The French Lieutenant's Woman: Chapters 58-61

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Chapter Fifty Eight explains how, in the last 20 months, Charles has becomes as dependent on travelling as an addict does to opium. Palaeontology no longer interests him and Tennyson’s ‘Maud’ becomes his favorite verse. Through all his gloom, he has never considered suicide and clings to the status of outcast as Sarah did. He travels for 15 months in this time and asks Montague to place advertisements asking for information on Sarah Woodruff’s whereabouts.
Of his uncle, twins did not appear as Charles imagined, but a son and heir does appear 13 months into his exile. His greatest enemy is boredom and this drives him home – and home is not England but America.
In Chapter Fifty Nine, Charles travels to Boston and finds it welcoming. He takes pleasure in the newness and finds the forwardness of the women attractive. In these faces, he finds a shadow of Sarah. He begins to advertise for information about her again having stopped for a while.
The narrative moves to Mary and to three months after she told Sam about the woman she had seen in Chelsea. Mary has since had a baby son and something in his eyes cut into Sam’s soul. Two days later, Charles receives a telegram from Montague saying ‘she is found’. Charles’s eyes smart with tears and he asks the hotel desk when the next ship sails for Europe.
Chapter Sixty begins with the information of how, through Charles, Montague engaged a clerk to check that this woman was Sarah. There is a woman at this address named Mrs. Roughwood (which is considered an ‘obvious alias’). Charles visits the house and is taken up to see Sarah. As he walks up the stairs he passes paintings by a notorious artist and discovers Sarah does not work as a governess as he presumed.
Sarah comes over to him and is dressed as a New Woman. They talk and she is surprised when he tells her he has broken off his engagement. She takes him to an artist’s studio and says she sometimes works as ‘his’ assistant and sometimes as his model. Charles wants to know on what terms she lives there, but does not know how to ask. He mistakenly thought he would come and raise her from penury: ‘He was the man who appears at a formal soirée under the impression it was to be a fancy dress ball.’
He explains how Sam let him down and she says she is not the mistress of the artist, but she has found new affections. He notes the formality of the language he uses and how different and direct hers is. He also remembers the intellectual equality in her. She tells him another man does wish to marry her, but she does not want to marry any one. The rival they share is herself and she does not want to share her life: ‘I wish to be what I am, not what a husband, however kind, however indulgent, must expect me to become in marriage.’ The second reason is that she is happy and thinks her happiness depends on not being understood.
She then admits to seeing the notices he placed in the newspapers and that she changed her lodgings because of this. She also made inquiries at this time and discovered he had not married Miss Freeman. He is incredulous at this news and feels like a pawn. He accuses her of taking pleasure in ruining his life. He thinks she hates men and she has summoned him (by sending her details to his solicitor) to suit her purpose. He adds that if there is justice in heaven, she will be judged for eternity.
He goes to leave, but she blocks his exit. She tells him there is a lady in this house who will explain to him that her conduct is less blameworthy than he presumes. He thinks she is referring to her employer’s sister, Christina Rossetti (and the narrator tells the reader he has now decided to stop hiding names); there are hints that there might be a lesbian relationship between the two. Charles waits alone in the studio and the maid brings a child in, and she is the lady who has come to see him.
Sarah is the mother of the child, and she comes in and watches then picks up the child (whose name is Lalage). Charles asks why, and says ‘what if I had never ...’. She replies that it had to be so and that she put it in God’s hands. The chapter ends with her head against his breast and he kisses her hair.
In the final chapter, a man with a beard (who we may presume is the novelist) stands opposite the Rossetti house. He takes out his watch and turns it back a quarter of an hour. He beckons a landau and drives off.
The second ending begins at this point and returns to Charles accusing Sarah of taking pleasure in ruining his life and hopes her punishment will be eternal. She again tries to stop him leaving the room, but he cannot accept her offer of Platonic friendship and fears becoming the pet donkey of the house. He also thinks she can only give in order to possess. He leaves feeling rejected and passes the maid holding a child. He thinks of returning to America and presumes the child may be the daughter of the maid. We are asked not to think this is a less plausible ending and we are told that Charles ‘has at last found an atom of faith in himself’.
Analysis – Chapters Fifty Eight, Fifty Nine, Sixty and Sixty One
The final two chapters give the readers the (as promised) two endings and we are urged to not see the last one as less plausible. The readers are left to decide the ending in a bold move that deconstructs the closure of realist texts. One might be tempted to ask, does Charles stay or go?, but perhaps the only true ending is that this is, after all, a work of fiction and with the death of the author comes the birth of the reader (to paraphrase Roland Barthes’ ‘The Death of the Author’). The authority of the novelist is undermined in Barthes’ essay and this novel as the traditional end is avoided.

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