Thursday, December 3, 2009

Back to School: A Victorian mockery

For my final Back to School challenge book, I decided to do somewhat of a culmination with a book that embraces and mocks the Victorian novels that I've focused on as of recent. John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman is an amusing and wild ride in 1860s England. The omniscient, ever-present, and ever-involved narrator watches from a distance of a hundred years and amusingly comments on the characters' decisions, their historical placement, and how things would have been different if they were born later.

Though I haven't read it, I could only feel that Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter was alluded to in that by being the French Lieutenant's woman he means whore, not wife. And so as Sarah Woodruff - said 'woman' - wears her melancholy for her lost Frenchman as Hester Prynne wears her scarlet A around town. People gossip (and there's plenty of gossip in this story) about Ms Woodruff and her beginnings, her love affairs, her dark personality. She's a mysterious figure, so much so that she captures the attention of on Charles Smithson, a young fossil collecting scientist quite interested in Darwin's theories. Charles, with his painfully common surname, can't get Ms Woodruff out of his mind, even though he's engaged to the even more common, though quite wealthy, Earnestina ('Earnest', the importance of being!) Freeman ('Free man'!), a woman who is controlled more by hysterics and perhaps by the upbringing by her parents.

Slowly through Charles we discover Ms Woodruff's history, some through other media, mostly through Sarah herself. She talks about why she is so sullen, longing for her lost Varguennes (anyone know where this name could come from?), who as she found out was married to another woman when they had their 'affair de coeur'. And now she is married to her suffering. This makes Charles ever so sympathetic with her plight that his interest becomes more than a fascination.

There are some wild plot twists, and some plot changes of heart - as the narrator tells us that this is the way that things could have happened if the characters so chose to do one thing instead of the other. So in essence there is no ending but a serious of simultaneous ones, neither of which should technically win out, even though the narrator is fearful that 'The only way I can take no part in the fight is to show two versions of it. That leaves me with only one problem: I cannot give both versions at once, yet whichever is second will seem, so strong is the tyranny of the last chapter, the final, the "real" version. ...I extract a florin, I rest it on my right thumbnail, I flick it, spinning, two feet into the air and catch it in my left hand.' And that is how it is determined the order in which the stories are told. To chance, to randomness, to god's willfulness.

It's a trick like this that makes The French Lieutenant's Woman a beloved work of literature; for the narrator is one of the most self-aware narrators I have ever read, one that is more like a character than a person relating a story. For instance:

The French! Varguennes!

...[Charles] wondered where she was; and a vision of her running sodden through the lightning and rain momentarily distracted him from his own acute and self-directed anxiety. But it was too much! After such as day!

I am overdoing the exclamation marks.

This self-effacing, humorous last remark just reveals one of the moments that the narrator understands how narratives work, what readers are expecting and what they need. As Charles and Sarah begin something romantic, the narrator writes: '[Charles] stood like a man beneath a breaking damn, instead of a man above a weeping woman...Their eyes remained on each other's, as if they were both hypnotized. She seemed to him - or those wide, those drowning eyes seemed - the most ravishingly beautiful he had ever seen. What lay behind them did not matter. The moment overcame the age.'

I'll leave you with this pondering (and the amusing Simpsons reference to the film version): 'Death is not in the nature of things; it is the nature of things. But what dies is the form. The matter is immortal.' What follows in that paragraph seems quite an interesting take on Darwinism and storytelling in general.


J.C. Montgomery said...

I must have read this book at a bad time, because after reading your review I keep thinking, "What did I miss?" "Why didn't I see what you saw when I read that passage?".

I think I owe it a re-read.

J.T. Oldfield said...

more blog posts need Simpsons references. I think I've used them twice.

Great review!

colin said...

I agree with J.T. about the Simpsons. The more Simpsons the better in my opinion.