputation as a “gentleman”.

There are two endings to John Fowles’s bestselling novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1968), one more predictable than the other and neither without complexity. But Fowles has much to offer besides protagonists struggling in the wet iron grip of Lyme Bay. His spoof-like depiction of Victorian England captures all the cant and pompous Puritanism that go with silk cravats and satin bustles.

John Fowles. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
John Fowles. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Persuaded by the vicar and believing herself a genuine benefactor, dowager Mrs Poulteney prepares to offer Sarah the conditional position of companion. On the day of Sarah’s interview, Fowles tells us, “the ferns looked greenly forgiving: but Mrs. Poulteney was whitely the contrary.” Never an omniscient or ubiquitous narrator, Fowles often chats intimately with his reader, sharing his surprise at what his own characters think, feel or even do. Allusions to Darwin, Freud and Dickens – reformers of a world to come – are not without significance as they ultimately establish Sarah and Charles to be individuals ahead of their time.

Detailed descriptions bring whiffs of “air as sharp as lemon juice” and cheese like “squadrons of reserve moons” within biting distance. Such niceties, meandering as they may be, are served with Fowles’s brand of “tonic wit”. This provides the delectable edge to an otherwise familiar story of the mad and the maddened.

Director Karel Reisz’s adaptation of The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) is based on Harold Pinter’s screenplay, which Fowles termed as “not a ‘version’ of my novel; but (as) the blueprint…of a brilliant metaphor for it.” Reisz mentions a “particular sort of Pirandello-ish device: when you have any sequence which leads into the next, you have all the residue of feelings that remain and you bring these with you into the new sequence. In our film, the feelings from the Victorian story carry over into the modern, the modern into the Victorian.”

Play
The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981).

In other words, while engaging with the story of Sarah and Charles, the audience is inveigled to believe that a similar adulterous affair exists between the actors who play them. This contention, though attractive, ends up being lightweight.

Nominations and awards notwithstanding, lead actress Meryl Streep has said that she was not happy with the film: “…the structure of it was sort of artificial because I was the actress playing the French Lieutenant’s Woman. At the same time I was an American actress playing a British woman.” Even so, Streep is impressive.

A familiar scene for modern Streep characters is one of speaking on the telephone with a clandestine lover while a husband or boyfriend lurks in earshot. There are those intakes of breath, those half smiles of discomfort and guilt and the micro-second glazed look before she makes up her mind how to cope with an inevitable confrontation. The last telephone scene between Molly and Frank (Robert De Niro) in Ulu Grosberg’s Falling In Love (1984) is a throwback to Streep as Anna speaking to Mike (Jeremy Irons) in The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

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The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981).

Mike invites Anna and her boyfriend David to a lunch party with other members of the cast. In his expansive country house, Anna comes face to face with Mike’s wife Sonia (played by the reliable Penelope Wilton). They share a nuanced moment of knowing and smiling awkwardness. In their restraint they are equally matched, but obviously Streep gets the bigger close-ups.

In the period scenes of Reisz’s film, Streep is outstanding. She has the support of Patience Collier, who perfectly plays the formidable harridan Mrs Poulteney. Dr Grogan, who diagnoses Charles’s malady as well as Sarah’s, is memorably played by Leo Mckern, and Charles’s fiancée, the spoilt Ernestina, is a snug-as-a-glove fit for the dainty but not fragile Lynsey Baxter.

The costumes are immaculate as is the skillful make up. Streep makes a chic Anna and a wan pre-Raphaelite like Sarah. Irons as Mike is wavy haired and casual with none of the woolly sideburns and stiffness that make him Charles. Sets and natural locations merge naturally. The interiors are intricate and the exteriors well appointed. When we follow Sarah through a glen, we are in Constable country, serene and secretive. Reisz’s film is elegant and bewitching as long as it stays in 1860.

The gold standard for the depiction of a film within a film is Francois Truffaut’s unvarnished Day for Night (1973). Had she been part of it, Streep might have felt differently.

Play
The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981).