The French Lieutenant’s Woman

The French Lieutenant's Woman, John Fowles

I’m not a fan of decisions.

In fact, I’m all of a mush. A creature of habit who gets distressed by someone taking my seat, I find all the bigger choices of personal life intimidating. If it’s too big and too real, I close my eyes. The risk of making a wrong decision is too haunting and horrifying. I want a clear trajectory of good decisions, and the fewer influential choices I make, the less likely that this arc gets horribly distorted. If only life were like school, in that the milestones were clearly defined, and if you worked hard at them, you succeeded, no dispute. Damn real life for not being like that. My husband and I are currently considering buying a house, and that’s far too much like a real decision. The myriad options mean a myriad of potential pitfalls. The temptation is to find the nearest patch of sand in which to bury my head.

And the best, deepest, most luxuriant patch of sand I know is a novel. Not only the classic escaping into a story – but a world with a point, a meaning, a message of some kind. How clean and clear. Nothing beats the Victorian novel for this. Give me Mill on the Floss and some chocolate, and my life is complete. So imagine my bemusement at encountering John Fowles’s take on/subversion of that format in his most popular work, The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Alongside the usual morality-concerned, character-driven storyline is a conspicuous 1960s, semi-existential piece of self-conscious writing in which the author frequently subverts the reality of his narrative world and talks about his own experience as author. What’s more galling is that something in the way that Fowles adds on this layer implies that he never doubts his own ability to write a Victorian-style novel equal to the greats.

At its best it is a fascinating insight into the writing process (if you believe that his authorial voice is genuine, which I didn’t). At its worst it is an agenda-driven, self-interested bit of writing which constantly undermines Fowles’ very real storytelling ability. For Fowles is far more interested in himself than in his characters. He even crops up twice IN the story as a character, described in lingering detail. Not to mention the frequent interventions, dropping mentions of computers and suchlike, and more just talking about his poor old difficulties in writing this book. And though Fowles clearly believes that if he chose to remove the authorial intervention layer you’d still be left with pure George Eliot, I don’t agree. Although his writing is always readable and Charles’s moral soul searching is excellent if unpleasant, the characters themselves are weakly drawn. The servants are template cockney’n’country types, Charles has no real identity, and the supposed centre of the story Sarah is a needlessly obscure mystery, who the author hasn’t worked out at all but which he excuses. Thinking back to The Magus, I do wonder if Fowles has any interest in or understanding of women at all, which dates his so-politically-correct novel like nothing else.

So, much though I like a good clear message to make up for the uncertainties of my own life, this mix of agenda bashing and claimed existential ignorance left me cold. It’s back to the balmy sands of Eliot and Hardy for me.


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