Looking out to sea | Daily News


Looking out to sea

In June 1969, John Fowles was at his peak as a writer – on top of the world. On top of two worlds, as it happens. His latest novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, brought readers an ingenious twin portrait of the seaside town of Lyme Regis, on the Devon–Dorset border, until then most closely associated in the literary mind with Jane Austen. It was on the Cobb, Lyme’s unique curving harbour – the “long claw of old grey wall that flexes itself against the sea”, as Fowles put it – that Louisa Musgrove lost her footing in Persuasion.

Fowles lighted on the word “diachronic” to characterize the narrative device he employed to write The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Employed or perhaps invented, for it is hard to think of another novel that proceeds in the same way. The main drift brings readers a Victorian romantic drama, with wave after wave of detail about clothes and food, medical practice, employment, art and publication, customs, courtesies and much more. The story takes place in 1867, exactly one hundred years before Fowles began writing his tale; but every few pages the tide recedes to expose a modern novelist tapping away at a typewriter in a farmhouse on the Undercliff, a ribbon of seaside wilderness connecting Lyme Regis to the village of Axmouth, 6 miles to the west. A crucial part of the action swirls about the writer’s hideaway, as the two principals strive under cover of shrub and leaf to work their way out of the old world – love their way out, even – into the new.

Charles Smithson, a gentleman with prospects, is engaged to be married to Ernestina Freeman, daughter of a well-off tradesman whose shop will prosper and become well known in modern Central London. While dutiful in his courtship, Charles is half-hearted in his devotion. On the Undercliff he encounters – first by accident, then accidentally-on-purpose – Sarah Woodruff, a servant and notorious “unfortunate” in this place of pinched Victorian morality. Everyone knows that Sarah had allowed herself to be taken up by a French sailor, only to be cast aside. She later discovered that he was married. On some spiteful tongues, in 1867, she is “the French lieutenant’s whore”. To the reader opening the latest novel by John Fowles in its mulberry cover, she is unmistakably a New Woman, in passion and instinct, even though she is not placed to be so in her day-to-day life. The personal was nowhere near being political in Sarah’s day, but one of the many pleasures of Fowles’s story is that she offers a glimpse of that approaching means of self- expression. Sarah is in a desperate and pitiful situation, dependent on the mercy of unmerciful folk – until, that is, she meets Charles. He, however, is on the point of marrying Ernestina. It is the oldest story and the best: boy meets girl, and then boy meets another girl (or girl meets another boy). What’s going to become of them?

The action is not far advanced when Fowles steps in to reveal his diachronic strategy. The teller of this kind of tale customarily plays God, he writes; but the author is writing in 1967, not 1867. Fowles – and he insists that the person speaking is the writer whose name is on the cover of the book in your hands, not some detached “narrator” – has barely reached the foot of the first page before opting to describe the Cobb in these terms:

Primitive yet complex, elephantine but delicate; as full of subtle curves as a Henry Moore or a Michelangelo; and pure, clean, salt, a paragon of mass. I exaggerate? Perhaps, but I can be put to the test, for the Cobb has changed very little since the year of which I write; though the town of Lyme has …

“How did it start?” Fowles was asked by another kind of interloper – an interviewer – in 1973; to which he replied: “From an obsessive image of a woman with her back turned, looking out to sea. It didn’t begin as a historical novel, and the reason it turned historical may be that I have collected Victorian books all my life. I have a poor academic knowledge of the age, but I do know quite a lot about the byways of Victorian life”. He told his student questioner that a good many details about domestic life, arrangements with servants, fashion and the like, were drawn from Punch.

And a lot of dialogue. That’s another curious thing – the dialogue in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. You see, the dialogue there is not absolutely true to how they spoke in that age, but the dialogue they actually used in the 1860s seems a little too modern to us. So I had to archaize it, to stretch the more formal elements to get it to sound right.

By placing one or more epigraphs at the head of each chapter, Fowles reminds readers that 1867 is the year of publication of Marx’s Capital, and that Origin of Species had appeared eight years earlier. The two books were heralds, if not causes, of social change – introducing, among other things, a degree of liberation into the lives of women such as Sarah Woodruff, in both the social and emotional spheres. The characters going about their mundane business in the inns, cobbled streets and dimly lit parlours of the town – arduous business in the case of Charles’s scheming manservant Sam and the captive Sarah; excruciatingly boring for the (quite) fair Ernestina – do not know this. We do, however, and part of the fun of reading The French Lieutenant’s Woman comes from the ways in which Fowles plays on the modern reader’s historical awareness. Charles is himself a forward-looking man: an amateur palaeontologist who is seldom more at ease than when chipping at the scree on the foreshore below the Undercliff for fossils, which he calls “tests”. The hobby confirms him in his radical Darwinism; but he is a gentleman nonetheless, obedient to the conventions of his time, contented, though unexcited, in the expectation of coming into old money in the form of an inheritance from an elderly bachelor uncle, and of marrying into new, becoming part of the Freeman “trade”.

Not only are the people in Lyme unaware of the revolutions the great books of Marx and Darwin are about to set in motion; they haven’t the least idea of how poetry and fiction will alter in its procedures, forms and range of subject matter. Over the next half-century, methods of telling a story will develop in ways unimaginable in 1867.

Throughout The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the twentieth-century modernist interrupts the omniscient storyteller to remind the reader that the Victorian era is gone, even in respect of the narratives we tell about ourselves:

I do not know. This story I am telling is all imagination. These characters I create never existed outside my own mind. If I have pretended until now to know my characters’ minds and innermost thoughts, it is because I am writing in a convention universally accepted at the time of my story: that the novelist stands next to God. He may not know all, yet he tries to pretend he does. But I live in the age of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Roland Barthes …

- Times Literary Supplement

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