The French Lieutenant's Woman

The French Lieutenant's Woman Glossary


(page 68, " disgracefully plebeian a name Smithson is.")

In Ancient Rome, a plebeian was a common person of lower status than a patrician. Now, the word, used as an adjective, means 'common' or 'lacking refinement'.


(page 24, "One day, when she was convalescent...")

Recovering from an illness.

Cryptic coloration

(page 118, "Darwin's phrase: cryptic coloration")

Survival by learning to blend with one's surroundings. This is usually used as a scientific term to describe camouflage, but in the novel it refers to the characters' ability (or, in Sarah's case, inability) to conform to society's expectations and assumptions.

Byronic ennui

(page 19, "He had, in short, all the Byronic ennui with neither of the Byronic outlets: genius and adultery.")

Byron was the famous English romantic poet, who has gone down in history as a brooding, darkly seductive womanizer and an adventurer. Here, Charles is described as having the same dissatisfaction and deep boredom ("ennui") with the world as Byron, although he is a scientist and not a poet.


(page 9, "Lyme Regis, the small but ancient eponym of the inbite...")

A name or a noun that takes its name from another name or a noun. For example, Lyme Bay takes its name from the town of Lyme Regis. Lyme Regis is therefore the eponym of Lyme Bay.


(page 15, "...whether his interest in paleontology was a sufficient use for his natural abilities...")

Paleontology is a branch of scientific study focused around fossils, and what they can help us to deduce about evolution and ecology over time.


(page 217, "...the city...had a distinctly louche area...")

Part of Exeter is described as being "louche," which means seedy or unsavory, almost like a red light district. This part of the city, as the narrator points out, is an excellent place to hide, if you have fallen foul of stern Victorian morality, and it is in this louche part of town is where Sarah goes at the beginning of chapter 36.


(page 87, "...Charles smiled and raised eyebrows and nodded his way through this familiar purgatory...")

In Catholicism, purgatory is a place of suffering where sinners must go and spend time before they can move on to heaven - sort of like serving a jail sentence before you are forgiven of your sins. Here, Charles is comparing the tedious babble of Mrs. Poulteney and Mrs. Tranter to purgatory: a temporary state of suffering from which he will soon be released.


(page 47, "She knew Sarah faced penury...")

A state of extreme poverty. At the beginning of the novel, Sarah is looking for a place to stay, but with her reputation in tatters, she doesn't have many options, and her friend Mrs. Talbot knows that Sarah faces destitution and ruin.


(page 25, "...she had set up a home for fallen women - true, it was of such repentant severity that most of the beneficiaries of her Magdalen Society scrambled back down to the pit of iniquity as soon as they could...")

Immorality; wickedness; sinfulness.


(page 54, "Mrs. Poulteney had great reliance on the power of the tract.")

Small pamphlets, usually religious in nature, which are either distributed or left for people to pick up and read. In The French Lieutenant's Woman, Sarah Woodruff is in charge of distributing tracts on Mrs. Poulteney's behalf.


(page 53, "...[the doctor] gave [Mrs. Poulteney] a brief lecture on melancholia...")

A deep sadness or melancholic gloom. The modern-day word for what the Victorians meant by melancholia is 'depression'.


(page 66, "Like all soubrettes, [Mary] dared to think things her young mistress did not; and knew it.")

A pert maidservant.


(page 109, "His ambition was very simple: he wanted to be a haberdasher."

A seller of men's clothing.


(page 142, "And then too there was that strangely Egyptian quality among the Victorians; that claustrophilia...")

The love of closed, confined spaces. The Victorians are claustrophilic because they subscribe to this motto, according to Fowles: "Hide reality, shut out nature."


(page 212, "At first sight the answer seems clear - it is the business of sublimation.")

A psychoanalytical defense mechanism that transforms unacceptable feelings into acceptable behavior. In this case, the Victorians sublimate their sexual desires into scientific and artistic progress.

The Pygmalion myth

(page 248, "...she was his passive victim, her head resting on his shoulder, marble made warmth...the Pygmalion myth brought to a happy end.")

Pygmalion was a legendary Greek sculptor who fell in love with the perfectly lifelike beauty of one of his statues. The goddess Venus brought the sculpture to life, and Pygmalion married here. Here, Sarah the prostitute is so passive and statue-like that Charles is compared to Pygmalion, totally in control of her. He is the active participant in the sexual encounter; she is passive.


(page 294, "My duenna is out to lunch.")

An older lady who acts as a chaperone for the young girls in her charge; here, Ernestina refers to Aunt Tranter as her duenna.


(page 303, "Sam was now the enraged bantam.")

A small but aggressive cock - here, Sam is small and less important than Charles, but his anger makes him a fighter.


(page 340, "...the Southerners who knew only too well what the carpetbaggers' solicitude for Negro emancipation was really about.")

In the United States, a carpetbagger was a Northerner who moved to the South after the American Civil War, ostensibly to help promote freedom there, but also to make money during the Reconstruction era.