It’s a good thing the second-hand book store in my neighborhood didn’t open until I was truly hooked on electronic reading; I calculate that I’ve saved something like eight running yards of shelf space in the last 3 years by not buying physical books. But as with library books, the process of choosing reading matter is different if you’re only spending a dollar on it. The “what the heck” factor made a battered film tie-in paperback of The French Lieutenant’s Woman irresistible. I remembered that it was a huge seller when I was a teenager, and of course I saw the movie, with Meryl Streep swathed in a billowing black cloak and Jeremy Irons sporting bushy sideburns. And while I was reading it on the subway a woman actually approached me to say that her parents had named her “Sarah” after the heroine of the novel. (Which seems odd, now that I know the fictional Sarah.)
Well, those were the days; I find it hard to imagine that a balky, challenging piece of fiction like this could become widely popular today. Despite the trappings of historical romance, John Fowles has no interest in creating an escapist tale. In fact he seems dead set on subverting the popular novel he could be creating. He’s a very intrusive narrator, writing himself into the action in several places, halting the narration to discourse on the nouveau roman of Barthes and Robbe-Grillet, declaring himself incapable of entering the thoughts of his female protagonist Sarah Woodruff. It’s true that a romance novel could be filleted out of Fowles’ book, but it would bear the same relationship to the full novel that a beef tenderloin does to a cow.
Oh, gosh, I’m kind of liking this metaphor, because the tenderloin is notably flavorless and contains none of the bones and connective tissue — which can be seen as the non-romantic part of The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Fowles is ambitious; having taken a certain segment of the English Victorian era as his subject, he delves into it very deeply. The novel is set in south-western England and the shadow of Thomas Hardy lies on it, in setting and tone as well as the chapter epigraphs and Sarah Woodruff’s resemblance to Tess Durbeyfield. Darwin has just been published and is discussed; Sarah’s “rich” russet hair evokes the tresses of many a pre-Raphaelite beauty. And I do mean “tresses” rather than hair. Our protagonist, Charles Smithson, is a wealthy and idle gentleman who fusses with fossils. Though he imagines himself enlightened, Fowles shows him up again and again, moving away from the action of the novel to the stance of the anthropologist, examining Charles as Charles examines trilobites. For instance: “Charles was no early socialist. He did not feel the moral enormity of his privileged economic position, because he felt himself so far from privileged in other ways… he felt that the enormous apparatus rank required a gentleman to erect around himself was like the massive armor that had been the death warrant of so many ancient saurian species… He actually stopped, poor living fossil, as the brisker and fitter forms of life jostled busily before him…”
It’s all very interesting. But Fowles is not creating an immersive (to use a 2012 buzzword) fiction. He wants to make you think; think about then and now, for instance. (The book is set almost exactly 100 years before it was published.) Think about class, and money, and education; think about women and men, how they perceive the world, how they think about sex, how they think about each other. I’m not even going to get into Darwin and Existentialism, because I couldn’t think about them if I tried. Which makes me feel not-quite-worthy of Fowles. One suspects he wouldn’t much care for today’s best sellers. This is a stimulating book, especially if you’re an aficionado of the era, but it’s not exactly fun.