The novel received mixed critical attention at its initial publication. Critics focused both praise and critique on its style, plot and approach to metafiction and metahistory. The following samples those responses:[notes 2]
The November 1969 New York Times review by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt warned readers to "be certain there's only one log on the fire. If, unhappily, you lack the fireplace by which this book should be read, set an alarm clock." Lehmann-Haupt found the book to begin as "irresistibly novelistic that he has disguised it as a Victorian romance," yet the metafictional construction by the end positively "explodes all the assumptions of our Victorian sensibilities." Time magazine's November 1969 review described the novel as "resourceful and penetrating talent at work on that archaic form." In March 1970, the magazine American Libraries named the novel as one of the "Notable Books of 1969," calling it "A successful blending of two worlds as the author writes in modern terminology of the Victorian era."
Not all of the reviews were positive; for example, Roger Sale in The Hudson Review largely criticized the novel, saying, "At times it seems that the commentary is not so bad and the novel awful, but at others Fowles makes the novel almost work and the comments are embarrassingly vulgar." Ultimately, the reviewer concluded that the novel was "stumbling and gauche and much much too long, but curiously attractive too."