The French Lieutenant's Woman was John Fowles' third published novel, and it has achieved enduring commercial and critical success.
The novel attracted the attention of critics soon after it was published, and was better received in literary circles than either of Fowles' previous novels. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote a very positive 1969 review for the New York Times titled, "On the Third Try, John Fowles Connects," in which he praised the elegant language and "enchanting mysteries" of the novel. Like other critics, Lehmann-Haupt was shocked by Fowles' diverging from the form of the Victorian novel, particularly with regards to the inclusion of a second, alternative ending: he writes that this ending "explode[d] all the assumptions our Victorian sensibilities had so willingly embraced," and such innovation signaled the "sudden but predictable arrival of a remarkable novelist."
Such critical acclaim was accompanied by more than one literary award: Fowles received the Silver Pen Award from PEN International for The French Lieutenant's Woman, as well as the W. H. Smith Literary Award. The French Lieutenant's Woman also experienced success in other media: in 1981, Meryl Streep starred in a film adaptation of The French Lieutenant's Woman, which was nominated for five Academy Awards and won three BAFTAs. The novel continues to be well regarded today. In 2010, TIME magazine's critics selected The French Lieutenant's Woman as one of the 100 greatest novels since 1923, with the rationale that it is a "magnificent game of a novel" where postmodernism brilliance perfectly marries Victorian poignancy.
More than anything, readers in 1969 were puzzled by the genre of the novel. This ambiguity lent The French Lieutenant's Woman a lot of its intrigue and appeal: it was clearly not a Victorian novel, although the first few chapters could be read quite happily as belonging to this tradition. Some have called it a "pseudo-historical" novel, as James R. Baker does in his Paris Review interview of Fowles, while critic Linda Hutcheon has opted for the term "historiographic metafiction."
John Fowles has said in interviews that he views his daring third novel as a turning point in his career. "Certainly I hope that...The French Lieutenant’s Woman marks a real change and a new openness," he told James R. Baker of the Paris Review. He explains that he had learned enough about writing novels, and had practiced enough "set pieces" - quasi-derivative reworking of traditional material - to be able to have the freedom for genuine experimentation. The The French Lieutenant's Woman was born, according to Fowles, from one central image - that of Sarah on the Cobb - which "simply welled up from the unconscious" and eventually expanded itself into a groundbreaking piece of fiction.