French Lieutenants Woman

French Lieutenants Woman

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French Lieutenants Woman


"French Lieutenants Woman" is a work of historical fiction that clearly represents the Victorian Age in England. The story represents the history and culture of England in the 1860's and contrasts elements of the Victorian Age with the present, with the inner plot representing the past and the outer plot representing the present. The 1981 movie "French Lieutenants Woman" was based on the 1969 novel by John Fowles. The parts of its main characters were played by Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons. Meryl Streep plays Anna in the outer plot who plays Sara Woodruff in the inner plot. Jeremy Irons plays Mike, who plays Charles in the inner plot.


The romantic story begins in the 1860's with Charles working in the field as a paleontologist. Upon his return to his office, he drops his work and calls, "Grab the horses Sam, were going to Miss Ernetines!" Charles goes to Ernestines and asks her parents if she may speak with her privately. Ernestine is the daughter of Mr. Freeman, a wealthy businessman. She is a bright young girl however naïve about the world. In a private atrium Charles asks Ernestine "if she would have this crusty old scientist for her husband." Ernestine accepts and the engagement begins. One day while Charles and Ernestine are walking on the beach, it is storming. Charles sees a woman on the outcliff overlooking the sea. The waves are swelling and he fears for her safety. He approaches the woman and begs her to retreat to safety. Their eyes meet briefly, a flame is kindled. She is Sara Woodruff, the French Lieutenants Woman. Charles hears about her reputation from the local gossip, but refuses to believe anything bad about her. He asks his friend Dr. Grogan about her. Dr.Grogan ponders some of Freud's theories about psychology and tells Charles that he believes her to have a mental disease known as melancholy. Charles meets with Sara in the woods from time to time and Sara tells Charles he must never speak of their meetings. Sara returns to her boarding house. She lives with a prudish Victorian woman, Ms. Poultney, who scolds her for such unseemly behavior. Charles and Sara continue to meet and Sara confides in Charles about how she got her reputation. Apparently she gave herself to a man she was not wed to and he left her and went to France.

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For years she awaited his return, walking the outcliff overlooking the sea. She feared that he would not return for she discovered he was married. Charles encouraged her to get away from Lyme and move to London. She feared that if she moved to London she should become what many already call her in Lyme, a whore. Charles goes to London, sends Sara money to meet him there. They meet, they make love and Charles leaves to Lyme to break off his engagement to Ernestine. Upon breaking the engagement, Charles has to sign a legal document declining the right to be considered a gentleman. The document becomes the property of Ernestine, and she is free to publish it if she desires. Sara, presumptuously out of fear that the past will repeat itself, runs off and starts a new life under the identity of Mrs. Roughwood. When Charles returns, Sara is gone. A few years later Sara sends for Charles and they meet again. After many questions Charles forgives Sara and I assume they lived happily-ever-after.


The outer plot somewhat mirrors the inner plot, however the cultural context is different and Mike and Anna do not end up happily ever after in the end. Mike is a married actor, and Anna, an actress who I believe to be single. They rehearse their plots in "French Lieutenants Woman" together and in this rehearsal they become intimately involved. In the present time they are not as discreet about being together as Sara and Charles had to be, as a matter of fact they laugh about the idea that they may get caught together. As part of their rehearsal they research the social ailments of the time. Anna reads somewhere that there were over 50,000 prostitutes in the streets of London in the 1860's, a harsh reality for Victorian women who had fallen from grace. Mike's response to this is far from gentlemanly; he does the math and determines how many times a week your Victorian gentleman could get laid. Unlike Charles in the 1860's, Mike in the 1960's has no desire to be a gentleman. The next scene in the outer plot also shows Mike's disregard for gentlemanly behavior. Mike's wife hosts a party at their house and invites the cast of "French Lieutenants Woman." Mike sneaks off in another room to be with Anna behind his wife's back. I assume that either Anna had no knowledge that Mike was married or she's had enough of the rendezvous as the movie concludes when Anna walks out of Mike's house.


Although "French Lieutenants Woman" is a fictional story, it is convincing in it's historical correctness, not necessarily to the decade but atleast to Victorian times. In the inner plot we find many elements of the Victorian era, such as the way the gentleman Charles asks permission of Ernestine's parents to speak to her privately. Charles' occupation as a paleontologist who studied fossils and Darwin's theory of evolution also dates back to 1860's, however the comments made by Ernestine's family about the subject of Darwin's theory that man came form apes is ahead of it's time by a few years. "Darwin was not eager to offend people, nor did he enjoy controversy. Thus in 'The Origin of Species' (1859) he tactfully avoided any discussion of human origins... In the 'Descent of Man' (1871) he made his opinion clear: man is animal." (Longman, p.1945) Dr. Grogan's ivestigation of Freud's theories of psychology were also key to the stories historical context. It places the story in the Victorian era, however since Sigmond Freud was not born until 1856, I doubt he developed the theories mentioned by Dr. Grogan in the 1860's, the decade the story takes place. Mrs. Poultney is the stereotypic Victorian woman and her references to what is godly and seemly are clearly Victorian as well. "The terms 'lady' and 'gentleman' had enormous significance, particularly to those aspiring to those ranks and to those in danger of slipping out of them." ("Victorian Ladies and Gentleman," Longman, p.1886)


The outer plot, involving Mike and Anna is critical not only to contrast the present time with the 1860's but also to substantiate that some of the Victorian elements were researched and that the story was historically correct. We discovered through the second plot that the values of the present-day men and women were distinctly changed from those of Victorian ladies and gentlemen. Anna's reading about the social conditions and the prostitutes in London leads us to believe that what is portrayed in the inner plot is historically correct. The most amazing thing however, is that as well as presenting us with two time frames to contrast, this technique in itself confirms the historical correctness and the research that went into the story as the plot within a plot structure was a popular writing concept in the Victorian literature.


Overall, "French Lieutenants Woman" convinces me that it adequately represents Victorian times. Although the references made regarding Darwin and Freud were ahead of their time, they are still representative of the Victorian age, historically. Anna's research of prostitution in 1860's London helped confirm the historical accuracy as well. The references made to the cultural significance of being a lady or a gentleman are key cultural elements indicative of the time and the plot within a plot structure is a key literary element that correlates with the Victorian era.
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