The French Lieutenant's Woman: Chapters 19-21

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That evening, in Chapter Nineteen, Charles (‘the China-bound victim’) is to play host to Ernestina, Aunt Tranter and Doctor Grogan at his hotel.
At the meal, Charles sees Ernestina is more easily shocked than the other two older guests and feels nostalgia for their more open culture. He also thinks there may be shallowness underneath Ernestina’s acuteness, but then considers she is a child among three adults and squeezes her hand.
After the two men have escorted the women home, Charles and the doctor have drinks together and Charles turns the conversation to Sarah. Grogan thinks it would be best for her if she left ‘the palace of piety’ and says she has refused his help. He talks of a similar case where a widow became addicted to melancholia as one becomes addicted to opium. He sees Sarah as wanting to be a ‘sacrificial victim’. He also says she is not able to reason clearly like ‘us men’.
The narrative breaks to focus on Sarah asleep in bed. She is sharing it with Millie, a young servant. If Mrs. Poulteney had entered, she would have just closed the door as ‘some vices were then so unnatural that they did not exist’. The narrator doubts if Mrs Poulteney has heard of the word lesbian and knows that she thinks it is a fact that women do not experience carnal pleasure. However, Sarah is not a lesbian; she cares for Millie and treats her like one of her father’s sickly lambs, or like a sister.
The narrative then returns to Charles and Grogan and their discussion, which has now shifted to palaeontology and the influence of Lyell. They go on to celebrate the work of Darwin. Charles feels as though he understands all – ‘all except Sarah, that is’.
Two days after these events, Charles and Sarah meet again in Chapter Twenty. She gives him another fossil as an ‘expiatory offering’ and takes him to a secluded place. She tells him about Varguennes, the French lieutenant. She says she firstly admired his courage, but did not know then that men could be both brave and false. She informs Charles he cannot fully understand as he ‘was not born a woman’.
A week before Varguennes was due to leave, he told Sarah he wanted her to come to France with him. She tells Charles that when she went to Weymouth she saw that he had changed and that she had just been an amusement for him during his convalescence. She could have left him then, but she stayed and now sees herself as doubly dishonored by choice and circumstance. She explains that she gave up ‘a woman’s most precious possession’ (implying she lost her virginity) so that she would never be the same again. She did not love him; she did it so people would point and say ‘there walks the French Lieutenant’s Whore’. She could not marry him so she married shame. She threw herself off the precipice or plunged a knife into her heart. If she had left and returned to Mrs. Talbot’s (without sleeping with him), she should be truly dead by now (from suicide). Her shame has kept her alive, as well as knowing that she is not like other women. She feels she has a sort of freedom as she has set herself beyond the pale. Whilst listening to her, Charles is reminded of his own dissatisfaction.
In Chapter Twenty One, Sarah continues and tells how Varguennes left the next day saying he would return at once. She went back to Mrs. Talbot and said she had met him and that he would marry her one day. She did not tell Mrs. Talbot that it was partly her happiness (with her family and station in life) that had driven her (Sarah) away.
A month later, Sarah learned that Varguennes was married and she told him her affection for him had ceased. She has concealed this from everybody else to be what she must be: an outcast. Charles still thinks she should leave and argues that it is not her duty to ‘offend’ society. She says she will reflect on this for a day or two.
As they go to leave, they hear laughter and Charles sees Sam and Mary through the leaf covering. Whilst Charles and Sarah hide, she smiles at him and this is as strange and shocking for him as if she had thrown off her clothes. He sees irony in her smile, as though she is saying ‘where are your pretensions now?’, and he feels as though he has one foot over the precipice. He says they must never meet again and she gives the smallest nod of assent. Finally, Sam and Mary leave and Sarah’s face has its ‘old lancing look again’.
Analysis – Chapters Nineteen, Twenty and Twenty One
As Sarah confides in Charles, and they become closer, he feels himself stepping over the precipice. This sense of falling, and the added reference to the Fall in the Bible, has also been mentioned by Sarah (and the narrator) as they come closer to forming a relationship. The idea of their Fall is apt in this place which is known as Lover’s Lane, and which is also compared to Eden. They are not lovers as such, but propriety means that they should not be alone together especially in such a notorious area.
Sarah’s story of her relationship with Varguennes and her decision to be seen as an outcast rather than be overlooked also challenge the rules that Charles lives by. She is correct to say he will not understand as he ‘was not born a woman’. It is also elemental to the novel that she is only an outcast as long as those around her are unable to see beyond the conventions they have been raised with, and Charles is as unable to do this as others who share his mindset and fortunate position.

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