The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a 1981 film of historical fiction, contrasting present day relationships, morality and industry with that of the Victorian era in the 1850s. It is an adaptation of a novel by John Fowles, the script was written by Harold Pinter.
The setting is in England, Lyme and London specifically, where Charles, a Darwinian scientist is courting the daughter of a wealthy businessman. The film depicts Charles as somewhat of the laughingstock with the rich citizens of Lyme who regard his profession as folly. His future father-in-law offers him a position in his shipping company which is expanding to “Liverpool and Bristol.” The scenery in this portion of the film depicts frantic building going on in the background fitting with the period of the Industrial revolution.
The film within a film concept has two actors playing the characters in the film “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” but also follows the actors’ relationship with each other. This presents a contrast between the present day (1981) with the Victorian era. In her research on the Victorian era in the film, the actress Anna states that in 1857 there were over 50,000 prostitutes in London.
Sarah Woodruff, the French Lieutenant’s woman, is seen as a morally deficient woman, likened to a prostitute, and goes to work for a rich and “pious” woman. This woman, Mrs. Palfrey (I think) describes Sarah’s actions of walking in the under cliffs and staring out at sea to be “sinful.” She states there is a vast difference between those people from the country and those from London and says there “are gross disorders in the streets.”
This division between what is acceptable in Lyme versus London is seen when Charles is present for tea with his fiance and Mrs. Palfrey, and is scolded for his servant’s attraction to a country girl. There is an obvious division between the upper and lower class which is depicted in Mrs. Palfrey’s treatment of her servants and Sarah.
The prudent relations between male and female in the Victorian era are depicted in Charles’ behavior towards his fiance, for example he asks permission to see her alone in the conservatory. The treatment of women during this period is demonstrated in Sarah Woodruff, that she is labeled a whore, when in fact we find out later, she was as much a virgin as Charles former fiance.
Charles falls in love with Sarah Woodruff, offering to pay for an asylum for her treatment. He ends his engagement, and interestingly he has to appear in a court and be labeled a scoundrel. When Sarah Woodruff disappears, he looks in London, waiting as the factory women get out of work at 5:00 p.m. Presumably, according to the history of this era from the Longman Anthology, most workers would have gone to work as early as 4:00 a.m. that morning (1826). The faces of the women provide a poignant message of the working conditions of that period. Charles also goes to a prostitution area searching for Sarah. He does not find her there, but earlier in the film he had asked her why she didn’t just leave Lyme and all the condemnation and accusations of the townsfolk. Sarah stated that if she went to London, “she knew what she would become.” In the film there are beggars in the streets and London is depicted as a dreary place to live.
Sarah Woodruff, turns her name around to become Mrs. Roughwood and Charles eventually finds her.
The contrast in this film is interesting as both actors sleep with each other though they both apparently have committed relationships. In the end, the male actor seems ready to forsake his marriage for a relationship with the actress, Anna. He mistakenly calls out “Sarah” when she leaves, so it appears he was having difficulty separating fact from fiction.
This film was accurate historically in my opinion, with what I have read this term in the Longman Anthology which states that in the Victorian era working conditions necessitated reform in the 1840’s (1793). The Atlas of Literature describes London in the period in which this film is set as “gentility and beggary, great spaces and cramped crooked streets, leisure and brute work, families and orphans” (96).
This film did an excellent job of contrasting the idle rich in the country and the upper class in London. There was a snobbery that was emphasized, using the servants versus their masters. The condemnation of Sarah Woodruff as a “fallen woman” was contrasted by the facts that later came out. The stark contrasts in England during the Industrial revolution were evident in this film and I felt it was an interesting piece of historical fiction.
Bradbury, Malcolm, ed. The Atlas of Literature. New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1998.
Damrosch, David, ed. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. New York: Longman, 2000.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Dir. Karel Reisz. Perf. Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep. United Artists, 1981.
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