„THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN” BY JOHN FOWLES
In that year (1851) there were some 8,155,000 females of the age of ten upwards in the British population, as compared with 7,600,000 males. Already it will be clear that if the accepted destiny of the Victorian girl was to become a wife and mother, it was unlikely that there would be enough men to go round.
—E. ROYSTON PIKE, Human Documents
of the Victorian Golden Age
I’ll spread sail of silver and I’ll steer towards the sun, I’ll spread sail of silver and I’ll steer towards the sun, And my false love will weep, and ray false love will weep, And my false love will weep for me after I’m gone.
—WEST-COUNTRY FOLKSONG: “As Sylvie Was Walking”
“My dear Tina, we have paid our homage to Neptune. He will forgive us if we now turn our backs on him.”
“You are not very galant.”
“What does that signify, pray?”
“I should have thought you might have wished to prolong an opportunity to hold my arm without impropriety.”
“How delicate we’ve become.”
“We are not in London now.”
“At the North Pole, if I’m not mistaken.”
“I wish to walk to the end.”
And so the man, with a dry look of despair, as if it might be his last, towards land, turned again, and the couple continued down the Cobb.
“And I wish to hear what passed between you and Papa last Thursday.”
“Your aunt has already extracted every detail of that pleasant evening from me.”
The girl stopped, and looked him in the eyes.
“Charles! Now Charles, you may be as dry a stick as you like with everyone else. But you must not be stick-y with me.”
“Then how, dear girl, are we ever to be glued together in holy matrimony?”
“And you will keep your low humor for your club.” She primly made him walk on. “I have had a letter.”
“Ah. I feared you might. From Mama?”
“I know that something happened … over the port.”
They walked on a few paces before he answered; for a moment Charles seemed inclined to be serious, but then changed his mind.
“I confess your worthy father and I had a small philosoph¬ical disagreement.”
“That is very wicked of you.”
“I meant it to be very honest of me.”
“And what was the subject of your conversation?”
“Your father ventured the opinion that Mr. Darwin should be exhibited in a cage in the zoological gardens. In the monkey house. I tried to explain some of the scientific arguments behind the Darwinian position. I was unsuccessful. Et voila tout.”
“How could you—when you know Papa’s views!”
“I was most respectful.”
“Which means you were most hateful.”
“He did say that he would not let his daughter marry a man who considered his grandfather to be an ape. But I think on reflection he will recall that in my case it was a titled ape.”
She looked at him then as they walked, and moved her head in a curious sliding sideways turn away; a characteristic gesture when she wanted to show concern—in this case, over what had been really the greatest obstacle in her view to their having become betrothed. Her father was a very rich man; but her grandfather had been a draper, and Charles’s had been a baronet. He smiled and pressed the gloved hand that was hooked lightly to his left arm.
“Dearest, we have settled that between us. It is perfectly proper that you should be afraid of your father. But I am not marrying him. And you forget that I’m a scientist. I have written a monograph, so I must be. And if you smile like that, I shall devote all my time to the fossils and none to you.”
“I am not disposed to be jealous of the fossils.” She left an artful pause. “Since you’ve been walking on them now for at least a minute—and haven’t even deigned to remark them.”
He glanced sharply down, and as abruptly kneeled. Por¬tions of the Cobb are paved with fossil-bearing stone.
“By jove, look at this. Certhidium portlandicum. This stone must come from the oolite at Portland.”
“In whose quarries I shall condemn you to work in perpe¬tuity—if you don’t get to your feet at once.” He obeyed her with a smile. “Now, am I not kind to bring you here? And look.” She led him to the side of the rampart, where a line of flat stones inserted sideways into the wall served as rough steps down to a lower walk. “These are the very steps that Jane Austen made Louisa Musgrove fall down in Persua¬sion.”
“Gentlemen were romantic … then.”
“And are scientific now? Shall we make the perilous de¬scent?”
“On the way back.”
Once again they walked on. It was only then that he noticed, or at least realized the sex of, the figure at the end.
“Good heavens, I took that to be a fisherman. But isn’t it a woman?”
Ernestina peered—her gray, her very pretty eyes, were shortsighted, and all she could see was a dark shape.
“Is she young?”
“It’s too far to tell.”
“But I can guess who it is. It must be poor Tragedy.”
“A nickname. One of her nicknames.”
“And what are the others?”
“The fishermen have a gross name for her.”
“My dear Tina, you can surely—“
“They call her the French Lieutenant’s . . . Woman.”
“Indeed. And is she so ostracized that she has to spend her days out here?”
“She is … a little mad. Let us turn. I don’t like to go near her.”
They stopped. He stared at the black figure.
“But I’m intrigued. Who is this French lieutenant?”
“A man she is said to have …”
“Fallen in love with?”
“Worse than that.”
“And he abandoned her? There is a child?” “No. I think no child. It is all gossip.” “But what is she doing there?” “They say she waits for him to return.” “But… does no one care for her?”
“She is a servant of some kind to old Mrs. Poulteney. She is never to be seen when we visit. But she lives there. Please let us turn back. I did not see her.” But he smiled.
“If she springs on you I shall defend you and prove my poor gallantry. Come.”
So they went closer to the figure by the cannon bollard. She had taken off her bonnet and held it in her hand; her hair was pulled tight back inside the collar of the black coat—which was bizarre, more like a man’s riding coat than any woman’s coat that had been in fashion those past forty years. She too was a stranger to the crinoline; but it was equally plain that that was out of oblivion, not knowledge of the latest London taste. Charles made some trite and loud remark, to warn her that she was no longer alone, but she did not turn. The couple moved to where they could see her face in profile; and how her stare was aimed like a rifle at the farthest horizon. There came a stronger gust of wind, one that obliged Charles to put his arm round Ernestina’s waist to support her, and obliged the woman to cling more firmly to the bollard. Without quite knowing why, perhaps to show Ernestina how to say boo to a goose, he stepped forward as soon as the wind allowed.
“My good woman, we can’t see you here without being alarmed for your safety. A stronger squall—“
She turned to look at him—or as it seemed to Charles, through him. It was not so much what was positively in that face which remained with him after that first meeting, but all that was not as he had expected; for theirs was an age when the favored feminine look was the demure, the obedient, the shy. Charles felt immediately as if he had trespassed; as if the Cobb belonged to that face, and not to the Ancient Borough of Lyme. It was not a pretty face, like Ernestina’s. It was certainly not a beautiful face, by any period’s standard or taste. But it was an unforgettable face, and a tragic face. Its sorrow welled out of it as purely, naturally and unstoppably as water out of a woodland spring. There was no artifice there, no hypocrisy, no hysteria, no mask; and above all, no sign of madness. The madness was in the empty sea, the empty horizon, the lack of reason for such sorrow; as if the spring was natural in itself, but unnatural in welling from a desert.
Again and again, afterwards, Charles thought of that look as a lance; and to think so is of course not merely to de¬scribe an object but the effect it has. He felt himself in that brief instant an unjust enemy; both pierced and deservedly diminished.
The woman said nothing. Her look back lasted two or three seconds at most; then she resumed her stare to the south. Ernestina plucked Charles’s sleeve, and he turned away, with a shrug and a smile at her. When they were nearer land he said, “I wish you hadn’t told me the sordid facts. That’s the trouble with provincial life. Everyone knows everyone and there is no mystery. No romance.”
She teased him then: the scientist, the despiser of novels.