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


The French Lieutenant's Woman: Chapters 3-5

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Chapter Three begins later when Charles is in his rooms at his hotel, the White Lion, and he wonders if Ernestina would ever understand him as well as he understands her.
He thinks of himself as a ‘scientific young man’ and probably would not have been surprised about the later advent of the aeroplane, jet engine, television and radar, but would have been astounded with the ‘changed attitude to time itself’. The narrator says that in the twentieth century, the supposed great misery is the lack of time. For Charles and most of his contemporaries, the problem was ‘spinning out what one did to occupy the vast colonnades of leisure available’. The readers are told that Charles knows nothing of the ‘German Jew’ working quietly in the British Museum library. This is a reference to Karl Marx, and the first volume of Kapital is due to appear in print in six months time. The implication is that Charles is wholly ignorant of those below him in class.
Charles’s mother died in childbirth, and the child died too, when he was aged one. His father lived largely for pleasure and died ‘very largely of it in 1856’. In the present, Charles is the sole heir to his uncle (Sir Robert Smithson).
As a second year student, Charles had ended up ‘in carnal possession of a naked girl’ and rushed into the idea of taking Holy Orders. His horrified father rushed him off to Paris and ‘his tarnished virginity was soon blackened out of recognition’. He later returned to England as an agnostic and his father died three months later.
Charles had been adrift initially and then discovered his grandfather’s mania for archaeology was taken seriously by people outside the family. Charles then became increasingly interested in palaeontology, even though his uncle disapproved.
The narrator describes Charles’s distinguishing trait as laziness. He sets his sights high, as ‘intelligent idlers always have’ and also gains a reputation for ‘aloofness and coldness’ which attracted pretty young girls and their ambitious parents. By the age of 30, he became wary of ‘matrimonial traps’ and consoled his uncle that he was still looking for the right girl (as this is before he meets Ernestina).
Chapter Four shifts focus to Mrs. Poulteney’s kitchen and how the enormous range needs three fires to keep it running. Mrs Fairley runs this kitchen and many servants pass through as they are expected to work 100-hour weeks. Both Mrs. Fairley and Mrs. Poulteney are described as ‘incipient sadists’.
Mrs. Poulteney is obsessed with dirt and immorality and nothing escapes her eagle eye in either of these fields. The readers are told ‘there would have been a place in the Gestapo’ for her and she is the epitome of ‘all the most crassly arrogant traits’ of the British Empire. Within her class, though, she is renowned for her charity; the evidence for this is in her taking in the French Lieutenant’s Woman in 1866. Mrs. Poulteney took her in because of the ‘very simple secret’ that she is afraid of hell. With this work of charity, as inspired by her vicar, she hopes God’s judgement will be favorable. When she asked him if he knew of a suitable woman she could employ as a companion (who has come upon adverse circumstances), he told her of Sarah Woodruff (the so-called French Lieutenant’s Woman).
In Chapter Five, Ernestina is described as having ‘exactly the right face for her age’. It is small and delicate as a violet. She can cast her eyes down when required, but a minute tilt at the eyelids has proven to be irresistible for Charles. As the only child of rich parents, she has been their only focus and they have cosseted her as a child and adult. She was born in 1846 and went on to die on the day Hitler invaded Poland, so her parents’ fears for health had been groundless.
As she undresses in the mirror, a sexual thought crosses her mind and she puts on a peignoir. She is ignorant of the reality of copulation and this frightens her as does the ‘aura of pain and brutality’ that the act seems to require. She wants a husband and children, but thinks the payment is excessive. The chapter ends with her taking out her diary, unlocking it and turning to the back where she has written the date she is due to marry Charles. She crosses out today’s date in the countdown to the wedding.
Analysis – Chapters Three, Four and Five
In Chapter Five, a brief introduction to Ernestina’s views on sex and marriage are given as she counts the days down to her wedding day, but cannot bear to consider the thought of sex. She is depicted as a representative of a woman of her class living in her era. She has been protected as a child and it becomes apparent that she remains so as an adult. As a bourgeois, or rather upper-middle class woman, her face is apt for how people choose to regard her: it is small and as delicate as a flower and, therefore, it symbolizes how well she performs the prescribed female role as a feminine woman.
Sarah, by contrast, has been given little introduction although the reasons for Mrs. Poulteney employing her have been given. Ernestina has already explained to Charles how rumors of Sarah abound in Lyme Regis and Mrs. Poulteney’s decision to take her on is based on the idea that Sarah needs a charitable act of kindness. This kindness is, of course, tempered as she is only in the Poulteney household in order to give her employer kudos and to save her from hell.


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