Charles Smithson is your fairly typical upper-middle-class Victorian gentleman - no particular need to hold down a day job, in line for an unspectacular but perfectly serviceable inheritance, dabbles with a bit of amateur naturalism and paleontology and has even flirted with a bit of the racy revolutionary (and indeed evolutionary) thinking of scientists like Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin.
A bit of amateur naturalism and paleontology are two of the things on Charles' mind during his stay in Lyme Regis; the other principal one is spending some time with his fiancée Ernestina, the daughter of a wealthy tradesman, and a perfectly delightful creature, though, in more modern parlance, not the sharpest knife in the drawer.
One windy day Charles and Ernestina are out walking on the Cobb, Lyme Regis' iconic harbour wall, when they spot a black-clad hooded figure at the far end, staring motionlessly out to sea. Ernestina, better-schooled in local lore than Charles, explains that this is a minor local celebrity known as The French Lieutenant's Woman, as well as by certain other less polite descriptions. Charles is intrigued, but thinks little more about it until, out walking in the Undercliff, happens unexpectedly upon the same woman, sleeping, and wakes her. Intrigued by the stories he has heard about her in town, he engages her in conversation when they have a similar chance meeting a few days later, whereupon he learns that her name is Sarah Woodruff and she works as a governess. He also learns something of her notorious liaison with the French lieutenant, although a lot of it raises more questions than it answers: since she seems completely sure that the encounter meant nothing to him and that he has gone forever, why does she moon around gazing out to sea as if watching for him?
Well, you can see what's going to happen here; Charles has fallen in love with Sarah, her enigmatic and independent nature and apparent revelling in her own notoriety providing a spicy alternative to the pretty but bland prospect of marrying Ernestina. Charles tries to escape the inevitable by using some of his contacts to get Sarah a job in Exeter, but then she sends him her address, he goes to visit her, and they have a brief and frenzied sexual encounter. Well, that's torn it. Quite literally, actually, as it turns out Sarah was a virgin, and therefore at least one part of her mystery Frenchman story was fabricated. But why would she do that?
Thoroughly obsessed now, Charles breaks off his engagement to Ernestina, thus ensuring himself a good dose of public disgrace and the making of some powerful enemies, and returns to Exeter to declare his love for Sarah. Only it turns out that Sam, his faithful manservant, wasn't so faithful after all and has failed to deliver the letter telling her to await his return. Pursuing her to London, he engages various private detective agencies to locate her, but to no avail. By now thoroughly pissed off with the whole affair, he jaunts off around the world for a couple of years, eventually ending up in America, where eventually he is contacted by his lawyer and learns that Sarah has been found. Hot-footing it back across the Atlantic, he finds her working in some slightly ill-defined capacity in the house of artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Can he persuade her that they can still make a life together?
Well, before you try to answer that question, let me just stop you and say: it's nowhere near as simple as that. While all this narrative has been going on, it's only been going on on the most pathetic level of reality. Even while the standard Victorian melodrama has been playing out, there's been plenty of authorial intervention to add late-20th-century historical context to what's been going on, and at various points the rug is pulled from under the reader completely: upon Charles' arrival in Exeter the author (Fowles, obviously, or some fictionalised version of himself) offers us a glimpse of a conclusion to the novel where Charles returns to Lyme Regis, marries Ernestina, they fire out a volley of puppies and all proceeds according to the original script. Then he crumples that ending up, throws it away, has Charles visit Sarah and give her a brief but pivotal scuttling, and alea iacta est.
That's not all, though: as Charles is travelling to London on the train, Fowles inserts himself physically into the narrative as the bearded stranger who shares his carriage, and looks at him while he sleeps to try to work out what to do with him next. Then, at the novel's conclusion, Fowles offers two possible endings to the novel, one where Sarah and Charles reconcile (and it's revealed to him that their brief liaison produced a child) and one where they don't (and he never knows). Which one is the "real" one? Well, none of this is real, the same as any novel. As with Invisible and a few other novels in this list, how frustrated you feel by this will depend on how much you're prepared to be made to think about what you're reading. It's all stuff that's been made up by some guy, it's just that traditionally he doesn't keep poking you in the shoulder to remind you.
Personally I'm quite partial to a bit of the old metafiction; the key to something like this is that the central story has to be engaging enough that it would work as a "standard" novel in its own right even if the author didn't keep hitting the pause button to walk you round the back of the set and show you the scaffolding holding the plot in place. And it does, although Sarah Woodruff's motivations for doing pretty much any of the stuff she does during the novel are as opaque at the end as they are at the start. Clearly she's meant to be some sort of proto-feminist heroine who doesn't need a man to define her, still less "rescue" her from anything, but she seems so quixotic that it's hard to know.
Here's John Crace's Digested Reads version from the Guardian. My even more digested version is: did I enjoy it? Yes, very much. I think Fowles is a novelist who, a bit like Lawrence Durrell, has waned a bit in critical regard in recent years, and I should point out this is the only thing of his I've ever read, but I thought it was excellent, very easy to read, and the metafictional dicking about was at levels that were acceptable to me, and telegraphed early enough that the rug-pull at the end wasn't that much of a surprise.
The French Lieutenant's Woman is as famous these days for its 1981 film adaptation starring Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep, in, respectively, some extraordinary sideburns and a terrifying wig. I saw it a very long time ago, but it's only on reading the source novel that I appreciate the brilliance of the device that Harold Pinter came up with to convey the famous split ending: have an extra narrative involving the actors playing the characters in the film and give them and the "real" characters one ending each.
It's also another entry on the list of novels featured in the TIME magazine list of best 20th-century novels.