The basic story is fairly common: A man meets Mrs. Right, only later to discover Mrs. Even-Righter, and is forced to choose between the promises he has already made and those he yearns to make. The man here is Charles Smithson, a man of leisure and an amateur paleontologist in Victorian England, engaged to a young girl named Ernestina. But when Charles visits Ernestina's home of Lyme, on the British coast, he unexpectedly falls in love with Sarah Woodruff, a disgraced loner who sacrificed her virginity to a French naval officer who shipwrecked nearby. Charles is thoroughly a product of his times--intrigued by Marx, obsessed with Darwin, sexually prudish--but Sarah's misdeed is a revolt against Victorian mores and a claim to an ethical identity not limited to social constraints, and that too is her appeal for Charles.
The French Lieutenant's Woman is an exercise in sustained anachronism. It operates in simultaneous modes, one Victorian, and one modern, in which the narrator frequently provides asides noting how different Victorians were, or remarking that, if Sarah were alive 100 years later, we might say that her brain was like a computer. In these moments we are appropriately jarred, and begin to see the stage hands. If that weren't enough, the narrator happily reminds us that the whole thing is an invention:
It is only when our characters and events begin to disobey us that they begin to live. When Charles left Sarah on her cliff edge, I ordered him to walk straight back to Lyme Regis. But he did not; he gratuitously turned and went down to the Dairy.
And yet the narrator also tries to maintain the pretense that these are historical figures, and he has learned about them through various documents and records. Naturally, we begin to see him as a construct, too. A superficiality results, a semipermeable sheen that makes it difficult to buy into Fowles' attempts to make us feel strongly for these characters. How can we, when they are so overtly literary?:
She reached up and touched a branch of the hawthorn. He could not be sure, but she seemed deliberately to press her forefinger down; a second later she was staring at a crimson drop of blood. She looked at it a moment, then took a handkerchief from her pocket and surreptitiously dabbed the blood away.
As a symbolic gesture, it serves a couple purposes: One, it reifies Sarah's pursuit of self-injury and her accompanying flippancy. Two--and this one is perhaps more subtle, or delayed in its full significance--it is the image of penetration and the loss of virginity. As a signifier of character, it fails utterly; clearly the narrator-writer here is too much in control and not the other way around. This "Charles walks where he wants" business isn't fooling anybody. For god's sake, the thing has two separate choose-your-own-adventure style endings!
For the most part, The French Lieutenant's Wife seems inert for these reasons. Despite the copious research Fowles has put in and his dogged efforts to examine the more paradoxical elements of Victorian living, his image of the Victorian psyche is self-consciously false. It lays little claim to speak for history, and less for modernity; it's like a maze that circles upon itself, and not a complex one at that.