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Free Study Guide-The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles-BookNotes
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The setting throughout the novel is predominantly Victorian. Most of the novel’s action takes place at Lyme Regis, Dorset, England. Lyme Regis was one of many small villages in southwest England scattered along the coast. It consisted largely of small houses surrounded by hills on one side and the sea on the other. The Cobb was built along the shore and it is a promenade where people could enjoy the sea air while taking a walk. A section of the hills, known as the Ware Commons, was a meeting ground for most young couples and where Charles and Sarah meet clandestinely. Lyme’s community was close-knit and provincial. Unlike the larger metropolitan areas such as London, here people upheld the prevailing social norms. Unconventional behavior is seen as an aberration and often times a sign of mental illness. The repressive norms and the people’s insensitive attitude towards Sarah succeed in driving her to Exeter.

In the nineteenth century, Exeter served the same purpose as London does today. Exeter was notorious for providing all sorts of wicked entertainment. Brothels, dance halls and gin palaces thrived there. It served as a haven for "shamed" girls and women, namely unmarried mothers and mistresses who were victims of sexual abuse or social rejects. Due to its scandalous reputation, many upstanding English kept their distance. Social norms were virtually non-existent. Because no one knows her or interferes with her, Sarah feels free, a pleasure that was denied to her while in Lyme. It is in Exeter that Charles and Sarah consummate their relationship, which is the turning point of the novel.

For a brief moment the action shifts to London where Charles signs his statement of guilt. It is also here that Charles and Sarah meet, after a two-year separation, at the Rossetti residence. The action tends to move back and forth between the Victorian and the modern age as Fowles tends to make intrusive comments about the past and the present. He has deliberately recreated a Victorian world so that he can criticize those aspects of the Victorian era that would seem alien to a modern reader. It is interesting to note the different social conditions prevalent in these places and their effects on individuals.


Major Characters

Sarah Woodruff

The bearer of the book’s title ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman.’ She is also referred to as "Tragedy" or "The French Loot’n’nt’s Tenant’s Hore." She is the scarlet woman of Lyme, the outcast dismissed by society because of her affair with a French sailor. She is a figure of intrigue due to rumors that circulate around her, most of them false. She is the protagonist of the novel. Her character is that of a mysterious or evil woman commonly found in a Victorian novel.

Charles Smithson

Male protagonist of the novel. He is a wealthy Victorian gentlemen and heir to a title. He is interested in Darwin and paleontology and considers himself to be intellectually superior to other Victorian men, as he is one of the few who holds scientifically advanced ideas. He is engaged to Ernestina Freeman but is attracted to the mysterious Miss Woodruff. He is unhappy with the way his life is unfolding, yet he is extremely sensitive and intelligent. He is an insecure man constantly analyzing his life.

Ernestina Freeman

Charles’ fiancée. She is pretty, coy and intelligent, but at times she tends to reveal her youth and naivete. She likes to think of herself as a modern woman but her attitudes are similar to most of the young Victorian women who behaved in a proper manner. She is Aunt Tranter’s niece and is vacationing in Lyme when the story begins.

Aunt Tranter

Ernestina’s mother’s sister. She is a kind woman who is loved by her domestic staff because she treats people with respect. She offers to help Sarah when the rest of the town rejects her. Aunt Tranter is an honest woman and lacks hypocrisy of any sort.

Mrs. Poulteney

A cruel old woman, she takes great delight in harassing her domestic staff. Her temperament is exactly opposite to that of Mrs. Tranter’s. She believes herself to be an upholder of Christian virtues yet in reality, she is a hypocrite who reluctantly helps people only out of a show of charity. Sarah in employed by her in the position of a companion. She succeeds in making Sarah’s life miserable by constantly reminding her that she is an outcast.

Mrs. Fairley

Mrs. Poulteney’s housekeeper. She pretends to be virtuous but is a confirmed hypocrite like her employer. She acts as Mrs. Poulteney’s spy reporting Sarah’s movements back to her. She is jealous of Sarah and succeeds in getting Sarah dismissed from her job.

Dr. Grogan

An intelligent, friendly man who befriends Charles. The younger man finds him to be a sympathetic listener. Dr. Grogan empathizes with Sarah but finds her behavior too outrageous to be taken seriously. He is refreshingly unconventional in his views for a Victorian although he belongs more to an earlier age that was more liberal in many ways.

Sam Farrow

Charles Smithson’s valet. He is not content with his present status and wants to climb the social ladder. He is ambitious and is determined to secure his future with Mary even if he has to blackmail Charles.

Mr. Freeman

Ernestina’s father. He is a haberdasher who has succeeded in attaining a higher status in society. Although he comes from a lower class, he is able to have his daughter marry into nobility.

Lieutenant Varguennes

Sarah Woodruff’s alleged French lover. He was injured in a shipwreck when he first met Sarah and tried to flirt and seduce her. Later, Sarah found out that he was married.

John Fowles

The author of the novel. Fowles tends to intrude into the narrative to make his own critical comments about the characters as well as the relationship between art and life. He comes in the guise of a foppish theatrical director or as a bearded stranger.

Minor Characters


The maid in Aunt Tranter’s house. She is a free-spirited, down-to-earth soul. Sam Farrow, Charles’ man-servant falls in love with her and they marry.


The junior maid in Mrs. Poulteney’s house. Sarah empathizes with the poor girl and befriends her.

The Dairy man and his wife

Represent the people of Lyme with their rigid attitudes and insensitive treatment of Sarah.

Captain and Mrs. Talbot

Sarah had worked as a governess to their children when she met the injured Varguennes. Despite her involvement with him, the Talbots are kind hearted and supportive of Sarah.

Sir Robert

Charles’ uncle. Charles was supposed to inherit his title and property after his death but this prospect is drastically altered when Sir Robert marries Mrs. Tomkins, an attractive widow.


The owner of "The Family Endicott Hotel"


An old friend of Charles and his solicitor.

Sergeant Murphy and Mr. Aubrey

Acting as Mr. Freeman’s solicitors, they humiliate Charles and coerce him into signing the statement of guilt.

Gabriel and Christina Rossetti

They founded a school of art called the Pre-Raphaelite school which was quite radical in its heyday but became more mainstream by the time Sarah showed up there to stay with them.

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