John Fowles introduces the novel by giving an detailed description of the ‘Cobb’ in Lyme Regis. He introduces Sarah at this point, describing her as ‘a living memorial to the drowned’ ‘a figure from myth’. In this setting, we begin to form our own opinion of her character; solitary by choice and independent yet melancholy at the same time.
We begin to associate Sarah with places of the outdoors, for instance, on ‘Ware Common’ which becomes a regular meeting place for Charles and herself, and of course, as I have mentioned, on the ‘Cobb’, on which she waits for her lover, ‘The French Lieutenant’ to return. We instantly associate these ‘wild’ places with her character, the darkness on the ‘Cobb’ somehow, in my opinion, reflects the darkness in her soul, and the erratic behaviour of the sea and the biting wind signifying the sharpness and dominance in her personality. When we read about Sarah in Mrs Poulteney’s house, she always seems restrained and repressed in the indoors of the house, whether it is in the sadness of reading the bible… ‘Her’s was a very beautiful voice, controlled and clear, though always shaded with sorrow and often intense in feeling…’ (Chapter 9, Page 61) …or in the way she seeks comfort and companionship from another, equally as lonely, maid called Millie…
‘They knew it was that warm, silent, co-presence in the darkness that mattered’ (Chapter 19, Page 156) ‘Ware Commons’ is another place which reminds us of her longing for solitude, as she tells Mrs Poulteney… ‘That is why I go there…to be alone’ (Chapter 12, Page 94) ‘…I wish for solitude…’ (Chapter 12, Page 95) So again, we are reminded that ‘Ware Commons’ is where Sarah seeks seclusion and we again wonder why she is such a solitary person and why she constantly seems so sad… ‘Later that night Sarah might have been seen…standing at the open window of her unlit bedroom…if you had gone closer still, you would have seen that her face was wet with tears…’ (Chapter 12, Page 95/96) The hotel where Sarah stays in Exeter, ‘Endicott Family Hotel’ is quite detailed in the description, rather like a movie camera tracking the scene for the viewer. John Fowles tells us that the hotel was not cheap, and her ‘room’ was in fact two rooms, therefore we can be certain that Sarah is relatively comfortable, in fact, she is on a sort of holiday, the first in her lifetime.
‘ten shillings…a week…must not think that her hotel was cheap…the normal rent for a cottage was a shilling a week…’ (Chapter 36, Page 266) The objects she buys are in a way symbolic for the things she stands for. The teapot with the ‘pretty coloured transfer of a cottage by a stream and a pair of lovers’ I think stand for her feminity. The text says she looks closely at the lovers, this shows that she is not a typical woman of Victorian England, in fact she is very emotionally and sexually aware of herself. The Toby jug stands for her sense of humour and beauty, John Fowles says that she ‘fell for the smile’. Her nightgown seems to me a practical purpose, as Fowles does not spend any time on this purchase, but simply moves onto the dark – green shawl. The book says that is was more expensive than all her purchases put together, and so I think this rather unusual acquisition is a very good example of her natural feminity, as the text suggests…
‘…she pensively raised and touched it’s soft fine material against her cheek…and then in the first truly feminine gesture I have permitted her (note the deliberate determination to remind us of his control and to stress that we are merely reading fiction) moved a tress of her brown – auburn hair forward to lie on the green cloth…’ (Chapter 36, Page 269) Her most unusual buy is a roll of bandage, which, for the purpose in which it is to be used (she wraps it around her ankle to make Charles think that she has been injured) stands for her manipulative nature. There is no doubt that however we see Sarah as a woman standing for freedom and equality, she can at times be dishonest, scheming and deceitful. Charles we also associate with many of the places we associate with Sarah, but for some different reasons. We first see Charles (and Ernestina) on the ‘Cobb’, together with Sarah. We somehow get the impression, without being told, that Charles is an outdoor person, but is encouraged by those at the same social level as himself, that he should spend more time being sociable, and not forever hunting for fossils.
‘Ware Commons’ is the main place where Charles goes to hunt for fossils for tests. He does this, in partly, to escape the boredom of aristocratic life, but also, like Sarah, to be alone, away from having to socialise with Ernestina, and her ‘set’. The way that it is described, at the beginning of Chapter 10, is lyrical and well illustrated. Before the encounter of Charles and Sarah, there is much praise of the Renaissance in art, the scene on the Undercliff being Renaissance in texture and tone. This way of describing the image is a little hint of what is to come at the end of the book, with Sarah living in the infamous Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s (the painter) house, a place rumoured to be full of indecency and ‘wicked’ happenings.
Similarly, ‘Ware Commons’ is associated (by the occupants of Lyme) with the more undesirable members of the community, and for ‘immoral’ happenings, and I think this reminds us that when Charles and Sarah meet there, it is complete defiance of their world of which they live, and the respectability of Charles’s supposed character does not make a difference to his actions. Sarah is the first person who has come into Charles’ life and shown genuine interest in his desires and dreams. As ‘Ware Commons’ are renowned for the whereabouts of the outcasts of society, so we are reminded that Charles and Sarah are two such ‘outcasts’, Sarah for her liaisons with men above her station, and for being educated beyond her social standing, and Charles for his longing of independence, finding peace and escape from the restricting way of life in the arms of a kindred spirit: Sarah Woodruff. Charles is also associated with Winsyatt House, which technically belongs to his Uncle, but is to be left to Charles. This house, I think, represents Charles’ longing for independence, and a lifefreefrommonetary obligations.
However, it also represents the ‘proper’ way of life which Charles is expected to take after marrying Ernestina. There is a point in the novel when Charles visits this house, soon after in fact meeting Sarah on the ‘Undercliff’, a part of ‘Ware Commons’. He seems to forget Sarah, and their clandestine meeting, instead being overtaken with the sense of duty and responsibility that comes with his social position… ‘Charles felt himself truly entering upon his inheritance.
It seemed to explain all his previous idling through life…he had been waiting through this moment…his call to the throne…the absurd moment in the Undercliff was forgotten. Immense duties, the preservation of this peace and order, lay ahead…duty – that was his real wife, his Ernestina…’ (Chapter 23, Page 192) Winsyatt House can also be reminiscent of Ernestina, but in a more materialistic way. She longs to design the house, add furnishings and draperies, and tend to the gardens, whilst Charles wants the house because he longs for independence. ‘She did not relish the prospect of eventually living at Winsyatt, thought it allowed her to dream…her vast marriage portion should be spent exactly as she insisted – in a comprehensive replacement of all those absurd scrolly wooden chairs…she had been given no talent except that of conventional good taste…that is, milliners’ and furniture shops. That was her province; and since it was her only real one, she did not like it encroached upon.’ (Chapter 22, Page 185/186) The contrast between the City and the Country is all too apparent in this novel.
John Fowles shows the city (London) in all its busy selfishness of Victorian property, such as in the way he describes Freeman’s emporium: ‘…the yellow tiered giant…with it’s crowded arrays of cottons, laces…seemed to stain the air around them…so intense…’ (Chapter 38, Page 284) The way he describes Lyme Regis is quite different however. From the first page he describes it with poetic language and this instantly gives it atmosphere. The characters that we associate it with are very much ‘at home’ in this setting, their accents and way of life typical of country folk. Mary, for example, is described by Fowles as being the prettiest of the three main female characters in the book.
She is in a relationship with Charles’ manservant, Sam, however, when she moves to London, we are not sure she will struggle to retain the rosy-cheeked happiness of her personality in the city: ‘This idle and subtly proud young woman…finds…banal elements of the London scene facinating and strange’ (Chapter 57, Page 400-401) Her character is not suited to the city, we see her at her ‘best’ when she is ‘free’ in the country with Sam. Mrs Poulteney can only be associated with Marlborough House. Here, in the basement kitchen the three fires are never allowed to burn out, surrounded by green walls. This, to me, reminds me of a hell, which John Fowles describes the household that she runs as, and to which he sends the ominous Mrs Poulteney to in an amusing fantasy… ‘”Make way. I am she.
Mrs Poulteney of Lyme Regis,” “Formerly of Lyme Regis, ma’am. And now of a much more tropical abode,” …and then she fell…like a shot crow, to where her real master waited.’ (Chapter 44, Page 326) The railway is quite an important setting in the book, not for the plot, but for the way John Fowles uses it to tell us about his method of storymaking. When Charles is on his way to Lyme from Exeter, we see how Fowles tells us about his choices of the plot, and even goes as far as to tell us about his own character. I think this guiding of the book is rather like the journey on the train, a train takes you somewhere, here John Fowles is telling us about his own choices in getting to the end of the book. The home of the prostitute Sarah is actually very fitting to the girl’s personality. Even though she is poor, her heart is of a good nature, which she shows when Charles is sick and in the way she looks after him.
Likewise, her home is shabby and fairly plain, but spotlessly clean, with a brass bed, said to shine so much it looked like gold…like her heart… ” Everything in the room except the bed was shabby, but spotlessly clean. The bed was of iron and brass, the latter so well polished it seemed like gold…” (Chapter 40, Page 299/300) The colony of Artists at the end of the book is a perfect description of the Pre-Raphelite movement that we can associate with Sarah. John Fowles describes this house with not a lot of detail (most is given over to the dialogue between Charles and Sarah) but the little that there is implies that it is certainly no ordinary house.
The tall building is made of brick, with many climbing flowers around it, which was entirely the opposite of conventional Victorians gardens. When we see Sarah again, she has changed so much that Charles hardly recognises her, as she has found a place where there is no fear of rejection in society. This all shows that the use of landscapes and places in ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ is very helpful in creating and identifying character. Sarah is a wild character, and this wildness is shown through the places in which she chooses to haunt.
Charles is a similar, but more sutble character, we identify him with situations and settings, rather than landscapes.