CBR10Bingo – Backlog
This will also briefly discuss the film version, which I also watched, but focuses on the novel. I chose this book for the Backlog section because I’ve had copies of several John Fowles novels on my shelves for years, and except for an aborted attempt at his novel A Maggot, I’ve never read one. I became aware of Fowles through a British professor who taught Modernism and also mentioned his Contemporary literature class which included this novel. I read several of the novels from this class, and this one and Possession by AS Byatt remain.
This novel is a “Victorian” novel in all the quotation marks I can muster. The setup is pretty standard: a youngish man starting off in the world meets an eligible (read: rich) girl in a small seaside town, Lyme. He falls in something with her, arranges an engagement with her, and then SCANDAL!
So alongside all this is a few other things going on. First off, the back of the novel tells you there’s a POSTMODERN TWIST!, but it’s not super twisty so much as there’s a narrator here who is very present in the novel and unlike a lot of narrators is also the person writing the novel. Because of the playfulness of this setup, it’s of course imperative not to assume that it’s Fowles himself here. Anyway, it’s not clear as first. But each chapter has one or multiple epigraphs, and these tend to come from Darwin, Marx, Thomas Hardy, Matthew Arnold, and other various historians and social scientists of the age. In addition, there’s very descriptive footnotes–some that provide parenthetical information and others that define words, words that might not be used otherwise and would certainly not be defined for us in novels of the Victorian era. What becomes clear then is that someone is writing this novel with an awareness of a modern audience and is directly guiding that audience in some key ways. So different from say a Sarah Waters novel where it’s historical but also reveals the hidden sexual lives that don’t make it into say a George Eliot novel, Fowles’s narrator is telling us to think about the real lives of the characters in direct contrast to the ways in which those characters would have been portrayed in a Victorian novel and consider what we do and don’t know about these people and this time based on the surviving historical record. And in addition, like all good parody, this is a good novel on it’s own. Had this been a straightforward story about a Victorian love triangle, told the way it was, it would have been similar to other historical novels.
Also, I saw the film and that also turned out to be very interesting. It still maintains the various plot elements, but instead of having a modern narrator giving us a lot of information about the times as we go, the film set up a dual-film situation. The French Lieutenant’s Woman is being shot and filmed while the lead actress and actor are also having an affair. So we go back and forth between the two stories and tell two different stories with similar circumstances, but with two completely different sets of mores and social weight. It’s also interesting watching this the other day, because a third element crept in for us at my house, that of two Americans watching a film from 1981 based on a book only one has read (me!) and thinking through the different ways this third setting bears on the story. It’s an interesting reminder of the kinds of critical reading anybody does when reading a book outside their current era.