Friday, 9 November 2012


A while back, I put together a post about John Fowles’ novel; “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”. I re-read the novel at the time of writing the post -- it’s a great book; the erotica is fleeting, but  dark, compelling and intense when you meet it. There’s a couple of chapters that intrigued me and I it was something I wanted to go back to.

To summarise the plot of John Fowles’ book.

“The novel's protagonist is Sarah Woodruff, the Woman of the title, also known unkindly as “Tragedy” and by the unfortunate nickname “The French Lieutenant’s Whore”. She lives in the coastal town of Lyme Regis, as a disgraced woman, supposedly abandoned by a French naval officer named Varguennes. Unknown to her, he is married. Sarah supposedly had an affair with Varguennes before he returned to France.

“She spends her limited time off at the Cobb, a pier jutting out to sea, staring at the sea itself. One day, she is seen there by the gentleman Charles Smithson and his fiancée, Ernestina Freeman, the shallow-minded daughter of a wealthy tradesman whose origins are Scottish. Ernestina tells Charles something of Sarah’s story, and he develops a strong curiosity about her. Eventually, he and she begin to meet clandestinely, during which times Sarah tells Charles her history, and asks for his support, mostly emotional. Despite trying to remain objective, Charles eventually sends Sarah to Exeter, where he, during a journey, cannot resist stopping in to visit and see her. At the time she has suffered an ankle injury; he visits her alone and after they have made love he realises that she had been, contrary to the rumours, a virgin.”
Charles Smithson has a long conversation with Doctor Grogan, the towns’ elderly physician, in which Charles tries to make sense of Sarah Woodruff’s strange behaviour. Doctor Grogan offers Charles his analysis of Sarah’s character.

“I am a young woman of superior intelligence and some education. I think the world has done badly by me. I am not in full command of my emotions. I do foolish things, such as throwing myself at the head of the first handsome rascal who is put in my path. What is worse, I have fallen in love with being a victim of fate. I put out a very professional line in the way of looking melancholy. I have tragic eyes. I weep without explanation. Et cetera. Et cetera. And now…” the little doctor waved his hand at the door, as if invoking magic “…enter a young god. Intelligent. Good-looking. A perfect specimen of that class my education has taught me to admire. I see he is interested in me. The sadder I seem, the more interested he appears to be. I kneel before him, he raises me to my feet. He treats me like a lady. Nay, more than that. In a spirit of Christian brotherhood he offers to help me escape from my unhappy lot.”

“Now I am very poor. I can use none of the wiles the more fortunate of my sex employ to lure mankind into their power.” He raised his forefinger. “I have but one weapon. The pity I inspire in this kindhearted man. Now pity is a thing that takes a devil of a lot of feeding. I have fed this Good Samaritan my past and he has devoured it. So what can I do? I must make him pity my present. One day, when I am walking where I have been forbidden to walk, I seize my chance. I show myself to someone I know will report my crime to the one person who will not condone it. I get myself dismissed from my position. I disappear, under the strong presumption that it is in order to throw myself off the nearest clifftop. And then, in extremis and de profundis—or rather de altis—I cry to my saviour for help.” He left a long pause then, and Charles’s eyes slowly met his. The doctor smiled, “I present what is partly hypothesis, of course.”

Before Charles leaves, doctor Grogan gives him a manuscript -- the Doctor wants Charles’ eyes to be opened when he reads the bizarre collection of case studies of other “hysterical” women. It is important to remember that for the Victorians a diagnosis of hysteria in women was a euphemism for sexual frustration.

Through the eyes of his character, Charles John Fowles translates the document (he tells us that it is written in French) Charles reads;

“If I glance back over my long career as a doctor, I recall many incidents of which girls have been the heroines, although their participation seemed for long impossible…
Some forty years ago, I had among my patients the family of a lieutenant-general of cavalry. He had a small property some six miles from the town where he was in garrison, and he lived there, riding into town when his duties called. He had an exceptionally pretty daughter of sixteen years’ age. She wished fervently that her father lived in the town. Her exact reasons were never discovered, but no doubt she wished to have the company of the officers and the pleasures of society there. To get her way, she chose a highly criminal procedure: she set fire to the country home. A wing of it was burned to the ground. It was rebuilt. New attempts at arson were made: and one day once again part of the house went up in flames. No less than thirty attempts at arson were committed subsequently. However nearly one came upon the arsonist, his identity was never discovered. Many people were apprehended and interrogated. The one person who was never suspected was that beautiful young innocent daughter. Several years passed; and then finally she was caught in the act; and condemned to life imprisonment in a house of correction.”

The document gives another case study;

“In a large German city, a charming young girl of a distinguished family found her pleasure in sending anonymous letters whose purpose was to break up a recent happy marriage. She also spread vicious scandals concerning another young lady, widely admired for her talents and therefore an object of envy. These letters continued for several years. No shadow of suspicion fell on the authoress, though many other people were accused. At last she gave herself away, and was accused, and confessed to her crime… She served a long sentence in prison for her evil.
Again, at the very time and in this very place where I write, the police are investigating a similar affair…”

Charles reads on;

“Professor Herholdt of Copenhagen knew an attractive young woman of excellent education and well-to-do parents. He, like many of his colleagues, was completely deceived by her. She applied the greatest skill and perseverance to her deceits, and over a course of several years. She even tortured herself in the most atrocious manner. She plunged some hundreds of needles into the flesh of various parts of her body: and when inflammation or suppuration had set in she had them removed by incision. She refused to urinate and had her urine removed each morning by means of a catheter. She herself introduced air into her bladder, which escaped when the instrument was inserted. For a year and a half she rested dumb and without movement, refused food, pretended spasms, fainting fits, and so on. Before her tricks were discovered, several famous doctors, some from abroad, examined her and were horror-struck to see such suffering. Her unhappy story was in all the newspapers, and no one doubted the authenticity of her case. Finally, in 1826, the truth was discovered. The sole motives of this clever fraud (cette adroite trompeuse) were to become an object of admiration and astonishment to men, and to make a fool of the most learned, famous and perceptive of them. The history of this case, so important from the psychological point of view, may be found in Herholdt: Notes on the illness of Rachel Hertz between 1807 and 1826.”

And again;

“At Luneburg, a mother and daughter hit on a scheme whose aim was to draw a lucrative sympathy upon themselves—a scheme they pursued to the end with an appalling determination. The daughter complained of unbearable pain in one breast, lamented and wept, sought the help of the professions, tried all their remedies. The pain continued; a cancer was suspected. She herself elected without hesitation to have the breast extirpated; it was found to be perfectly healthy. Some years later, when sympathy for her had lessened, she took up her old role. The other breast was removed, and was found to be as healthy as the first. When once again sympathy began to dry up, she complained of pain in the hand. She wanted that too to be amputated. But suspicion was aroused. She was sent to hospital, accused of false pretences, and finally dispatched to prison.”


“Lentin, in his Supplement to a practical knowledge of medicine (Hanover, 1798) tells this story, of which he was a witness. From a girl of no great age were drawn, by the medium of forceps after previous incision of the bladder and its neck, no less than one hundred and four stones in ten months. The girl herself introduced the stones into her bladder, even though the subsequent operations caused her great loss of blood and atrocious pain. Before this, she had had vomiting, convulsions and violent symptoms of many kinds. She showed a rare skill in her deceptions.
After such examples, which it would be easy to extend, who would say that it is impossible for a girl, in order to attain a desired end, to inflict pain upon herself?”

Charles reflects on what he has read.

“Those latter pages were the first Charles read. They came as a brutal shock to him, for he had no idea that such perversions existed—and in the pure and sacred sex. Nor, of course, could he see mental illness of the hysteric kind for what it is: a pitiable striving for love and security. He turned to the beginning of the account of the trial and soon found himself drawn fatally on into that. I need hardly say that he identified himself almost at once with the miserable Emile de La Ronciere; and towards the end of the trial he came upon a date that sent a shiver down his spine. The day that other French lieutenant was condemned was the very same day that Charles had come into the world. For a moment, in that silent Dorset night, reason and science dissolved; life was a dark machine, a sinister astrology, a verdict at birth and without appeal, a zero over all.”

I put up this post firstly, because the case studies interest and intrigue me. The French Lieutenant’s Woman, published in 1969 was inspired by the 1823 novel Ourika, by Claire de Duras, which John Fowles translated into English in 1977 (and revised in 1994).
(That bit of information came from Wiki.)

The case studies are interesting. Women and children stepping out of the roles that are considered “natural”, for their respective gender, age and profession. These days we are used to people shocking us with their behaviour. Myra Hindley, the child abductor and murderess who was more vilified than her partner, Ian Brady. Then there was Mary Bell who at ten years old murdered two little boys; children don’t do such things. And Beverly Allit, the nurse, who murdered little babies on her hospital ward.

There will, I am sure be comparable cases in the U.S.

Are the case studies real in the novel? Or did John Fowles invent them for the purposes of his novel?
Throughout the novel, he introduces each chapter with text from a nineteenth century source; he uses Karl Marx a lot and Charles Darwin to illustrate where the chapter is taking the reader. John Fowles was a scholar as well as a novelist and he cites his sources carefully. He is meticulous.

But a further reason that I find these chapters intriguing, is that John Fowles was a  scholar -- he cited everything. Yet with these extracts he gives little away. With the exception of  “Lentin, in his Supplement to a practical knowledge of medicine (Hanover, 1798)” as a source, John Fowles is uncharacteristically silent.

Have any of you come across the case studies? Are they factual? I’d be interested to know what you think.

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