History: Published in 1969, the book was inspired by the 1823 novel Ourika by Claire de Duras, which Fowles translated to English in 1977 (and revised in 1994). Fowles was a great fan of Thomas Hardy and in particular likened his heroine to Tess Durbeyfield in Hardy's popular novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles.
Plot: The novel's central character is Sarah Woodruff. She lives in the town of Lyme Regis as a disgraced woman, supposedly ill-used by a French naval officer, by the name of Varguennes, who returned to France and turned out to be married to another woman. Throughout the story Sarah is portrayed with ambiguity. Sarah spends her limited time off from her domestic work on the Cobb [sea wall] at Lyme Regis, staring at the sea. One day, she is seen there by the gentleman Charles Smithson and his fiancée, Ernestina Freeman, the shallow daughter of a wealthy tradesman. Ernestina tells Charles something of Sarah's story, and he develops a strong curiosity about her. They end up having several clandestine meetings during which Sarah tells Charles her history and asks for his support, mostly emotional. Although Charles tries to remain distant, he ends up sending Sarah to Exeter, where he cannot resist stopping to see her during a journey. At the same time, Charles learns his projected inheritance from an older uncle is in jeopardy, as the uncle is now engaged to a woman young enough to bear him an heir.
From there, Fowles offers three different endings: In one, Charles marries Ernestina. Their marriage is not a happy one, and Sarah's fate is unknown. Charles and Sarah have an affair, and produce a child, but Sarah runs away. And the third ending is taken from the second when they meet again in London.
Review: I like the references and the choice of endings. Along the way, Fowles discourses on the difficulties of controlling the characters one has created, and offers analyses on Victorian customs and class differences, the theories of Charles Darwin, and the poetry of Matthew Arnold and Lord Tennyson. He also calls upon the literature of Thomas Hardy to raise questions about Victorian conventions, attitudes and society. He questions the role of the author, such as the time he speaks of how Charles "disobeys" his orders, implying that the characters have a life of their own within the novel. The idea of Existentialism is mentioned at several points in the novel, and in particular detail at the end, after the portrayal of the two, apparently equally possible endings.
Opening Line: “An easterly is the most disagreeable wind in Lyme Bay – Lyme Bay being that largest bite from England’s outstretched Southwestern leg – and a person of curiosity could have at once deduced several strong probabilities about the pair who began to walk down the quay at Lyme Regis, that small but ancient eponym of in bite, one incisively sharp and blustery morning in the late of March 1867.”
Closing Line: “And out again, upon the unplumb’d, salt estranging sea.”
Quotes: “Though one may keep the wolves from one's door, they still howl out there in the darkness.”
“If an artist is not his own sternest judge, he is not fit to be an artist.”
Rating: Difficult and Tedious.