This piece was written by my cousin Fred Hebbert.
 
I’m presently reading the fascinating French Lieutenant’s Woman which must be the most unique of novels, penned of course by the late, great John Fowles. Not only does the all-seeing narrator Fowles play God in divining all his characters thoughts and needs, he also gives them free will. He intrudes on the story with personal observations ‘Of the women in the story, my opinion is that Mary was the prettiest.’ He frequently reminds us that he is writing in our present and that these Victorian people are creations of his imagination, but then concedes that he has no control over them. He constantly compares their lives in 1867 with how they would have fared in his 1967.

In unlucky Chapter 13 (of 61), he digresses from the story to examine the problems of writing a novel with recalitrant characters, professing to know that Sarah didn’t commit suicide on a certain night in 1867 (when she seemed about to jump from a window and Fowles didn’t want to intrude on an agonizingly personal moment) only because she appears in a scene set two weeks later. ‘Who is Sarah?’ he asks. ‘Out of what shadows does she come?’

‘I don’t know,’ he says in the next chapter, but I think I do – the idea of a woman standing on the mole during a storm, dressed in black and staring out to sea came to Fowles on a dark and stormy day when he lived in Lyme Regis. There was no-one on the mole, but that didn’t stop him wondering who ‘she’ was and why she was there. He is as obessed with the idea of the melancholy French Lieutenant’s Woman, waiting for someone she knows will never come, as is Charles, his protagonist. She knows the Frenchman won’t come because he has already told her so before the novel starts. She waits because she has become ostracised in Victorian society and in her appalling lonliness ‘her torture had become her delight.’

Out of half forgotten experiences and dreams comes the obsession of the author, as demonstrated when Charles comes to the lip of a sun-trap, a grassed terrace on the cliff:

“The girl lay in the complete abandonment of deep sleep, on her back. Her coat had fallen open over her indigo dress, unrelieved in its calico severity except by a small white collar at the throat. The sleeper’s face was turned away from him, her right arm thrown back, bent in a childlike way. A scattered handful of anemones lay on the grass around it. There was something intensely tender and yet sexual in the way she lay; it awakened a dim echo in Charles of a moment from his time in Paris. Another girl, whose name now he could not even remember, perhaps had never known, seen sleeping so, one dawn, in a bedroom overlooking the Seine. “

When she awakes she leaps to her feet.  “She said nothing, but fixed him with a look of shock and bewilderment, perhaps not untinged with shame…they stood thus for several seconds, locked in a mutual incomprehension. She seemed so small to him, standing there below him, hidden from the waist down, clutching her collar, as if, should he take a step towards her, she would turn and fling herself out of his sight.”

Fowles seems to view reality and dreams as the same thing. At one stage he seriously informs us that the great grandaughter of the maid Mary is instantly recognisable today as one of the more promising young British film actresses – and you find yourself wondering who he means. Before remembering that Mary never lived.  It makes you wonder why we sit in the dark and become engrossed although we know it’s Julia Roberts up there, or why we fall in love with Anna Karenina while our eyes scan black lettering on the printed page. We remain hopelessly susceptible to fantasy even when the author constantly reminds us that’s what he’s dishing up.

The novel ends in the penultimate chapter. In the last chapter Fowles introduces, at such a late stage against all the rules of writing, a new character. Who is maybe not so new. Who turns his watch back 15 minutes. And gives the novel an alternative ending.

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