“He turned he saw the blue sea, now washing far below; and the whole extent of Lyme Bay reaching round, diminishing cliffs that dropped into the endless yellow sabre of the Chesil Bank, whose remote tip touched that strange English Gibraltar, Portland Bill, a thin grey shadow wedged between azures.” The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Persuasion have Lyme Regis in common, but I’m saving Jane Austen for Bath, so she’ll only have a brief mention today. Both books examine the Victorian preoccupation with social position, inheritance, morality and how we perceive and react to others. They come at these topics from different sides of the field, though: the first, by John Fowles, is set in 1867 but written in 1969, the second set around the same time Austen wrote it, in 1817. From Austen, we hear: “A very strange stranger it must be, who does not see charms in the immediate environs of Lyme, to make him wish to know it better.” Fowles is more cut-throat: “The society of the place was as up-to-date as Aunt Tranter’s lumbering mahogany furniture; and as for the entertainment, to a young lady familiar with the best that London can offer, it was worse than nil.” His narrative stance, as our grandparents launched humans onto the moon and proclaimed free love, is one of nostalgia, condescension and admiration in equal measure: the postmordern trio. I went to Lyme recently for the first time, almost 150 years after this book was set, and the town is clearly proud of its association. I’ve never seen Meryl Streep’s face so much in such a short time.
And so to the story: Charles Smithson is wealthy, healthy and stealthy: he’s bagged a rich young fiancée, he’s sure to inherit his uncle’s baronetcy, he reads Darwin and knows he’s one of the fittest, ergo he will survive, and he’s come to Lyme Regis. When walking one day with his bride-to-be, the Helen Lovejoy-ish, needling Ernestina (a product of her time and caste, Fowles sympathetically adds at junctures), the couple spot a lone figure standing at the end of the Cobb.
In true Fowles fashion, I should interrupt here and explain about the Cobb. This “great stone claw” is Lyme’s most famous landmark, a manmade harbour that’s been there since the 14th century (you can check it out on this webcam). It snakes round into the sea, 870ft long, angling steeply down, and has two promenades so you can walk along the top part or in the shelter of the lower stone cut. On a chilly day in February, the water sprang up to meet us as it crashed into the rock. It’s incredibly primitive, something you can see has been retained and added to over these hundreds of years because it works, simply and effectively. It’s like a Viking fortification, so old and immutable. This is where Fowles has Sarah Woodruff, the self-professed “scarlet woman of Lyme” stand, day after day. Sarah is a secretary at one of the grandest houses in Lyme, Mrs Poulteney’s, a woman who has taken her on out of a misguided sense of charity and the hope she can straighten Sarah out. Sarah’s father lives in an asylum in Dorchester, having made bad investments on his Devon farm, and “she had read far more fiction, and far more poetry, those two sanctuaries of the lonely, than most of her kind.”
Charles, though he tries – so hard – not to show it, is entranced. We’re told that the two qualities that attracted Sarah to Charles were her passion and imagination, “two qualities [which] were banned by the epoch”. And so he does what any reasonable man would do in his situation, with his background and education, who doesn’t want to be seen wandering off looking to catch another woman’s eye: he goes hunting for fossils. This is another of Lyme’s perks: nestled at the heart of the Jurassic Coast between West Dorset and East Devon, it’s been instrumental in furthering studies in geology. Mary Anning, the fossil collector and palaeontologist, was born here (Anning found some of the best examples of prehistoric life on the coast at Lyme, but, being a woman, wasn’t allowed to join the Geological Society of London). Charles finds “a very fine fragment of lias with ammonite impressions, exquisitely clear, microcosms of macrocosms, whirled galaxies that Catherine-wheeled their way across ten inches of rock. Having duly inscribed a label with the date and place of finding, he once again hopscotched out of science – this time, into love.” After presenting the specimen to Ernestina, Charles makes off once more, this time to the infamous Ware Commons.
For me, at least, Fowles’ descriptions of the place was best brought to light in the sections about the Commons. Removed from Lyme at a height and facing out to sea, it was necessarily suspicious in the eyes of the town – “evoking Sodom and Gomorrah in Mrs Poulteney’s face” – as being quiet, protected by overhanging trees and branches, and frequented by poachers and travellers. “But the most serious accusation against Ware Commons had to do with far worse infamy: though it never bore that familiar rural name, the cart track to the Dairy and beyond to the wooded common was a de facto Lover’s Lane. It drew courting couples every summer. There was the pretext of a bowl of milk at the Dairy; and many inviting little paths, as one returned, led up into the shielding bracken and hawthorn coverts.” Charles is immediately captivated by the place, but even more so when he discovers Sarah, sleeping: “He could not imagine what, besides despair, could drive her, in an age where women were semi-static, timid, incapable of sustained physical effort, to this place.” It was, we are told, “the nearest place to Lyme where people could go and not be spied on. The area had an obscure, long and mischievous legal history.” Mrs Poulteney has banned Sarah from visiting the spot for precisely this reason, and it is this niggly issue which throws up problems later on. “It is sufficient to say that among the more respectable townsfolk one had only to speak of a boy or a girl as ‘one of the Ware Commons kind’ to tar them for life. The boy must thenceforth be a satyr; and the girl, a hedge-prostitute.” But Charles, who’s not a local but is most certainly trapped by propriety and desperate to experience something more, is transported by it. “It is a most fascinating wilderness, the Undercliff. I had no idea such places existed in England.”
Above all else in this novel, the undercurrent is undeniably sexual. There’s a real charge to the writing about Charles and Sarah, and a sense of the societally imposed barriers that prevent them from even being seen talking. “What are we faced with in the nineteenth century?” asks Fowles, “where more churches were built that in the whole previous history of the country; and where one in sixty houses in London was a brothel (the modern ratio would be nearer one in six thousand)… Where there was enormous progress and liberation in every other field of human activity; and nothing but tyranny in the most personal and fundamental.” Their relationship is, to a modern reader, so clearly mapped out from the first that you feel almost voyeurish as you read their dialogue. Sarah’s confession to Charles about the circumstances that brought her to Lyme, the desertion of the French lieutenant and her reasons for sleeping with him, mark one of the best moments in the novel. “And then, at the least expected moment, she turned fully to look at Charles. Her color was high, but it seemed to him less embarrassment than a kind of ardor, an anger, a defiance; as if she were naked before him, yet proud to be so.” Harold Pinter adapted the story and his text is also worth mentioning as particularly powerful:
Sarah: You cannot understand because you are not a woman. You are not a woman born to be a farmer’s wife but educated to be something better. You were not born a woman with a love of beauty, intelligence, learning, but who’s position in the world forbids her to share that love with another……You are not the daughter of a bankrupt. You have not spent your life in penury. You are not condemned. You are not an outcast. I gave myself to the French Lieutenant so that I should never be the same again, so that I should be seen for the outcast I am. I knew it was ordained that I could never marry an equal. So I married shame. It is my shame that has kept me alive, my knowing that I am truly not like other women. I shall never like them have children, a husband, the pleasures of a home. Sometimes I pity them. I have a freedom they cannot know. No insult, no blame can touch me. I have myself gone beyond the pale. I am nothing. I am hardly human anymore. I am the French Lieutenant’s Whore.
Walking along the beach at night, I was struck at the time by how important the setting of this novel is to the message it’s trying to give. The landscape is so rugged, one day throwing up amazing, twisty little snippets of the past, petrified remains nestling in rock-pools, and on another day, crumbling into the sea. My friend, who has family there and has been coming since she was a kid, told us that recently, a minor landslide from the cliff had revealed the buried rubbish bin of second world war soldiers: tin spoons, can openers, bits and bobs of old uniform. And the area is dictated to by its weather, one moment sunny and calm, the next stormy and windswept. It has that essential wildness at the heart of Fowles’ novel, the wildness he comments that would have seemed so improper to past residents of Lyme. Even if you don’t read it as a taste of this part of the southern coast, read it for Fowles’ understanding of human nature, which produces some really gorgeous turns of phrase: “Sarah had some sort of psyhological equivalent of the experienced horse-dealer’s skill – the ability to know almost at at the first glance the good horse from the bad one; or as if, jumping a century, she was born with a computer in her heart” and, of Charles: “He had thought to take the first step towards putting out the fire the doctor had told him he had lit; but when one is oneself the fuel, firefighting is a hopeless task.” I won’t give the ending away. Rest assured that it’s super dramatic. I loved this acidic, tongue-in-cheek and above all proto-feminist book, which shines a spotlight on Victorian mores and questions why, in an age so full of progress of so many stripes, did we fail so spectacularly on a more human level. Read this book. And do go to Lyme.
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