The French Lieutenant's Woman Study Guide (Choose to Continue)


The French Lieutenant's Woman: Chapters 10-11

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In Chapter Ten, ‘one of the strangest landscapes in Southern England’ is described. This is the Undercliff, which resembles a tropical jungle in the summer and lies between Lyme Regis and Axmouth. It is referred to as an ‘English Garden of Eden’ and this is where Charles enters after climbing the path from the shore (on March 29th 1867). The eastern half of this area is known as Ware Commons.
He comes across Sarah in a meadow and on a ‘natural balcony’. At first he thinks the body is a corpse, but then realizes she is asleep. He sees something ‘intensely tender and yet sexual’ in the way she sleeps and she reminds him of a girl he knew in Paris.
He recognizes her as the French Lieutenant’s Woman when he walks closer. He stares at her and is overcome with paternal feelings for her being ‘unfairly outcast’. He can only think she has been driven to this place in despair, ‘in an age where women were semi-static, timid, incapable of sustained physical effort’. She awakes whilst he stands over her and he apologizes and walks away. The chapter ends with the information that although Charles does not know it, in the brief seconds when he pauses to see if she has followed him ‘the whole Victorian age was lost’.
At approximately the same time, Chapter Eleven shifts to Ernestina as she gets restlessly from her bed and looks sulkily in her diary. It is revealed that she has a fear of Charles’s background and is jealous that he may have loved somebody else before or at present. He is 11 years older, has travelled abroad and does not tell her about her past.
The narrative moves to Mary, who is the maid at the home of Ernestina’s aunt (Aunt Tranter), and she is regarded by the narrator as the prettiest of the three young women who pass through these pages. Her great-great-granddaughter is 22 years old this month and resembles her ancestor. Her face is known over the entire world and she is a celebrated film actress. However, this is not the face for 1867 and this is exemplified with the news that Mrs. Poulteney sacked her three years ago.
Mary is not without faults, though; for example, she is envious of Ernestina and thinks Charles is too good for her. Mary leaves and enters to coincide with Charles and understands why Ernestina goes upstairs so abruptly after Charles leaves (because Ernestina is insecure and jealous about him). Mary brings flowers to Ernestina’s room, in the present, and Ernestina warns Mary to be more discreet (that is, not to flirt with Sam so obviously). She gives Mary a look that would not have disgraced Mrs. Poulteney.
The narrative breaks again to explain how, in London by the mid-nineteenth century, ‘the beginning of a plutocratic stratification of society had begun’. Disraeli and Ernestina’s grandfather are given as examples of how although nothing took the place of ‘good blood’, ‘good money and good brains’ gave a ‘passable enough facsimile of social standing’. After the first meeting, both Charles and Ernestina liked each other. Her parents secretly ‘vetted’ him and they made no show of matrimonial traps as others had in the past. Ernestina planted the ‘fatal seed’ of their marrying when she appeared to joke about him becoming ‘a sour old bachelor’. He gave her a sprig of jasmine when he showed her his desire to marry her and she keeps this in her diary.
Analysis – Chapters Ten and Eleven
Charles notices Sarah asleep in the ‘English Garden of Eden’ and this may be interpreted as the beginning of his fall. This suggestion is reinforced when he pauses to see if she has followed him and ‘the whole Victorian age was lost’. He has succumbed to a temptation and in this brief time he has questioned the received values of the age (and of his class) which mean that his engagement to Ernestina has locked him to her. By momentarily waiting for Sarah, he has undone the conventional morality that means he must be monogamous and dutiful.
There is a further examination of class differences and hierarchical thinking in Chapter Eleven when the readers are told that Mary’s face, and position, are disregarded in this period. In the more equal English society of the twentieth century, her ancestor is celebrated; but, in 1867 she is limited by her social class.


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