As with each chapter of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Chapter One begins with an epigraph. This first one is taken from ‘The Riddle’ by Thomas Hardy: ‘Stretching eyes west/Over the sea,/Wind foul or fair,/Always stood she/Prospect impressed;/Solely out there/Did her gaze rest,/Never elsewhere/Seemed charm to be.’ As the chapters progress, it becomes apparent that this quotation offers a fair description of the eponymous heroine.
The narrative begins in March 1867 and with a description of Lyme Bay in England. A man and woman are walking down the quay at Lyme Regis on a sharp and blustery morning. The Cobb, which is a 700-year-old sea-rampart, is described as the most beautiful on the south coast of England.
The first-person narrator says the Cobb has changed little ‘since the year of which I write’, but Lyme Regis has. In 1867, this town lies to the east of where the Cobb runs back to the land. Sombre gray cliffs lie to the west and there are dense woods above and beyond them.
The narrative returns to the couple and how the local spy might think the two are strangers and ‘people of some taste’. The young lady is dressed fashionably, more so than the ladies of the area, There is also another figure on the Cobb, which is dressed in black and standing motionless whilst staring out to sea. It is described as ‘more like a living memorial to the drowned, a figure from myth, than any proper fragment of the petty provincial day’.
One of the epigraphs introducing Chapter Two makes references to the surplus of women in the nineteenth century. The chapter itself begins with the man (Charles Smithson) and the woman (Tina, or rather, Ernestina as she is usually referred to) walking down the Cobb. He wants to walk back, but she wants to carry on and they agree to do as she desires. She asks what he and her father discussed last Thursday and he tells her ironically that they had a ‘small philosophical disagreement’ about Darwin. Her father clearly does not believe in his theories of evolution as Charles does.
She thinks that the greatest obstacle to their betrothal is that despite her father’s great wealth her grandfather was ‘only’ a draper whereas Charles’s ‘had been a baronet’. He reminds her he is a scientist and, therefore, is bound to disagree with her father and she points out to him that they have been walking on fossils.
Charles notices the other figure on the Cobb and realizes it is a woman. Ernestina informs him it must be ‘poor Tragedy’ and that she has other nicknames. The fishermen call her ‘The French Lieutenant’s …Woman’. Ernestina also says this woman is ‘a little mad’ and she does not like to go near her. After Charles prompts her, she goes on to explain that there is a rumor that the woman did ‘worse’ than fall in love with the French lieutenant and she is now waiting for his return. She now works as ‘a servant of some kind’ for Mrs Poulteney. On Charles’s instigation, they walk closer to the woman and it is noted that she is wearing a man’s riding coat and appears to be oblivious to fashion. Charles makes conversation with her and when she turns to look at him he feels as though she looks straight through him. He thinks her face ‘is not the one expected of the age’, as there is ‘no artifice there, no hypocrisy, no hysteria, no mask’.
Afterwards, Charles thinks repeatedly of the look she gave him. He compares it to a ‘lance’ and feels she has seen him as an ‘unjust enemy’. When Charles and Ernestina walk away from the woman, he tells her that he wishes she had not told him the ‘sordid facts’ as there is no mystery or romance about the woman now. Ernestina teases him for this as he is the scientist, ‘the despiser of novels’.
Analysis – Chapters One and Two
These first two chapters introduce the enigmatic French Lieutenant’s Woman and the readers recognize her difference from others immediately. She is isolated as she stands on the Cobb and rumors are passed around about her in the town, which Ernestina is willing to repeat, and which imply she is of loose morals in this era of obeying convention. She is also described as wearing a man’s coat and, unlike Ernestina, is oblivious to the rules of fashion.
Charles has his interest piqued by this woman and is struck by her face as she refuses (or is unable) to wear the standard mask of hypocrisy. In these first two chapters alone, it is evident that the eponymous heroine is separate and different from the people of the town and is also lower in class than Charles and Ernestina. She embodies a challenge to conformity, in terms of her isolation, dress and supposed history, and continues to stand apart from the crowd.