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French Lieutenant's Woman, The

nouveau roman

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Samuel Foote Biography to Furioso

a novel by John Fowles, published in 1969. The narrative centres on a Victorian romance between Sarah Woodruff, a governess isolated by the local community for her reported former liaison with a French naval officer, and Charles Smithson, an aristocratic Victorian palaeontologist who is engaged to Ernestina Freeman, the daughter of a wealthy businessman. Sarah is dismissed from her post in Lyme Regis and moves to Exeter where the affair is eventually consummated. She becomes elusive; by the time Charles finds her, years later, she is a New Woman and assistant to Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The novel, with its three alternative endings, heralded a new era of self-conscious writing in contemporary British fiction, hitherto held to be limited and parochial in scope. It is enriched by the formal innovations Fowles had borrowed, and reinvented, from the metafictional conventions of post-war European literature—the self-reflexive tones of the nouveau roman and its leading figure Robbe-Grillet—and the familiar outmoded traditions of Hardy and eighteenth-century English fiction. The lavish romanticism centred on the anima-like figure of Sarah, its misunderstood anti-heroine, and her destructive passion for the conventional Charles, lend the novel lasting popular appeal, increased by Fowles's characteristic narrative energy and the period flavour captured in his skilful use of historical pastiche. Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay for the 1981 film version by Karel Reisz.

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