Looking for the French Lieutenant’s Woman

It wasn’t meant to be a literary trail, yet I suppose visiting an old English teacher comes with its own share of such hazards. I took the train from Waterloo Station, with about (as usual) a minute to spare, although to be fair, I’d set out well on time only to find most of the tube lines closed due to a fire alert. Perhaps London – its human inhabitants and machinery – wasn’t used to the heat, a wave of unexpected warm weather that was to last more than the traditional brief sunny spell.

The journey to Sherborne in Dorset took a little more than two hours, and I stepped off at the platform greeted by the most glorious Autumn day drenched in honey-golden sunshine. We drove to Coomb Terrace, where I’d be staying a few days, and instead of the main house – a bare-stone seventeenth-century cottage – I was taken to a small structure behind it, accessible via a flight of steps overhung with white tall-stemmed flowers. My room used to be a hayloft, and it still retained its sloping ceiling, uneven lime washed walls and wooden floor. I was in what can only be called Enid Blyton heaven.
There was no time to dwell on its quaintness, however. We had a picnic basket to arrange, and cautious as ever about the sun, we didn’t want to waste the afternoon in case it vanished and was never seen again. After brief, frenetic activity in the kitchen involving curiously lumpy mayonnaise, the tragic discovery of very little beer, and an “add everything you can find” salad dressing, we were ready to go.
Our drive to the coast took us through stretches of sweeping Dorset countryside – softly rolling hills and dipping valleys clustered with thick forests. The villages we passed, with their stone walls and housing, their rustic local pubs (usually named “King’s Arms” or something as befitting a largely Royalist area),  seemed gently stuck in an era long past, perhaps wrenched straight out of a novel. A very thick novel. A very thick, bleak novel. A very thick, bleak novel dealing with the epic themes of progress, naturalism, sexuality, and religion.
This was all Thomas Hardy land.
The fictional county of Wessex.
“Hasn’t he fallen out of fashion?” I asked my English teacher.
“Perhaps, but he’s still largely taught around here.”
I suppose I’d based my ill-informed statement on the fact that he’d fallen quite out of trend with me – very early on, when I picked up Tess of the d’Urbervilles in school, skimmed through looking for the “sex” scene (which caused tremendous uproar in 1891), missed it entirely and spent a good part of the second and third sections wondering how Tess had ended up pregnant. Trust me, it isn’t easy to locate, cloaked as it is by wondrously elaborate metaphor. Although given the title of the chapter after the act is “Maiden No More” should have been a clue.
We were driving down an impeccably straight road (built, to no surprise, by the Romans), flanked by hedgerow and beyond that, a vast spillage of grassy farmland knitted like irregular patchwork. My English teacher pointed to a hilly ridge in the distance – ”That’s where Tess walked…along the top.” Not to Stonehenge, as she does towards the end, but earlier, after her rakish cousin has ravished her, after she’s been left penniless by her new husband when he discovers her past, she walks west across the Dorset downs to beg help from her father-in-law, the vicar of Emminster. Tess is starving and desperate, and she sets off at four o’ clock on a freezing December morning, carrying her best shoes so she can change before she meets the vicar. The weather today couldn’t be finer or more different – but suddenly the tragedy and power of the book comes back in overwhelming force.
We pass Dorchester, one of the biggest towns in the area, and also Hardy’s birthplace. It appears as Casterbridge in his writing, and is the setting for one of his most famous works. There’s the King’s Arms Hotel, the Dorchester market and the corn exchange. Further down the road, we pass a decrepit stone chapel, standing solitary in a field – the one where Fanny, in Far From the Madding Crowd, was supposed to have met and wed Tory. (In a terrible twist of chance and fate, she goes to the wrong church, and eventually dies alone in childbirth.)
Apart from all the Hardy talk, we’re also trying to figure out how to get to the sea. I am mostly useless with maps, and reading in a car makes me nauseous, so Big Road Atlas is unceremoniously passed to my english teacher’s son in the back seat. A few hits and misses later, we finally reach Abbotsbury and a tincan sign points “To Chesil Beach”. I must admit that, up until then, I wasn’t quite an Ian McEwan fan – The Comfort of Strangers struck me as something akin to a Hollywood script, and Atonement failed to hold my attention beyond the first section; I found the descriptions overwrought, and hardly empathised with any of the characters. But I’d read the opening chapter of On Chesil Beach in The New Yorker just beforeits release in 2007, and found it lovely, though I’d never gone round to picking up a copy. I knew what it was about – a young, newly married couple, who stay, on their honeymoon, in a hotel by the beach.
“It’s that way,” my English teacher gestures somewhere towards Portland. After a series of misfortunes –  the water container leaked and soaked our picnic blanket, I upturned the salad bowl – we were finally walking across the beach, on the most curious shingle I’ve ever seen. This place is geographically famous, of course, a World Heritage Site, where the shingle, weathered by over six thousand years of storms, forms a straight line twenty-nine kilometres long, enclosing the Fleet and forming a shallow tidal lagoon. The size of the shingle varies from pea-sized at the north-west end to potato-sized at the south-east end by Portland. It is said that sailors and smugglers landing on the beach at night could tell exactly where they were by the size of the shingle – probably not true, but what a great story.
Before us, the sea sparkled in the sun, and to either side the coastline rose and diminished like a fine pencil drawing. We spent a happy afternoon there – eating a marvelously grand lunch and nursing our beer like rare, precious wine. Most of the food had come from the Harvest Festival at Sherborne’s local hall. The salmon tart was delicious. The brownies out of this world. At some point we ventured to the water (at an unbelievably perfect temperature), skimmed stones, caught a starfish, and generally basked in the unaccustomed goodness of the universe.
While the sun slowly sloped to the west, we packed up and lumbered back to the car. As a treat, my English teacher was driving us to Lyme Regis. To see the Cobb where the French Lieutenant’s woman gazed out at sea waiting for her lover.
The drive there was nothing short of spectacular. The road travels along the top of a ridge – to our left lay the sea, lit aflame by the sunset, mirroring the sky, and to our right, a darkening emerald spread of open, undulating fields.
“Why have you come to the prettiest part of England without your camera?”
I could have explained that I found my SLR cumbersome – it was bulky and heavy, my neck ached after carrying it around for long, it made me look like a tourist, and also there was the added pressure of actually taking photographs as opposed to enjoying the place and the moment.
At that moment, though, I felt a bit of an idiot.
When we reached Lyme, it was just after six, and the little town was all a bustle with evening strollers, returning boats, bare-chested fishermen and dog-walkers. The place is set into hills that tumble down to sea, and at one end are the famous fossil cliffs. More well-known, however, is the Cobb. This curious harbour wall, built and rebuilt over the centuries, curves out at sea, taking the brunt of storm and wind, protecting the town like a solid benevolent hand. It forms an intrinsic part of Lyme’s history, having allowed it to develop into an important port and ship-building centre from the 13th century onwards, and also serves as an alternate documenter of its people – under our feet are hundreds of names and dates, painstakingly carved into the stone. We walk to and sit at the very edge of the Cobb, below and around us nothing but rocks, water and breaking waves – the site where Sarah “Tragedy” Woodruff would have stood wrapped in a fluttering black cape.
“That’s where she stayed with the old woman,” says my English teacher, pointing to a cluster of cottages on a sloping street. “And, I think, that,” – a beautiful porticoed house further up the hill – “was where Fowles lived.”
“This is confusing,” her son interrupts. “Are they real? Or is it fiction?”
And she says something that makes me realise why she managed to instill in me, and I’m sure, many others, a love for literature.
“They’re all real to me.”
Our evening at Lyme ended, as most good evenings do, people-watching at a pub by the harbour, with a pint of local ale and a bag of crisps. In the air was a slight wintry chill, and a cool breeze blew in the salty, fishy smell of the sea. While we rated men as they passed (hot, beefy, bald, etc), I found myself thinking about The French Lieutenant’s Woman and what a bold, funny work it was. Written in 1968, it’s a period piece set at the height of the Victorian Age, when the publication of The Origin of Species forced people to begin conversations with questions like, “Are you a Darwinist?”
Over the next few days, I was left mostly on my own, to ramble through the house, drink copious amounts of chilled white wine, and live a vastly sedentary life before my art history classes started back in London. The cottage is one of those places with books and comfortable old sofas in every room (yes, even the loo), and I found myself putting the two together for hours on end. I finally picked up On Chesil Beach – turns out it’s one of the most exquisite novellas I’ve ever read, up there with The Great Gatsby and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s a jewel of a book – funny and tragic in turns, yet always beautifully composed and measured, perfectly formed like the shingle on the beach. On another afternoon, I opened The Mayor of Casterbridge and discovered that despite the slowness, and the deliberated prose, old man Hardy was a brilliant story-teller.
On my train out of Sherborne, I sit by the window, listening to Bon Iver. I didn’t want to leave. Despite its many attractions, at the moment for me, London was the place of loss and heartache. In my bag, though, amidst the carefully collected junk, was a seashell I’d picked up on Chesil Beach – chipped and hardly perfect, yet when I held it up to my ear, I could hear the sea. Yes, of course, there’s some precise scientific explanation of how that’s not true, that it’s only the sound of blood rushing through my head.
I don’t care.
I can hear the sea. Sarah still stands at the edge of the Cobb, Tess is forever on her way to Emminster, Fanny waits by the pew, and Florence and Edward still lie on their hotel bed too nervous to make love.
These stories, they’re all real to me.
Sketch © David Wiseman

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