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


The French Lieutenant's Woman: Chapters 14-16

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Chapter Fourteen begins with an explanation of how visitors to Lyme Regis in the nineteenth century were subject to the scrutiny of the town. Charles has had to endure this sensation two or three times a week on his visits with Ernestina and her aunt.
The morning after he went to Undercliff, he, Ernestina and Aunt Tranter go to Marlborough House to see Mrs. Poulteney. He could not avoid this fate especially as ‘foreign’ visitors (from out of town) are a currency for the likes of this hostess.
When they arrive, Mrs. Poulteney insists that Sarah stays. Mrs. Tranter demonstrates her kindness and asks Sarah to visit her when Ernestina has returned home. Charles notes that Sarah studiously avoids his eyes and does not betray the fact that they met the day before. He also notices that Mrs. Poulteney ignores her (unless she wants her to do something for her) as does Ernestina, which annoys him.
Towards the end of their visit, Charles begins to see that Sarah’s ‘silent meekness’ runs contrary to her nature and has completely disassociated herself from her employer. At one point, Mrs. Poulteney criticizes Mary for talking to Sam and Charles defends both Mary and Aunt Tranter by being sarcastic. Sarah looks into Charles’s eyes and for the first time the two strangers realize they have a common enemy. Whilst this is happening, Sam talks to Mary at Aunt Tranter’s house and their conversation is ‘surprisingly serious’.
In Chapter Fifteen, Charles and Ernestina have made up after the awkwardness at Mrs. Poulteney’s and Ernestina decides to give Mary her green walking dress. Alone with Sam later, Charles advises Sam to keep away from Mary and Sam responds by saying ‘we’re not ‘orses. We’re ‘ooman beings’. Charles apologizes, but still says Sam should avoid Mary until he has discovered from Mrs. Tranter if Mary will permit his attentions.
Chapter Sixteen informs us that five uneventful days have since passed and Ernestina has changed after falling into Charles’s disfavor at Mrs. Poulteney’s house. She has become more deferential to him, but he finds this somewhat cloying. Although he enjoys being adulated, he has also been used to years of ‘very free bachelorhood’ and in his own way is also a ‘horrid, spoilt child’. Filling the evenings ‘without benefits of cinema or television’ was difficult for those not working a 12 hour day. Charles sprawls across a sofa whilst Ernestina reads him a poem. She feels ‘elevated and purified’ by this eulogy to Florence Nightingale.
The narrative cuts abruptly away from this scene to explain that although it is thought women were chained to their roles at this time, such as Ernestina, John Stuart Mill had argued only the week before (April 6th 1867) that it was time to give women equal rights at the ballot box.
The narrative then returns to Ernestina reading the poem out loud to Charles. When she realizes he is asleep, she throws the book at him. The next day he is granted an afternoon of ‘wretched grubbing’ rather than having to discuss the furnishings of the house they have not yet found.
On his search for fossils in the area where he last saw Sarah, he sees her again halfway up the path. As she passes him, she slips and he helps her to her feet. He looks at her face and sees that her eyes cannot hide her intelligence. He associates her face and the flash from her eyes with foreign women and foreign beds.
Although this faintly shocks him, thanks to his interest in Darwinism he is less inclined to blame her for her sensuality than she might have imagined. He has also read Madame Bovary and remembers this name when he looks at her face. He begins to talk about how Mrs. Tranter has explained she is not happy in her situation, but she walks away swiftly to hide when she hears men approaching. The men disappear when they see Charles and he tells her it is unnecessary for her to hide. She replies that a gentleman who cares for his good name cannot be seen with ‘the scarlet woman of Lyme’.
He tells her she should leave the town and Miss Freeman and Mrs. Tranter would make inquiries for another position for her in London. She thanks him but says she cannot leave. He argues that if the French gentleman does not return, he is not worthy of her. If he does come back, he will track her down.  She informs him that she knows he will never return as she received a letter long since and now knows he is married. She walks away and leaves Charles standing alone.
Analysis – Chapters Fourteen, Fifteen and Sixteen
Because Charles is reminded of Madame Bovary as he looks into Sarah’s eyes, the narrative makes use of this nineteenth-century novel about adultery and disappointment to strengthen its case about Sarah’s outcast status.
It is telling that he shows an understanding of her through literature and it is as though the novel is reiterating Chapter Thirteen where the point is made that all we know is fiction. By contrast, one may also read Charles’s reference as an indication of the narrow world he lives in; Sarah is only knowable to him through books and not by familiarity. 


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