Sarah is a woman of about twenty-five years old, an ambitious farmer's daughter with a reasonable education which has left her stranded between two classes: the lower class, into which she was born, and the middle class, to which her education pushes her but cannot bring her entirely, since she lacks both breeding and money.
The first thing we learn about Sarah - and it is almost all we learn in the opening chapters - is that she has a bad reputation because she has had premarital sex with a marooned French sailor. The other thing we learn about her, from Charles' first impression in Chapter 2, is that she is deeply sad; indeed, Sarah suffers from "melancholia," as the doctor diagnoses her in Chapter 9 (53). We might assume that these two things are related, but in fact, Sarah has always felt lonely and depressed, and she chose her bad reputation - in fact, she lied about having sex with the French lieutenant in order to be ostracized from a society that she never felt at home in.
Her primary characteristic, when we get to know her better, is her extreme insightfulness and perspicacity. This insight has its downsides: for example, Sarah finds it hard to choose a man to marry, since she can see through all their pretenses. The narrator speculates that had she been born hundreds of years before, "she would have been either a saint or an emperor's mistress," and he makes this bold claim with the reasoning that Sarah combines both "understanding and emotion" in a "fused rare power" (52). Sarah's sensitivity is partly why Charles is attracted to her, but it also means that she can see through him, and she eventually leaves him because there is a "formality" and a "falsehood" to the way he interacts with her that prevents there from being true love and intimacy between them (351).
Ernestina is anxious and jealous about all of Charles' past lovers, but she is especially worried that he might have liaised with a "modern girl" - and it is to a modern girl that she eventually loses him (64). Sarah is a modern woman - this idea is introduced to us in the infamous Chapter 13. This mainly manifests itself in her desire for freedom at any cost, and a striking independence compared to the coddled Ernestina and her peers. Because she is a modern woman trapped in the Victorian era, Sarah is a little anachronistic. The narrator emphasizes this in some of his description of her - for example, he says that she has a "computer in her heart" that allows her to read people very accurately (87). By the end of the novel, she has been able to fully realize her modernity by throwing off society's restraints and living a bohemian lifestyle in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's house.
Is she the protagonist of the book? The title corroborates this claim - despite her transitory and shadowy presence in the first few chapters, the narrator wants us to think that Sarah Woodruff is indeed the protagonist of the novel. The narrator himself refers to her as "the protagonist" in Chapter 54, where she is shown to have more complex desires and to be a more difficult character for the narrator than Charles, whose wants are clear (317). However, we spend a lot less time in Sarah's mind than in Charles', and the novel ends with Charles' new view about life, and leaves Sarah largely unexplained. It's hard for her to be the protagonist when we are constantly reminded that she is an enigma to us, to Charles, and even to the narrator, as he claims in Chapter 54.
At thirty-two years old, Charles is the son of a baronet and sole heir to both his father's diminished fortune and his uncle's considerable one (17). He is a member of the upper class by blood and by money, and he has no need to work for his living; he can afford to keep a manservant around him always, and he has endless amounts of free time to spend however he likes. His hobby of choice is dabbling in academia, specifically paleontology. Growing up, Charles spent more time reading books than most young men, and in his uncle's eyes, Charles' interest in libraries is "sinister" - it seems bizarre to him that someone should choose books over hunting guns.
When we meet him, Charles is an engaged man of 32, settling down and preparing to start his own family, but we learn early in the novel that he has had a wild youth. After a series of wild adventures during his college years, during which he lost his virginity in questionable circumstances and impulsively tried to take Holy Orders to repent of his sin, Charles spent six months in Paris. During this time, he continued to lead a sordid lifestyle and eventually lost all his faith in God (18). During his twenties, Charles, now a "healthy agnostic," moved into a small apartment in Kensington and spent a lot of time traveling abroad (18). His main occupation during this time was "toying with ideas," and he eventually settling upon paleontology as his academic subject of choice (18-19).
Charles prefers to think of himself as a "scientific young man" (16), but he is "a born amateur," and is not cut out for serious scientific inquiry (42). The narrator refers to him as an "ungifted scientist" (45), and also comments that Charles' "distinguishing trait" is "[l]aziness." (19) On the other hand, he is a "quite competent ornithologist and botanist" who takes some of his scientific pursuits seriously: he certainly dresses up for the role of fossil-collector in Chapter 8 (44).
Charles is very well educated, and this "educational privilege" supplements a naturally inquiring and fairly intelligent mind (39). This tendency to "ask life too many questions" sometimes manifests itself in a rather melancholy and overly reflective disposition (16). But at heart, Charles is like a child who has never grown up: he has a schoolboy’s sense of humor, and can be quite childlike when he is around people with whom he is comfortable, like his servant, Sam. Charles likes to show off by making "labored puns and innuendoes," and he has to put on a "formal outdoor mask" when he goes out into the world - to meet other scientists, or to spend time with Ernestina (39).
Self-doubt plagues Charles, despite his many blessings. He has travelled, he has become engaged, and he has practiced science - and yet he has accomplished very little, as he realizes in Chapter 7 (38). In terms of love, he is even more of an amateur than he is in science: Ernestina worries about his past affairs, but he has "never really been in love," and his heart is "a place without history" (64). Charles likes to think that he is "not like the vast majority of his peers and contemporaries," but it is ironic that he never succeeds at being as modern as Sarah does, despite the desire to be forward-thinking and not conventional (107).
By the end of the novel, however, Charles' personality has developed significantly. He comes to the important realization that there isn't a 'quick fix' that will make him happy, and that marrying Sarah or answering life's "riddle" won't suddenly help him to be fulfilled (366). Instead, he must endure life as best he can - this is a very adult epiphany, and it marks a serious change to his outlook on the world.
Ernestina is a member of the nouveau riche class: she has no title, and her ancestors were not part of the aristocracy, but her father has plenty of money, and her family can afford to live in style and marry her off to the grandson of a baronet. Her parents are incredibly solicitous and overprotective of her, sending her to Lyme Regis for part of the year to cure her supposed consumption. Ernestina resents these trips, because she finds the seaside town very boring compared to the London parties that she is used to.
She is "irresistible" to Charles partly because of her pale beauty, but mostly because of her slight deviation from the masses of her pampered, simpering friends - she is a little more willful and coquettish than they are (27). She also is described of having "more [will] than the age allowed for" - that is, she is more stubborn and determined than the majority of her peers, who are blandly obedient to their parents and the dictates of society (28). Charles and Ernestina do not have very much in common, deep down, but they like each other because they share "a sense of self-irony" and a "superiority of intelligence" (29, 68). In fact, this is one of the only traits that stop Ernestina from being merely "a horrid spoiled child," according to the narrator (29). Nevertheless, she is quite child-like and petulant at times - quite the opposite of Sarah Woodruff, with her calm voice and her deep capacity for suffering.
Ernestina's dreams and worries are for the most part mundane, and this is a product of her sheltered life. She believes that she loves Charles, but she expends a lot of worry on speculating about his past loves; she cannot bear the thought that he should have loved "a tragic French countess" or someone like that before her (64). She worries that because she is not from aristocratic stock, like Charles is, that he will think less of her (68).
Her goal in life is to get married and have children, but she is terrified by "the payment" that she will have to pay to achieve this: the act of sex (29). In this way she is supposed to represent the typical feminine Victorian view, and this fear of sex puts her in stark contrast to Sarah Woodruff, who epitomizes quite another class of female: 'the fallen woman'.
Ernestina is a 'flatter' character than the others in this novel, because she represents - almost but not quite - a type of girl that was common in her time period. She is very much a product of her environment; Charles asks himself, when he is shocked by her apparent shallowness, "How could the only child of two rich parents be anything else?" (107.) In this novel, Ernestina represents convention where Sarah represents modernity; perhaps we can see Sarah's victory over Charles' heart as an allegory for the changing times, and the emergence of the independent 'modern woman' to replace the delicate Victorian lady.
Toward the end of the novel, when Charles breaks off his engagement to her, Ernestina actually shows herself to be surprisingly self-aware. She knows her worse qualities: as she says, "I know I am innocent. I know I am spoiled. I am not a Helen of Troy or a Cleopatra" (296). Ernestina also shows a deeply sensitive and compassionate side when she notes that Charles has low self-esteem, and that she intended her "bridal present" to him to be some "[f]aith in himself" because he deserves to realize how "generous" and wise he is (297). In the space of a few pages, Ernestina becomes a much more three-dimensional and sympathetic character, and we understand that she is merely young, with the potential to become a good person. Her love for Charles is deeper than we might have thought before, and we realize that we may have misjudged her and treated her unfairly - she is of course very young, and a product of a very sheltered upbringing.
Mrs. Poulteney is the woman who has hired Sarah Woodruff as a companion, on the recommendation of the local vicar. She owns a large house in the town of Lyme Regis, and hates Dirt and Immorality, dealing strictly with the employees who let either of these things enter the house. Her morality is very cliché and not very sincere: her two mantras are "Civilization is Soap" and "Respectability is what does not give me offense" (31).
She gives quite a bit of money to the local church - this, combined with her having taken in Sarah, has given her a reputation for charity. Mrs. Poulteney does not practice charity for charity's sake: she is terrified of Hell, and hopes to do enough good deeds to ensure a place for herself in heaven. The narrator blasts her as "an epitome of all the most crassly arrogant traits of the ascendant British Empire" (23). In Chapter 44, the narrator teases us with a vision of Mrs. Poulteney's afterlife, describing how she is first taken to Heaven, and then thrown down into Hell, where she belongs. Although he later admits that this is just Charles' reverie, we certainly get the sense that he is condemning Mrs. Poulteney for her false charity.
Sam Farrow is Charles' Cockney manservant, whom we first meet in Chapter 7. He and Charles are quite close - they "kn[o]w each other rather better than the partners in many a supposedly more intimate menage," and the dynamic between them is one of light banter and teasing (37). In Charles' eyes, Sam is someone around whom he can be himself, making ridiculous puns and acting the Don Quixote to Sam's "Sancho Panza" (40).
Sam is contrasted with Sam Weller from Dickens' Pickwick Papers.The two share names and jobs but, unlike the cheerful Sam Weller, Sam Farrow "suffer[s]" his role as a servant, and really aspires to higher things. He "fancies himself a Don Juan" and would like very much to seduce Mary, Mrs. Tranter's maid (67). He demonstrates an interest in horses because such an interest, he thinks, is a "sign of his social progress," and he spends "most of his wages on keeping in fashion" (39).
Sam falls in love with Mary, and we learn that he has a tender side to him that appreciates her innocence, and doesn't want to hurt her. He ends up hurting Charles badly for the sake of his marriage to Mary and his future ambitions, but it is also by Sam's action of sending an anonymous tip to Charles' solicitor that Charles and Sarah are brought back together. When we see Sam and Mary after they are married, they seem to be a perfect couple - the domestic married life suits them very well, and we are happy for them, because they are such sympathetic characters.
Mrs. Talbot is a positive and sympathetic minor character in The French Lieutenant's Woman. She is a young wife and mother for whom Sarah works for some time as a governess before the novel's action begins, and in whose house Sarah meets the infamous French lieutenant.
Mrs. Talbot is described as "extremely kindhearted" but "not very perspicacious," in other words, she has very good intentions but is not the most intelligent or intuitive person - in this way, she acts as a foil for Sarah, who is incredibly good at reading people (47). Although Sarah leaves Mrs. Talbot's house more or less in disgrace, Mrs. Talbot is always very kind to her, and even offered her the position again after the Frenchman abandoned Sarah. She is very worried about Sarah's well being; in Chapter 9 we see her lying awake, terrified that Sarah will end up penniless, chased, and starved, like the destitute heroines of the romantic novels that she reads. It is Mrs. Talbot who encourages Sarah to take up a place in Mrs. Poulteney's household.
Ernestina's aunt lives in Lyme Regis, giving Ernestina's parents an excuse to send their daughter to the seaside for a consumptive cure (although Ernestina is perfectly healthy). She is a kind lady, whom "[n]obody could dislike" because she is so innocent, caring, and profoundly optimistic (27). She plays the "flat-footed nurse" to Ernestina's Juliet; Ernestina resents being sent away from London society to Aunt Tranter's old-fashioned house, and she displays this resentment through undeserved anger toward her aunt. Aunt Tranter is very protective of and loyal toward Ernestina, and although she initially likes Charles, she curses him more strongly than anyone else when he jilts Ernestina.
Mary works in Mrs. Tranter's household as a maid. Good-natured and good-humored, she is very well liked by Mrs. Tranter and by the rest of the staff. When Ernestina comes to stay, however, Mary is no longer the favorite in the house (at least not in the eyes of Mrs. Tranter, Ernestina's aunt), and so she resents Ernestina's presence. She also envies Ernestina her fashionable dresses from London, and her handsome fiancé - Mary thinks Charles is too good for Ernestina.
Mary is sexually appealing - we first hear of her via Sam, who certainly finds her attractive - and seems to embrace her sexuality in a different way to Ernestina, who desperately shuts out all thoughts of sexual contact, and also to Sarah Woodruff, who is a martyr-like figure. Mary enjoys flirting with the local boys, and their efforts to solicit kisses are "not...very successfully resisted" (65). Where Ernestina is delicate and Sarah is sallow, Mary is vibrant and rosy - which makes her, in the eyes of the narrator, "by far the prettiest" of the three girls (64).
She is also very innocent, and her relationship with Sam Farrow is beautifully tender. It seems by the end of the novel that justice is done when Mary and Sam are climbing the social ladder, and living in a nice house with two beautiful children. Mary is delighted that she is richer than her parents, and that she can afford her own maid - we are happy for her and for Sam.
An Irishman and a confirmed "old bachelor," Dr. Grogan is well liked in Lyme Regis. He flirts with Aunt Tranter and tends to Mrs. Poulteney's ills, and is equally skillful at keeping his heart from getting entangled in a love affair and dealing with his patients' different temperaments. He attends the surprise party at the White Lion for Aunt Tranter in Chapter 19.
It is Dr. Grogan who first suggests to Charles that Sarah might be trying to hurt herself to inspire pity in the young man, whom she finds attractive. Most of Charles' doubts about Sarah stem from Dr. Grogan, whom he often tries to argue against but is also often persuaded by. When Charles jilts Ernestina, Dr. Grogan is the stern voice of reason, condemning him for having made Ernestina suffer, and encoring Charles to try and become a better person so he can atone for his sins.
Millie is a maid in Mrs. Poulteney's service, whom Sarah saves from being fired. Millie is a ploughman's daughter with ten siblings who all live in bitter poverty. Sarah takes her under her wing while she is living at Mrs. Poulteney's house, and they share a bed.
Mrs. Martha Endicott
Mrs. Endicott is the owner of a hotel in Exeter where Sarah goes to stay in Chapter 36 once she leaves Lyme Regis. Mrs. Endicott is "rapacious" and overcharges for her rooms, but conveniently doesn't inquire into her guests' private business, which makes her hotel a good place to hide.
Ernestina's father is a wealthy businessman who has managed to move his family into the upper class of London, despite the fact that he has no connection to nobility, and his only claim to status is wealth. Mr. Freeman is skeptical of Charles' status as a gentleman; he values wealth over aristocratic blood. He is very protective of his daughter, and when Charles jilts Ernestina, Ernestina has to restrain her father from completely demolishing Charles' name and taking him to court.
Sarah (the prostitute)
Sarah is a prostitute whom Charles hires in Chapters 39-40 while he is in London. She bears a vague physical resemblance to Sarah Woodruff, which is why Charles is drawn to her. She has a daughter but no husband, and is selling sex to make ends meet for her and her child.
The author intrudes frequently into the storyline when he makes comments about the act of writing the novel, but he appears just twice in person - firstly in Chapter 55, and then again in Chapter 61. Fowles pokes fun at himself, calling himself "a very minor figure," and using hyperbole to reassure us that he is as "minimal...as a gamma-ray particle" (361). The rest of the description in Chapter 61 is not positive, and paints Fowles as merely a "successful impresario" or a flashy magician (362). The author has the power to manipulate the time of the narrative, and to decide - to some degree - on the actions of the characters.
Montague is Charles' young solicitor, who accompanies him to the meeting in Chapter 56 with Ernestina's father's solicitors. He is sympathetic toward Charles, but believes that he must accept the punishment for what he has done. Montague encourages Charles to go abroad, and Charles takes him up on this advice at the end of Chapter 56.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Rossetti is a famous artist from the Pre-Raphaelite movement. He notices Sarah on the street when she is pregnant with Lalage, and asks if he can paint her. At the end of the novel, Sarah is living in his house and acting as his assistant; she is incredibly grateful to him for offering her a wonderful new life.
Lalage is the baby daughter of Charles and Sarah, the product of their first sexual encounter in the Endicott Family Hotel. Sarah conceals the existence of this daughter from Charles until he comes to visit her at her new residence in Rossetti's house.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The first estate consisted of the religious leaders who were in charge of the Church. Regardless of the fact that these church leaders represented a mere 1% of France's total population, they controlled almost 10% of its land in France. These...