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Friday, October 13, 2006

John Fowles - The French Lieutenant's Woman

Book cover of French Lieutenant's Woman
I'm not a fan of Victorian fiction. I find the obsessive, minute focus on provincial social conventions to be both myopic and irrelevant, the prose ponderous, and the structures pat and formulaic. Some people like this sort of thing; they're often the same sort who think James Ivory was a significant director. I could argue that much modern interest in Victorian fiction is as much a genre-interest as something like Tolkien-derivative fantasy (and indeed, both genres in their prime rely on three-volume works, the Victorian three-decker novel and the modern-fantasy trilogy), but I'll try to stay on topic. So, I have to hand it to John Fowles - in this book, he makes the Victorian era seem interesting and exciting. True, there's the completely idle upper-class toffs, servants and 'upstairs-downstairs' drama, and depressing Anglocentrism that generally produce reader despair, but Fowles looks on all this with a cocked (if often nostalgic) eye. And, his writing is incredibly technically strong - not only in the prose itself, but in his sense of construction, the way he points at the seams of his own novel - but not to excuse any rips in them, rather to keep you paying attention.

Let me give you an example. On my first read through, I happened to notice, on page 235 of my copy, the line "Charles finally survived her by a decade" - referring to the protagonist, Charles Smithson, and his bride-to-be, Ernestina. However, I remembered an earlier reference in the novel, and sure enough, some hundred pages earlier, there it was: "She was born in 1846. And she died on the day that Hitler invaded Poland." Since that's 1939, Charles therefore dies in 1949. That's a long way from the Victorian era. Another stray reference elsewhere in the book gave me Charles's birthdate as 1835 - meaning he's 114 years old when he dies. Not bloody likely, as one of the characters in this might say! See, I thought that I'd outsmarted John Fowles. I was just about to congratulate myself, when I went on a few more pages, and found that the whole chapter I'd just read was only a dream sequence of sorts in Charles's mind - and that Fowles had completely anticipated my move, commenting rather drily on Charles's 'century and a quarter' lifespan.

Movie Poster of The French Liutenant's Woman
Rather than feel cheated, I only felt appropriate, since these games with chronology, history, fantasy, and reality constitute the meat-and-potatoes of The French Lieutenant's Woman. This is a novel where early on, Fowles admits 'I don't know. These characters never existed outside my own mind' and makes in-novel appearances himself to spy on the characters and rewind time so he can provide multiple endings. Yes, that's right, this isn't pure 19th century fiction at all, but a Victorian novel written in 1969! In which the narrator points up the characters' textuality and breaks the fourth wall! Yes, I fooled you - it's really postmodernism! - the genre often just as retarded and myopically involuted as the one which produced Thomas Hardy (who, incidentally, gets namechecked endlessly). Or wait - it's both! A postmodern Victorian novel: the marriage of lofty pretension and pretentious pretension. Now, that makes it sound approximately as appetizing as a shit sandwich garnished with cigarette ash. But, amazingly enough, the negative aspects of each genre manage to cancel each other out, and we're left with something mentally repulsive but irresistable, the proverbial 'bacon and chocolate fondue' (thanks, Toastyfrog). You see, Fowles is able to make fun of himself into the bargain: as a narrator, he states his likes and dislikes quite freely, and isn't afraid to digress, digress, digress. He says it himself: "Perhaps I am trying to pass off a concealed book of essays on you." So we get Chapter 35, in Fowles declaims on the role of repression and contraception for the Victorians, and in which none of the main characters even appear. Neither is Fowles afraid to try his hand at every device in the standard metafictional toolkit: epigraphs, intertextual references, copious footnotes, and long extracts from contemporaneous Victorian novels all inform (or perhaps flood is a better term) the narrative, and the 'omniscient' narrative convention of the Victorian writers comes subtly under attack through Fowles's pointed admissions of ignorance and fallibility.

Oh, the plot? Right. The aforementioned Charles, a 'gentleman' (read: mannered hypocrite) bachelor, engaged to Ernestina, the daughter of a rising capitalist, has a chance meeting with Sarah, the eponymous French Lieutenant's Woman, who has been abandoned by her lover and condemned to a life of (largely self-imposed) solitude and denial, serving in the house of the vile Mrs. Poulteney, who rules her servants with a mixture of sadism and false religiosity. You got all that? Anyway, Charles finds himself inexplicably attracted to the dark and mysterious Sarah, blah blah blah...you get the idea. If these characters seem a little like types, there's a reason for it: Fowles it quite open about letting whopping big historical forces determine their thoughts and actions; almost every other sentence begins with "Like most Victorian men, Charles..." But this isn't as tedious as it sounds, since the characters' recognizeability allows Fowles to play out the contrast between conformity and freedom, where Charles is depicted as emblematic of Victorian convention, repression, and hypocrisy, while Sarah - who eventually throws her lot in with the Rossettis - embodies more modern and liberal attitudes, so that the personal conflict and attraction between them mirrors the larger social dialectic.

Meryl Streep in The French Lietenant's WomanI just said 'dialectic', so this is getting into some serious shit. Let's pull back a bit and just say that neither of these characters is a really 'good' person - they're both selfish, manipulative, and easily identifiable. Fowles makes them human, in other words, without ever completely abandoning his Political and Historical schematics. And while he's harsh on them at times, you can sense he likes the Victorians - but I don't hold it against him. Why would he bother writing a book at all, if he was just going to heap shit on them? To cut across genres to Neal Stephenson, whose science-fiction classic The Diamond Age also dealt in Victorian Reconstruction (i.e., 'they might be hypocrites, but they have cool self-control and restraint'), Fowles is able to draw out some of the positives of the much-maligned era, and I can respect him for it, even if I don't actually agree with him (you're never going to convince me, for example, that nationwide repression and derogation of female sexuality actually makes sex more exciting - a fucking demented argument but one which Fowles seems to attempt, in some part, if I'm not mistaken).

If this still sounds tedious, let me just say that Fowles has an absolute stone-cold command of prose: he writes the kind of English that it's really, really hard for most writers to pull off now, even though this was only written some 40 years ago. His imitation of 'Victorian godlike writing style' is completely convincing, which only makes his anachronistic references the more pointed. Although it's not without the occasional cliche, the prose is never anything less than confident and elegant, with some genuinely lovely passages. I loved this book, perhaps all the more because I expected to hate it. A thoroughly didactic and experimental approach to fiction sounds about the most unappealing one possible, but Fowles pulls it off and almost makes it look easy. Check this one out for sure.