Places: The French Lieutenant’s Woman

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1969

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Symbolic realism

Time of work: 1867-1869

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Lyme Regis

*Lyme French Lieutenant’s Woman, TheRegis. Old Dorset town on the English Channel. Its manners are old-fashioned, just the place for a conventional and traditional courtship. The novel opens on the Cobb, an ancient breakwater along the shoreline. There Charles Smithson and his intended bride, Ernestina Freeman, see the French lieutenant’s woman, Sarah Woodruff, staring longingly out to sea, evidently trying to find something more than Lyme can provide. Charles lives at the White Lion Hotel (now the Royal Lion Hotel) on Broad Street. Ernestina stays with her aunt a few yards to the north on the west side of that same street. Sarah is a servant in a house located on higher ground not far away. In 1867, at the base of Broad Street on the sea’s edge stand the Assembly Rooms where Charles and Ernestina attend a concert. Dr. Grogan’s rooms are also close to the sea, but farther west near the Cobb.

*Ware Cliffs

*Ware Cliffs. Also known as the Undercliff, a mile-long slope caused by the erosion of the ancient vertical cliff face, located at Lyme’s boundary, stretching west from where the Cobb juts out into the sea. Because the slope tilts toward the Sun, its vegetation is lush and exotic, appropriate to the values that challenge Lyme’s (and Charles’s) conservatism. Here, in stone outcrops, Charles hunts for fossils. Here, too, Sarah walks. In this romantic and erotic place, several miles from conservative Lyme, they meet. Walking back from their first encounter, Charles stops at a farm. That farm, which still exists, is where John Fowles himself lived when he began writing this novel.


*Wiltshire. County in England between Dorset and London where Charles’s uncle has his estate, Wynsyatt, located near Chippenham. At the beginning of the novel, Charles is heir to his uncle’s land and aristocratic title. In the past, Charles shot one of the last great bustards on the nearby Salisbury Plain.


*Exeter. Inland city in Devon located about forty miles west of Lyme Regis, a place where Charles experiences both sexual and religious awakenings. Sarah takes a room in Endicott’s Hotel in a gloomy lower-class part of the city as it slopes westward down to the river Exe. When Charles comes to Exeter, he stays on higher ground at the Ship, an old-fashioned inn probably not far from the cathedral. After Charles’s climactic visit to Sarah, he enters a small nearby church, which is unnamed but still exists.


*London. Great Britain’s capital city and the place of both the new (commerce and art) and the old (sin)–all challenges to the values of Lyme. Charles and Ernestina are both Londoners. Charles owns a big house in Belgravia, an elegant district, but he lives, appropriately to his scientific interests, in a smaller establishment in Kensington, a more intellectual part of the city housing several newly opened museums. When she is not in Lyme, Ernestina lives with her parents on Bayswater Road, a middle-class street running along the north edge of Hyde Park. After he has been disinherited, Charles goes here to see Ernestina’s father, Mr. Freeman. Charles then walks eastward into Mayfair and wanders north until he is horrified to see Mr. Freeman’s great store on Oxford Street.

Charles’s lessons have just begun. He repairs (probably a short distance south) to his club and then to Ma Terpsichore’s brothel, which can be located to the east of Mayfair in Soho. After leaving there, he meets a prostitute who leads him northeastward to her lodgings off Tottenham Court Road, near Warren Street. Later, after he breaks his engagement, he faces Mr. Freeman’s lawyers in chambers at the Inns of Court, located off the Strand.

Several years later when he is told that Sarah has been found, Charles returns to London and goes to her address, 16 Cheyne Walk, home of the poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Cheyne Walk is a newly fashionable street on the banks of the River Thames in Chelsea, southwest of the Houses of Parliament. Sarah has been taken up by the most vital and forward-looking artists of that time. At the very end of the novel, Charles, now bereft of all his illusions and old-fashioned assumptions, stands alone on the banks of the Thames, the river of life.

BibliographyConradi, Peter. John Fowles. New York: Methuen, 1982. A general introduction to Fowles’s fiction. Brief discussion of the novel’s technique and themes.Huffaker, Robert. John Fowles. Boston: Twayne, 1980. A general introduction to Fowles’s fiction. Focuses on the intrusive author, the novelist as character, and the alternative Victorian and modern endings of the book.Olshen, Barry N. John Fowles. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978. An introduction to Fowles’s fiction, focusing on the basic themes in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, including that of the breakup of Victorian culture and the rise of existential modernism.Palmer, William. The Fiction of John Fowles: Tradition, Art, and the Loneliness of Selfhood. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1974. Brief discussion of Fowles’s fiction, focusing on technique and the novel tradition.Wolfe, Peter. John Fowles: Magus and Moralist. Cranbury, N.J.: Bucknell University Press, 1976. Provides a useful summary of the critical reception of the book and discusses how the mystery of Sarah is crucial.
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