The French Lieutenant's Woman

The French Lieutenant's Woman Summary and Analysis of Chapters 6-10


Chapter 6:

Mrs. Poulteney and the vicar continue their conversation about Sarah as a possible candidate for her charity - the vicar tells Mrs. Poulteney Sarah's age (about 30) and some of her background. She is the daughter of a farmer who has received a surprisingly good education, and was a governess for some time; in fact, it was while at her last post that she met the infamous French lieutenant, who stayed with her employer after his barque ran ashore and wooed her, promising to marry her. Sarah gave in notice, the vicar says, and went to follow the Frenchman to Weymouth, where her "strong Christian principles" prevented any of his sexual advances from being met with success (33). Now she is prone to attacks of madness and melancholy, and can be seen haunting the Cobb.

Mrs. Poulteney is scandalized by this story, however gently the vicar has tried to dispense the news, but the vision of one of her "saintly" peers who runs a home for 'fallen women' compels her to go through with the plan. Sarah pleases her during their first meeting because she looks totally devastated by her circumstances; she writes down a dictated letter perfectly as proof of her intellectual competence, and reads well from the Bible. Mrs. Poulteney, feeling generous, decides to take her on; we learn that Sarah has accepted this position, despite having turned down many before, because the house has a good view of the bay, and because she has only a few pence left to her name.

Chapter 7:

We return to Charles in this chapter - a Charles in much better humor than the introspective worrier of Chapter 3. He wakes up on the right side of the bed, so to speak, and revels in the "warm spring air" and sunlight that is pouring into his room. Such lovely weather is unusual in Lyme Regis, and it makes Charles marvel at how "supremely well" everything around him is; he calls the country "charming" and teases his manservant Sam good-naturedly (37). Sam is not in good humor - a girl across the street has insulted him - and Charles' poking fun at him does nothing to lighten his mood.

Charles sends Sam to get his breakfast, and contemplates himself in the mirror for the second time in the novel so far. His reflection is pleasing; he pulls faces of sternness and euphoria and admires his "very regular" features. It is during this inspection that he feels a "tiny wave of the previous day's ennui" wash over him: he looks "faintly foolish," he thinks, and more innocent and aimless than self-possessed and impressive. He begins to shave.

The rest of the chapter is devoted to describing his relationship with his manservant, Sam Farrow. The two are relatively close; their relationship shows a "human bond" and a "kind of affection" that is often absent from master-servant relations (40). Sam is a Cockney and a member of the lower class, but he aspires to rise in society, and cultivates an interest in horses and fashion in the hopes that these markers of class will raise his status. Charles treats him kindly, more or less, but considers Sam as his "Sancho Panza," his companion whose main purpose is to provide services and low humor, and to listen to all of Charles' witticisms and schoolboy puns - and Sam resents this dynamic somewhat.

Chapter 8:

Charles presents himself at Ernestina's house, but she has a headache and is not to be disturbed, so he decides to spend his "free hours" scouting the cliffs for discoveries of paleontological interest (41). The narrator spends the next three paragraphs outlining the geological conditions that make Lyme Regis such a good place to look for fossils, describing the history of fossil-collecting there (Mary Anning, probably the most famous fossil-finder of all time, made her discoveries in this area, and the Charles pays a visit the shop she set up).

Charles is currently obsessed with petrified sea urchins, or 'tests', primarily for the reason that they are difficult to discover and he has a lot of "time to fill" (42). He sets off for the coast, dressed in an absurd amount of gear. Charles selects a piece of ammonite that is "pretty enough" for Ernestina to like, and resolves to give it to her (46). The time passes quickly; he notices that it is suddenly two o'clock, and he has not yet reached the cliff where he had intended to start - he walks quickly up the path and promptly sits down to observe the scenery around him.

Chapter 9:

This chapter flashes back to the time before Sarah began working for Mrs. Poulteney. Unsure of whether she wants to join the household, given Mrs. Poulteney's reputation for being overly strict with her staff, Sarah asks her friend and former employer Mrs. Talbot for advice. Mrs. Talbot is worried that Sarah will end up homeless and penniless, and she encourages Sarah to apply for the position.

There is a description of Sarah, highlighting her unusually acute sense of other people's personalities, and we learn that Sarah did not stay at a female cousin's house while at Weymouth, as the vicar led Mrs. Poulteney to believe in Chapter 4 (this suggests that she stayed with the French lieutenant, and that she most likely is no longer a virgin). Sarah's personal history is briefly outlined: despite being the daughter of a struggling farmer, she has received a fairly decent education, and is now left, on account of this education, stranded between the lower and the middle classes as an unmarried governess. Her father died in Dorchester Asylum after driving himself mad, trying to make his failing farm turn a profit.

The narrative skips forward, to a morning a few weeks after Sarah received her position from Mrs. Poulteney. The house is changed for the better by Sarah's presence: Mrs. Poulteney is less severe and intolerant, and no one has been fired since Sarah showed genuine sympathy in front of Mrs. Poulteney to a maid, Millie, who was being threatened with dismissal. Sarah has also been delivering the servants' daily prayer, and her beautiful voice inspires her colleagues to be "genuinely attentive and sometimes positively religious" (51). Her religious recitations from the Bible with Mrs. Poulteney, upstairs in the mistress' living quarters, are similarly powerful, and she occasionally moves both herself and Mrs. Poulteney to tears. Another important duty that she fulfills at the house is that of delivering moralizing pamphlets from Mrs. Poulteney to the inhabitants of Lyme, thereby doing good on Mrs. Poulteney's behalf, and doing a kind of "public penance" for herself (52).

Sarah's presence in Mrs. Poulteney's house does cause some difficulties and annoyances. Sarah is allowed little free time to lave the house, until one day she breaks down crying and is diagnosed as melancholic by the local doctor. He suggests that she be allowed "more fresh air and freedom"; Mrs. Poulteney reluctantly agrees (53). There is the difficulty of visitors, some of whom are upset by Sarah's unremittingly sorrowful face; luckily, Sarah is perceptive enough to know when to stay and when to remove herself from the conversation. The worst thing that Sarah does, however, is continue to show signs of longing for the French lieutenant who ruined her reputation. She refuses to tell Mrs. Poulteney the details of her affair with him, but Mrs. Poulteney's housekeeper, Mrs. Fairley, brings back the news that Sarah can always be seen on her free afternoons on the Cobb, looking out to sea. Mrs. Poulteney confronts Sarah about this behavior, and they come to a compromise: Sarah must not be caught looking out from the Cobb, but she can walk by the sea on occasion.

Sarah obeys Mrs. Poulteney's wishes, and she rarely stands on the Cobb anymore (Chapter 1 describes one of her infrequent visits). There is no news for Mrs. Fairley to report back to Mrs. Poulteney - except, eventually, that Sarah has been walking on Ware Commons, a detail that shocks Mrs. Poulteney, although the reader does not know why.

Chapter 10:

Ware Commons is the eastern half of the coastal feature called the 'Undercliff' - a densely vegetated and almost tropical slope that is uninhabited, and whose steep crevices and "sudden falls" make it dangerous to walk around (59). It is the same place that Charles was searching for fossils in Chapter 8, and we pick up his narrative with almost the same sentence as we left off on. He attempts to survey the landscape dispassionately, from a scientist's perspective, but the wild beauty of the place "force[s] him into anti-science" and appreciation of the nature, which makes him sad, because he cannot stay there forever (59).

Charles abandons his train of thought and continues his fossil hunt - and then he looks over the edge of the plateau and sees "a figure" (61). He first mistakes the woman's body for a corpse, then realizes she is merely sleeping, and then recognizes her as the French Lieutenant's woman. Charles walks down to her, trying to see her from a closer viewpoint; she wakes up and looks at him in "shock and bewilderment" before he apologizes for disturbing her (62). Charles leaves without a reply to his apology, waits briefly to see if she will catch up with him, and then continues on his way.


Chapter 6:

Mrs. Poulteney dominates this chapter, as she did Chapter 4, and she is presented again as a somewhat laughable character - there is humor in the description of her as bearing "some resemblance to a white Pekinese; to be exact, to a stuffed Pekinese" on account of her always smelling like mothballs (31). Her guiding principles in life are not noble or even Christian, but rather some platitudes that sound vaguely colonial ("Civilization is Soap") and very narrow-minded ("Respectability is what does not give me offense"). She certainly isn't a character whom we admire; the good she does is self-centered and highly restrained, and the narrative voice makes sure that we do not forget this failing of hers or mistake her acts for real charity.

This scene is a dialogue between the vicar and Mrs. Poulteney, in which he tries to convince her to take on Sarah as a companion, despite her misgivings. The effect of this back-and-forth, with Mrs. Poulteney recoiling from certain pieces of information and making the reader doubt whether she will take Sarah on (although we have been told it will happen), is to create sympathy for Sarah Woodruff. The vicar, by telling Mrs. Poulteney why Sarah is worthy of her charity, is also telling us why she is worthy of our love and compassion as we read on. Her situation is certainly pitiful: seduced and jilted by a French sailor, even if, as the vicar claims, she still has her honor intact.

However, there is evidence in the text that the situation is more sordid than he is letting. The epigraph of the chapter is a quote from Tennyson, in which he apostrophizes a woman named Maud who is "unmeet for a wife," suggesting that Sarah is now unmarriageable, whatever has happened to her. Mrs. Poulteney is receiving an expurgated version of Sarah's story from the vicar, who hopes to do good by lying and telling only "some" of what he knows (31). There is more to the story than Mrs. Poulteney hears - we as readers are intrigued to read on and find out what it is.

Chapter 7:

Charles is in a much better mood at the opening of this chapter than when we left him at the end of Chapter 3 - we see him in a state where he completely appreciates the world around him. Even this apparent euphoria, however, is not without its frailties and fractures. After extolling the joys and beauties of the countryside, he returns to his mirror, and the contemplation of his reflection revives some of his self-doubt from the previous day. He thinks he looks "faintly foolish," and it is certain that a modern-day reader would also find him slightly ridiculous, were they somehow to meet him in person: the mustached man with tousled hair, posing and pulling faces in front of his mirror.

We learn this much about Charles' character in Chapter 7 (a chapter which isn't actually dedicated so much to him as to Sam, his servant): that he is not totally happy with himself, and this is partly because his impulses and desires conflict. He wants to be serious and taken seriously, but he isn't a 'real' scientist, he's an amateur with "too little achieved" to be worthy of much respect (38). He has plenty of "self-knowledge," and so he can't ignore the mediocre reality of his situation like his fiancée Ernestina can - he is prone to overthinking (as evidenced in this chapter and in Chapter 3), and doubting himself. We leave him in this chapter consoling himself with the thought that although he has achieved little and is "faintly foolish," he at least has a dignified "Doric nose" and "cool grey eyes," and so can put on a "formal outdoor mask" when meeting the world (38).

This chapter is primarily concerned with class and the class system; in particular, with the age-old relationship between master and servant, and how this relationship is in the process of developing and changing during the Victorian era. Sam Farrow epitomizes the working-class man, who lacks the education of the master on whom he relies for economic security. He is compared to Sam Weller, a famous Cockney servant in a 1836 Dickens novel - but Sam Farrow of 1867 sees himself as "a cut above all that," and believes that "times ha[ve] changed" for Cockney men like himself (39). While Sam Weller was "happy with his role" as servant, Sam Farrow is not (40). As such, he tries to reinvent himself as a middle-class man. He despises the Cockney tropes that are represented in the character of Sam Weller, such as his "inability to pronounce v except as w;" Sam Farrow makes a real effort to rid himself of telltale verbal Cockney cues like his "wrong a's and h's" (39).

Sam Farrow is not satisfied with his position as a member of the working class, and so, on top of his efforts to refine his pronunciation, he cultivates an interest in horses and stylish clothes, although neither of these interests runs very deep. These seemingly trivial attempts to join the middle class may seem "comic" to an onlooker like Charles, the narrator notes, but they are "signs of a social revolution" to come (39). Marx has already been mentioned in Chapter 3 as a contemporary of the characters of The French Lieutenant's Woman (16), and Chapter 7 tellingly begins with an epigraph from Marx's famous work Capital, written in 1867 (36). The theme of class struggle and revolution, already hinted at in the earliest chapters of this novel, is explicitly developed here. Perhaps the most important thing to note on this subject in this chapter is that Charles, to whom all the benefits of "educational privilege" belong, and who is responsible for the "economic exploitation" of his manservant, is unaware of the impending social revolution: it is something that he "fail[s] to recognize" (39).

Chapter 8:

The main themes of this chapter, again dedicated to Charles, are those of science and of the Victorian sense of 'duty'.

Charles' amateurism when it comes to academia is stressed again, from the very beginning of the chapter, in the epigraph that reads, "But if you wish at once to do nothing and be respectable nowadays, the best pretext is to be a work on some profound study..." (41). He is called an "ungifted scientist" later in the chapter, but the narrator defends him, saying that his lack of specialization and amateur interest is actually beneficial for "Charles the human being," and besides, the narrator argues, Darwin was a generalist, too (45). One of the key influences of Darwinian science on the established Victorian worldview, according to this chapter, is that people are starting to realize that everything "is in reality a continuous flux," that is to say, species are constantly changing thanks to evolution, and the world looks very different as time progresses (45). This is a difficult concept for the hyper-traditional Victorians to grasp; Charles finds himself doubting it as he contemplates the ordered beauty of the seashore, and the narrator claims that even Darwin "never quite shook off" the notions that Swedish scientist Linnaeus established about the impossibility of new species being created (summed up by the motto null species nova) (45). There are many massive changes taking place in the period when this novel is set: changes in the treatment and status of women; changes in the class system precipitated by the writings of Marx, among other things; and many more. It seems that the huge, tangible shift in scientific thought - from the Linnaean to the Darwinian perspective - can be seen as a symbol of all the other shifts that affect the way that Victorians view each other and the world around them.

The narrator makes a poignant comment about the lack of appreciation and acknowledgment in the Victorian male-dominated science community for the work of Mary Anning, who was the first to discover the incredible bones of Ichthyosaurus platyodon. Male scientists of her time, we are told, "gratefully used her finds to establish their own reputation," but they didn't give her the credit she deserved, and didn't even name a type of fossil after her (42).

Chapter 9:

Finally, the narrator dedicates a chapter to the mysterious Sarah Woodruff, of whom we have only heard rumors and gossip. In a very short space - the chapter spans only a few pages - we feel as though we get to know Sarah very well; her unique character and defining traits are presented in close detail. At first, we learn about her "uncanny...ability to classify other people's worth" in the abstract: we are merely told that she has the special skill of instinctively knowing people's true nature. When the narrator moves on to describe certain scenes from Sarah's life in Mrs. Poulteney's service - her keenly observant kindness toward Millie the maid, her moving readings from the Bible, and her distribution of Mrs. Poulteney's religious pamphlets - the reader is presented with convincing evidence that Sarah possesses a remarkable interpersonal intelligence.

Sarah is also presented as a "victim of the caste system" in this chapter, and she represents yet another class of character in the novel: one who has grown up in the rural lower class, who has elevated her status slightly by education, and who now has fallen on very hard times because of her perceived sexual immorality. She is the social opposite to Ernestina, whose reputation is pristine and who lives a very sheltered life, coddled by her parents. Sarah suffers public scorn, and must fend for herself - both because she is an orphan, and because she is too poor to do anything but work for a living. Sarah, as she is presented in this chapter, differs from Ernestina in a further way: while the latter is entirely self-obsessed (as we can deduce from her mirror-gazing scene in Chapter 5, and from her anger toward her well-meaning aunt), Sarah is acutely aware of other people's emotions.

The chapter ends on an anticlimactic cliffhanger, if such a paradox can exist. Mrs. Fairley brings the news back to Mrs. Poulteney that Sarah has been seen walking on Ware Commons, a piece of news that the narrator describes as "[s]uch an anticlimax!" This detail holds no significance for the reader, and its significance is not explained in the remaining lines of the chapter. However, Mrs. Poulteney is shocked - and so we are encouraged to read on, to discover why the news is so surprising to her.

Chapter 10:

The beginning of Chapter 10 is dedicated to answering the questions the reader might have from the previous page - what is Ware Commons, and why is it shocking that Sarah Woodruff should walk there? The description of the place - which we don't know is actually Ware Commons until 3 paragraphs in - is quite atmospheric. Emphasis is placed on the strangeness of the place: it has a unique biome compared to its surroundings, meaning that it is a bizarre "tropical jungle," almost "Brazilian," in the heart of mild England (59). This unusual location, "an English garden of Eden," is the perfect place to set the next encounter between Sarah and Charles (59). The first time they met was in the different but equally evocative setting of the wind-blasted Cobb; here, without Ernestina making a third to the party, they are cast as Adam and Eve in this remote and unspoiled landscape.

Charles' sitting and contemplating of the scene around him makes him unexpectedly sad, and this, the narrator argues, is a general Victorian trait: instead of being happy with what one has, for as long as one has it, the Victorian person is sad that the beauty he or she sees will not last forever. The nineteenth century is painted as profoundly pessimistic in this chapter, in contrast to the joyful Renaissance, when people truly knew how to appreciate and depict stunning natural scenes in their art.

Charles comes across Sarah's sleeping form when he looks over the edge of the plateau. It is a strange set-up for second meeting - the first encounter in Chapter 1 was similar in some ways similar, in that Charles saw Sarah much before she saw him, and had to approach her and speak first in order to interact with her. However, the Sarah on the blustery Cobb was intent on her scanning of the sea, full of terrible sorrow, and in a position of some danger because of the waves around her. This Sarah is quite different: she is carefree and asleep, resting in the sun with no pressing mission. We know that her visits to the Cobb are partly intended as an act, as an "exhibition of her shame" (57). Here, on Commons Ware, she is completely off-guard, and obviously expects not to be found by anyone.

The encounter does not produce any sustained interaction - Sarah does not respond to Charles' apology, just as she did not respond to his concerns in Chapter 1, and yet something of huge importance has happened. Sarah seems to have a strange effect on Charles: it was already unusual that he should try to walk down to the sleeping woman, instead of turning around or going some other way, and while he and she are standing face to face in "mutual incomprehension," he briefly loses his "sense of what was proper" (62). He comes to the conclusion - merely by observing her - that she is "innocent" (presumably that she has not slept with the French lieutenant) and "unfairly outcast" by society (62). She elicits feelings of paternal or fraternal care in him, and yet the "sexual...way she l[ies]" awakens memories of Paris in him (61). The end of the chapter tells us explicitly how important this seemingly banal encounter actually is: the narrator insists that "in those brief poised seconds [when Charles waiting for Sarah before walking on]...the whole Victorian Age was lost" (62-63). What he means is that Sarah has begun to dislodge the Victorian in Charles - his duty, his sense of what is proper. Since he is somewhat representative of his whole generation and era, this lapse in Victorian behavior is a sign of a sexual and social thawing that will eventually affect England at large.