Issue 208 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1997 Copyright © Socialist Review

Writers reviewed

A sea of sexual and class uncertainty: a look at some of the novels of John Fowles

Gareth Jenkins

John Fowles is best known for his brilliant exploration of 19th century sexual hypocrisy in his novel The French Lieutenant's Woman, thanks in part to the film version which did justice to the technical complexity of the original.

Fowles's originality was evident from his gripping first novel The Collector, which appeared in 1963, in which a socially inadequate young clerk, having won the pools, turns his obsession with butterfly collecting into a more sinister passion when he kidnaps a young girl.

The novel is told twice over, first from the point of view of the collector and then from that of the victim. To him she represents a comfortable world he feels excluded from, though holding her captive brings him no nearer to her physically or emotionally. At the same time, her narrative exposes her Bohemian world of art and anti-bomb politics as shot through with sexual exploitation and snobbery. This double narration allows Fowles to turn a horror story into a more complex and ambiguous account of social and class tensions, which questions any simple notion of victimisation.

In The Magus (first published three years later and then substantially revised in 1977) Fowles moves beyond England altogether. Much of the novel is set on a Greek island where a young Englishman has gone to teach in order to get over a failed love affair. He becomes involved in a series of increasingly unreal happenings organised by the mysterious magus (or magician) of the title.

The novel repeats the theme of capture and possession of The Collector but in an altogether more fantastic mode. The events have a rational explanation, which is to educate the hero out of his complacency. One key element in this process is to place his limited social experience in the altogether more turbulent and challenging world of wartime Greek resistance to Nazism.

In The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969) the theme of capture is the spell cast over minor aristocrat Charles Smithson by the socially enigmatic Sarah Woodruff. She pulls him out of the respectable world he has hitherto inhabited and sets him adrift in a sea of sexual and class uncertainty.

The novel is set in 1867 at the zenith of Victorian prosperity and owes a lot in style and manner to the great realist novels of the 19th century. But Fowles uses the gift of hindsight to see beneath the surface. 1867 was the year of publication of Marx's Capital. It was also the period in which Darwin's new theory of evolution scandalised the upper classes. Both thinkers demonstrated that neither in society nor in nature could change be stopped and Fowles exploits their insights to set Charles's fall in a wider context.

As a gentleman in an increasingly commercial world, Charles is a fossil on the verge of extinction (ironically he is a collector of fossils and an admirer of Darwin). Sarah, on the other hand, is a woman who refuses the labels stuck on her by a moralistic and repressive society: whore, femme fatale, neurotic. She is the woman of the future, living a freer and more independent life.

Fowles makes the point artistically by turning the realistic conventions of the Victorian novel upside down. The author keeps on breaking into his fictional world to remind us that the 'reality' of the characters is something artificial ­ just like the morals and viewpoints they espouse.

Instead of one ending Fowles gives us three ­ a happy ending in the Victorian style in which Charles overcomes temptation and marries his fiancée, and two others in which Charles may or may not have succeeded in settling down with the elusive Sarah. This indeterminacy is designed to keep the reader alert to all the unsettled business of the Victorian world ­ for example, its hypocrisy over massive number of prostitutes in a world where a woman was apparently sacred ­ as well as to our own complacency as inheritors of that world.

Later novels include Daniel Martin (1977), an ambitious attempt to plot the fate of two couples in the context of the tension between traditional English culture, with its hidebound intellectual allegiances, and American culture, symbolised by the Hollywood film world. Fowles's last novel to date, A Maggot (1985), returns to historical subject matter, this time the 18th century origins of the religious Shaker sect among the poor despised victims of class injustice.


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