The French Lieutenant’s Woman’s Man – Novelist John Fowles

The French Lieutenant's Woman is the third exercise in John Fowles’s luxuriant literary imagination. Vastly different from the two earlier novels, and far more successful critically and commercially, it is nonetheless another pretty odd book.
John Fowles photographed by Terence Spencer for Life magazine

by Richard B. Stolley

The pants are baggy and stained, with the fly at careless half-mast, and his sweater is as lumpy as a laundry bag. He works the local docks, maybe? Or drives a truck? Then study John Fowles’s head, that receptacle, as it happens, of one of the most original writing talents at work today. It is vaguely Olympian, big and powerful and thickly whiskered from ear to ear. Out of it sprang first, in 1963, the bizarre novel of a young maniac who progressed from trapping butterflies to human beings. It was called The Collector, and you never fell quite comfortable around lepidopterists again.

Next was a long and full-panoplied novel, The Magus, about an English schoolmaster who falls, or jumps, into the clutches of a grotesque Greek sorcerer on an Aegean island. As a book it is exasperating and occasionally incomprehensible. But the sheer, mind-rocking richness of the prose makes reading it almost a psychedelic experience —and it was written, mind you, long enough ago that to Fowles a “trip” meant taking the train to London.

Now there is The French Lieutenant’s Woman, a third exercise in John Fowles’s luxuriant literary imagination. Vastly different from the two earlier novels, and far more successful critically and commercially—it has led U.S. best-seller lists for 15 weeks—it is nonetheless another pretty odd book. Its 19th Century love story is mundane, its style deliberately Victorian. The plot turns on a disastrously undelivered letter and so many other improbable events that English department faculties will be picking it to pieces for years. Although a wildly romantic book, it contains no more than 75 words of cautiously explicit sex out of 210,000, a literary record nowadays. It appears to end with Chapter 44, actually does so 17 chapters later, hut with two possible denouements, between which the reader himself is invited to choose.

An odd book indeed—and simply unputdown-able. No other phrase does it justice. “I started to read The French Lieutenant’s Woman…” begins a by-now-familiar explanation, and there follows a recital of housework undone, children neglected, sleep forsaken and family ignored until that tantalizingly ambivalent page 467 is reached.

All three of Fowles’s novels have been more warmly received in this country than in his native Great Britain. It is his view that the London literary establishment certain reviewers, writers and publishers whom he describes as “insular and incestuous”—has never quite forgiven him for that.

“In many ways,” he says, “I have been put in exile in this country. I feel myself as having gone abroad, although I continue to live in England.”

If so, it is an exile which Fowles himself has consciously encouraged, for the simple reason that it best serves his creativity. He has removed himself to a distant southwest corner of England, the county of Dorset. He first visited it as a young evacuee from wartime London and fell extravagantly in love with its modest landscapes. He and his wife. Elizabeth, live in the village of Lyme Regis, which is the setting for The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Their house dates to the 18th Century and overlooks the English Channel. Lyme is an ancient and ferociously conservative town whose clannish Tories ignore Fowles, to his relief. He can walk Broad Street or dine in the nearby Ye Olde Mason’s Arms without being recognized or fussed over. Once in a while he travels to London to see the latest films or to shop, but never approaches the literary cocktail circuit. By choice, Fowles at 44 leads a life of utter privacy and solitude, residing within and enjoying the company of his own abundant imagination.

By their teens, most writers have realized that they must write. Not until he was 22, and at Oxford reading French, did Fowles belatedly stumble onto the same conclusion. It was anguish. “I was in a pathological state,” he recalls. “I could not understand why I had to keep on doing this thing which even I could see I didn’t do well.”

After Oxford he drifted for 10 years in and out of minor schools on the Continent, teaching English not very conscientiously and writing in his ample free time. He went through a long period of slavishly imitating others Gide, Flaubert (“to me, still the perfect novelist”), Lawrence, Defoe (“an incredible narrative drive”), even Hemingway (“you can dislike all sorts of atti­tudes and wrong stresses, but my God, the punch from one page to another”).

Quality aside, the output was staggering—first drafts of a dozen novels which he would not try to publish because they did not satisfy him. But with each deplorable manuscript, he refined the techniques by which his creative tumult would one day be transformed into worthwhile words on paper.

Today, Fowles is a cheerfully undisciplined writ­er who still believes in waiting for the proper mood (he won’t quite call it the Muse) to settle upon him.

“Doing fiction well,” he says, “is like eating or making love. If you don’t want to do it with your whole self, then there is something wrong with doing it. But I cannot tell you how the mood comes. If I only knew. It cannot be induced. Alcohol is marvelous at certain points in writing, but it doesn’t bring that mood.” What does, Fowles suspects, is some strange chemistry growing out of the loneliness of his isolated life at the edge of the sea. That, and admitting to himself that he has no excuse for not working. “I’ve got to have a fairly long stretch of time ahead of me,” he says. “It is curious, but just knowing of a lecture or a business meeting a fortnight ahead can upset me, nag at me. I say. I’m not going to get into this because I’ll just have to drop it. Ridiculous.”

Once under way, Fowles all but barricades himself in his big book-lined workroom and tunes out the world. Elizabeth creeps about the house, or better yet, flees it entirely on antique-buying expeditions around the West Country. He is almost paranoically private about work in progress; nobody at all is allowed to read it. “If I leave work on this table,” he says, “and I happen to be downstairs and hear footsteps above, it worries me.” He writes first drafts with surprising speed —100,000 words in two or three weeks is physically exhausting, but, he finds, “emotionally and imaginatively, rather easy. You have to do it in a gush, conceive in passion. You bring up the child later, by reason and logic.”

The “bringing up” is always purposely delayed. He puts the manuscript away and forbids himself even to glance at it, sometimes for many months. “The longer you leave it, the fresher you see it when you come back.” One result of this method is that Fowles keeps three or four books going at the same time. Right now, for example, he has a completed thriller in the Raymond Chandler-Dashiell Hammett genre marinating on the shelf, a temporarily abandoned novel awaiting further inspiration, and, in the typewriter, a long article about the social and political troubles of America, a country he has visited three times, likes immensely, and has strong opinions about.

Ultimately, the rewriting is harsh. “It’s good if you think in the morning, ‘Oh Christ, I don’t really want to do it,’ ” he says, “because you’re going to use the blue pencil more.”

Writers often are asked, “But where do you get your ideas?’’ and tend to mumble in reply something about the sum total of their experience, etc. The French Lieutenant’s Woman was conceived in a far more specific, and romantic, way. Fowles was in the midst of a novel about European attitudes toward nature and conservation, cast in the form of what he calls “a sexual orgy set on a Mediterranean coast.” The book was beginning to bore him.

“My imagination is highly erotic,” he says. “I think about almost everything in terms of erotic situations. In this novel I wanted to show that there is something repulsive in mechanically done and described sexual variations. But like any truly erotic person, I had come to regard the publication of explicit sex with great suspicion. It destroys the mystery of it, the pleasure. So I was stuck. I’d fallen into my own trap, and I couldn’t quite see a way through it.”

Fowles was fretting over this book in late 1966. Then one morning before dawn, into his dreams came a vision of the Lyme Regis harbor, of which his garden commanded a striking view. The image narrowed, and at the end of the breakwater which protects the harbor, standing alone and buffeted by the wind, he saw the tragic figure of a young woman, “her stare . . . aimed like a rifle at the farthest horizon.” In that dream was born the book—as anyone who opens it will immediately perceive.

(“The most difficult page in any book is always the first,” he says. “I am toying around with a novel now, and I must have written 50 first pages. And I still haven’t got quite the angle and the voice I want. It’s not worth going on until you’ve got those right. Then the rest follows.”)

As with all of his novels, Fowles began The French Lieutenant’s Woman with “no fixed plan, only a vague idea of the way it was going. There was the outcast woman, and a respectable man would fall in love with her. That was the first stage. Then it happened that the respectable man was engaged to another girl, and all sorts of things came out of that. The future of the story began to come clear. It was rather like driving in a strange country. I suddenly realized I was beginning to understand the lie of the land.’

It was not an easy journey. The first draft was 150,000 words long and took an unusual six months because of the awkwardness of mimicking Victorian prose. It was largely dialogue and narrative, with dots or the phrase “pick up” inserted to remind himself to develop the action or add description later.

“As in everything I write,” says Fowles, “after a while the characters got a kind of autonomy and began to dictate what they would say, or wouldn’t. I had ludicrous blocks sometimes. In some simple situation, I would need a line of dialogue and could not get it. Drove me mad. The obvious conscious thing I had in mind didn’t fit, and I played around and around. It was very irritating but it was a sign that the character was getting bloody-minded. He was alive and fighting me, and that was good, for it probably meant the whole scene was wrong, that he never should have been put in that situation that way.”

The manuscript was allowed to sit on the shelf only three months, so anxious was Fowles to finish. In the revise, he added 60,000 words—an exception; he normally cuts—nearly all of it historical material on the Victorian age, of which he has been an amateur student for years.

Two thirds through the rewrite, he faltered. It was to Fowles a familiar point for such a loss of nerve. In his sleep he wrote appallingly bad reviews of his own book. “Oh Christ, this bloody Victorian crap,” he said to himself one morning, “I can’t face any more of it.” Instead, he rattled out the first draft of the thriller, “a kind of narrative orgy, with every trick in the business to keep people turning the pages.” Thus purged, he returned to the completion of The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

The first person to read the manuscript was Elizabeth Fowles. “She is a good editor,” he says. “She changed quite a lot of things. Not so much the psychology of the women characters—she trusted me with them—but rather developments which didn’t quite come off. There was a whole Alice in Wonderland section in the original draft, which I still think was quite funny, but which clashed with the tone of the rest. Elizabeth immediately said that must come out.”

The book’s enormous success (and a movie is soon to be made of it) puzzles Fowles. “I couldn’t imagine that three fairly stock Victorian characters could be of that much interest,” he says, “especially as the story was set in the greatest period of the English novel. I warned myself not to be disappointed if it didn’t come off. I think America was very much in the mood for a flight from reality.”

As with his other books, Fowles has received a lot of mail from U.S. readers. “The wonderful thing about Americans is that they do write to writers,” he says. “The British never do.” Their letters praise, or plead for professional advice (sometimes enclosing in exchange little homemade gifts, like earrings for Elizabeth), or ask terribly down-to-earth questions: in this particular chapter, what did you really mean? (“Americans always think a writer knows what he is doing,” Fowles marvels.) He tries to reply to the more interesting letters, and he can be, as he says, “very naughty.”

In his second book, The Magus, the ending is deliberately unclear about whether the young schoolmaster, Nicholas, and his girl friend, Allison, get together again. In response to a gentle letter from a New York lawyer, dying of cancer in a hospital, who said he very much wanted the couple to be reunited, Fowles wrote back, “Yes, of course, they were.” On the same day he got a “horrid” letter from an American woman who angrily demanded, “Why can’t you say what you mean, and for God’s sake, what happened in the end?” Fowles replied curtly: “They never saw each other again.”

Very few of his American correspondents have objected to the ambiguous conclusion of The French Lieutenant’s Woman. “I thought it would be a very hard swallow,” he says. “I meant the first ending to be a little too sweet to satisfy people’s ideas of reality. But I thought they would choose it over the ending without reconciliation. Curiously enough they seem to recognize that reality is more important than sweetness.”

When Fowles has finished the piece on the U.S., he will show it to some American friends. “If they tell me, ‘You have no right to say this,’ I shan’t publish it.” Of those manuscripts on the shelf, he definitely will return some day to two of them: one about “the innocence and stupidity and incredible greenness of young Englishmen” and the other about the problems of a writer who has not been published. Both books are “sort of” autobiographical—not very surprising because so were the others. Fowles was once an avid butterfly collector, and later taught school on a Greek island. “I’ve dabbled in a lot of things,” he says, “I’ve got a magpie mind.”

When not at the typewriter these days, Fowles can be found digging in his beloved garden, coaxing bullfinches to the feeder, and tramping—like the Frenchman’s haunted woman—through the underbrush of the nearby Ware Cliffs.

“I am a good field naturalist,” he says. “I do know the names. But more and more I have been influenced by Zen Buddhist attitudes. What matters is the thing in itself, the intrinsic esthetic experience of seeing a flower or a bird in a certain position, in a certain light—rather than bringing out your book and saying, ‘Ah yes, a golden-crested cardinal.’ ”

John Fowles considered for a moment, and then—ever the Englishman, even in self-imposed domestic exile—stiffened his upper lip. “It is difficult to talk about,” he said, a little gruffly, “without sounding sentimental.”

Life, May 29, 1970


2 thoughts on “The French Lieutenant’s Woman’s Man – Novelist John Fowles”

  1. Is this the full version of the interview or an abridged version? Thank you for sharing it!

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