John Fowles on The French Lieutenant’s Woman

 

Like many authors, Fowles was ambivalent about literary critical analysis: he found it annoying (particularly when scholars over-analyzed his work); however he also appreciated being recognized by contemporary scholars and general readers. Of course, Fowles was a teacher for most of his career and fully understood that no author’s work, if deemed important, should escape critical analysis. Fowles had attended boarding school as a lad and had an appreciation, and a sense of nostalgia, for the boarding school experience. Perhaps it was the combination of all these feelings that prompted Fowles to write this eloquent and insightful letter to a boarding school class in 1978:

 

My Dear Teachers and Members of the English Class:

Although many writers of the previous decades and centuries receive the pleasure of the advents of new generations corning to claim and to read their books, the one great wish remains for anyone who decides to present a collage of his convictions and ideas in paper: the wish that his work will be successful; that is, that the purpose of his endeavors will be successful. This success can only come if his work is studied and appreciated (and understood) by the generation in which he finds himself. One cannot write for the posterity of peoples to come since one cannot predict the character of the future. One can merely hope that his feelings can permeate the intellectual milieu of non-present times, and, by transcending historical boundaries, serve to aid the social and individual compositions of the offering.

As an author, I can only hope that my books achieve recognition by my contemporaries for my perspective is for them and by them. By the word “recognition,” I intend to mean the recognition of my ideas by modern acceptance, a pour admettre, without necessarily desiring a full commitment by society to like them.

I feel that the most important testimony to this recognition, to the conformation and achievement of my wishes, is the open academic endorsement of any of my books. And, for the fulfillment of this, I can be grateful only to you. In utmost actuality, this gratitude is not a merci type of thankfulness. To say “thank you” to you would be extremely inappropriate. I feel an elation of emotion motivated by a sensation that my life and my work is justified. I feel that I now have a right to possess a certain amount of intellectual arrogance, and, this sudden gaining of a new series of intellectual rights and privileges is the miracle which you have let to be achieved.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman has been my favorite piece of work. It is the most scientifically calculated of my novels and its successful completion has provided me with greater relief and sense of aspirations than any of my other books. However, I am afraid that this novel may have been a sorry victim of a writer’s conflict between his social conscience and his innermost convictions. When I first decided to write The French Lieutenant’s Woman, I wanted to portray a certain idea (and corresponding writing style) which centered around my theories in lying and deception in modern society. But, as I started to actually create the story of the novel, I received continual doubts from my superego as to the justification of my writing about the nature of lies in the human personality. I questioned whether a writer should make a general commentary on the intrinsic nature of society and present it to a society which does not exclude him as a member. In any case, as I begin to reread and to restudy my basic philosophies in the Aristos, the strengths of these doubts seem to lessen; and, I presently feel that it would be hypocritical not to clarify my intentions in writing The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

First, I would want to introduce my own definition of “lying” and of “deception.” I tend to differentiate these two nouns and I feel that many moral issues of the world could be clarified by restudying the dictionary. Lying, I believe, is deceptive but may or may not be a deception. Often, lies are made to prevent gross misunderstandings—deceptions—since, it is in this way only (i.e., in “stretching” the truth) that a fact, an idea, or, especially, a feeling may be clearly conveyed. Deceptions are more malicious, and are calculated to provide the maximum distortions of morally good events. Thus, the situation surrounding Charles and Sarah was one which was rooted in deception. But, the whole structure of Victorian society was based on a big lie (but I do not think that deception was actually present).

In the particular case of Victorian society, lies were not contrived to facilitate communication; however, these were not deceptive for they stemmed from an historic abyss of self-slaughter and ignorance, of rigid pessimism and hedonism and not from an intention to provoke calculated malice in the world.

At this point I injected some irony in the book. The “Sarah and Charles relationship” was mired in deception, and would not last because of this evil. Victorian society was an innocent lie.

Still, the “Sarah-Charles” affair may have been finalized into a less bitter fortune (I take for granted the third ending of the book) had a clash between history and personal drive not occurred. The tragic clash between age (the “innocent” Victorian era) and the symbolic personage embodied by Sarah resulted in a most tragic conflict—overwhelming more characters than deception or reality could have betrayed.

The whole book was a lie—a series of untruths—but all of them non-deceptive and definitely not false. For example, throughout the novel, I was sincerely and most energetically cheering for Charles. And, I made his ultimate fate unfortunate not to reflect my feelings but only to make you cheer for him also (I hope this rather crude device succeeded). The whole idea of the novel was to examine basic morality within the conflict of the clash between Darwinian evolution and social psychology. Furthermore, I wrote the book in the style of a Victorian novel to emphasize the contrast between classical and modern literature.

The other major issue which I am afraid is mentioned too lightly in the book has to do with symbolism. I meant to embody in this novel a (somewhat) scientific treatise presented in artistic form; hence, every character symbolized an object or an event important to the general trend of the novel’s philosophy. The most obscure of these symbols, I think, are those which surround my conjecture on the future of people who are caught in the conflict I have mentioned above, and how these people will later affect society. Lalage epitomizes these conjectures. Specifically, the etymology of her appellation reveals the content of these conjectures.

There exist other aspects of the The French Lieutenant’s Woman which were meant to be subtle but may have fared to become obscure instead (but I am quite sure that your excellent lectures on the book clarified all these possible “subtleties”). I shall refrain from mentioning these and instead hope that the previous discussion was more helpful than boring. I try never to condescend my readers and I hope that my book was sufficiently humble to be objective.

I would like again to express my excitement over hearing that such a brilliant group of teachers and students has given my book the honour of having it considered in their class. I sincerely hope that my novel has fulfilled even some of your expectations. I await to hear from you soon and hope that, by this correspondence, we may form a suitable and lasting friendship.

Sincerely yours,

John Fowles (1978)

I had the good fortune to finally meet John Fowles when he came to Stanford University in 1996. When I spoke to him about this letter, he cheerfully recalled the letter and mentioned that he rarely wrote to “academics” but that this was a unique situation. He graciously invited me to attend a private seminar with upper level English students, the day after his lecture, where we discussed literature in general and his body of work. It was an unforgettable experience to be in the presence of such a gifted, brilliant writer and intellectual.


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