After his encounter with Sarah, Charles continues walking through the woods of Ware Commons in Chapter Twelve. He stops at the Dairy for a drink of milk and sees Sarah pass by. Charles asks the dairyman if this lady often comes this way and he replies, she is not a lady ‘she be the French Lout’n’nt’s Hoer’, and she does pass by often enough.
Charles walks on and catches up with Sarah. He is determined to show her that ‘not everybody in her world was a barbarian’. He asks if he may accompany her, but she says she would rather be alone. She then asks him to tell no one that he has seen her here. He then visits Ernestina and she wants to know everything he has done that day. He describes all but seeing the French Lieutenant’s Woman as Ernestina has twice made it clear that this woman is distasteful to her.
The narrative shifts back two weeks earlier and explains why Mrs. Poulteney thinks of Ware Commons as comparable to Sodom and Gomorrah. It is because this is the nearest place to Lyme Regis where people can go without being spied upon. Gypsies have also been known to stay there when a child went missing (which is, of course, fuel to Mrs. Poulteney’s fire). Even worse, the track to the Dairy is known locally as Lover’s Lane and there is also an antediluvian tradition of young people gathering there in Midsummer to celebrate the solstice. A year ago, a committee of ladies (generalled by Mrs. Poulteney) tried to have the track gated, fenced and closed, but ‘more democratic voices prevailed’. When Mrs. Fairley informs Mrs. Poulteney that Sarah has been seen there, Mrs. Poulteney accuses Sarah of committing a sin.
Mrs. Poulteney has never set foot on these Commons and taking laudamum, as prescribed by the doctor, which in reality is opium, she has become addicted to the drug and has vivid dreams. She is then described by the narrator as ‘an inhabitant of the Victorian valley of the dolls’.
Sarah makes it clear to her employer that she just wants solitude and did not know the place is associated with sin. Mrs. Poulteney relents a little, but insists she only walks where it is ‘seemly’ from now on. Later that night, Sarah stands at her window and stares out to sea. She is crying silent tears, but is not participating in a ‘mysterious vigil for Satan’s sails’; instead, she is standing at the window as ‘a preliminary to jumping from it’. The narrator says ‘I will not make her teeter on the window-sill’, though, as the readers know she was alive a fortnight later (when the novel begins). This chapter ends with the narrator asking, ‘who is Sarah?’
Chapter Thirteen marks a significant break in the novel as the narrator (and, it is implied, the novelist) says he does not know who Sarah is as this story is ‘all imagination’. Until now, he has pretended to be like the novelists of the period when this novel is set: that he stands next to God in his authority over the text. Readers may think novelists have fixed plans when writing, but we are reminded that all authors write for different reasons, such as money, fame, reviewers, parents, friends, loved ones, vanity, pride, curiosity, amusement etc. All novelists share the desire to create ‘worlds as real as, but other than the world that is’. He argues that when characters and events begin to disobey the writer, they begin to live. He uses the example of ordering Charles to walk straight back to Lyme Regis after leaving Sarah, but instead he went to the Dairy and thus gained autonomy. He concedes that the novelist is still ‘a god’. ‘since he creates’, but freedom rather than authority is the first principle.
The narrator does not think he has broken the illusion (by spelling out to the readers that this is a novel we are reading) as ‘fiction is woven into all’; we do not even think of our own past as real as we fictionalize it and put it away.
The narrative returns to Sarah and how she continues to haunt Ware Commons despite the prohibition. So, in a way, she did jump from the window the night she is recorded looking from it, ‘and was living in a kind of long fall’.
Summary – Chapters Twelve and Thirteen
Chapter Thirteen is significant for the insertion of the novelist as Fowles plays with postmodern techniques and disrupts the realism. By reminding the readers that this work has been imagined by the author, the novel becomes a self-reflexive metafiction as it turns into a work of fiction that discusses the process of writing fiction. It prods the readers into remembering that this is an imagined other world and does not allow the readers to be drawn too far into this other reality. Fowles (and the narrator) also refuse to be seen as the God-like novelist of the nineteenth century where the authority of the author decided outcomes with little or no self-reflection. Furthermore, the realist novel attempted to capture reality, and this work questions the possibility of this ever happening.