John Fowles Essay - Fowles, John (Vol. 1)

Fowles, John (Vol. 1)

Fowles, John 1926–

A British novelist, Fowles is the author of The Collector and The French Lieutenant's Woman. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

John Fowles has proved himself previously an entertaining as well as compelling novelist. Like Joyce Cary, the intricacies, the mysteries, of human character delight him; like E. M. Forster, he is witty, unconventional, cerebral. One can only return to The Collector and The Magus to examine both again, for with his third novel [The French Lieutenant's Woman] a novelist as great as Cary and Forster has certainly been striking forth.

The French lieutenant's "woman" is Sarah Woodruff, an orphan, educated "above her station," who, abandoned by her lover, is an outcast in the regimented and petty society of Lyme Regis in the year 1867. It is Charles Smithson, gentleman, amateur scientist, engaged to the highly eligible Ernestina Freeman, who passionately falls in love—ah, alas—with Sarah, the fallen woman.

How tell this story? As a contemporary, of course, but also as a novelist who finds the gentle and engaging manner of a Dickens or a Thackeray a delight. How tell this story but as a contemporary who sees at the distance of a hundred years the seeds of the present sexual, social and scientific revolution? After all, the novelist is next to God. He can do all but pass final judgment; let him carefully keep that "distance" between himself and the greater (but non-writing!) Creator.

James Aronson, "Reservations" (© 1970 by The Antioch Review, Inc.; first published in The Antioch Review, Vol. XXIX, No. 4; reprinted by permission of the editors), in Antioch Review, Winter, 1969–70, pp. 587-88.

John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman is a modishly-framed imitation of Victorian fiction. The mimicry itself is remarkably satisfying, affording the kind of impure pleasure in narrative garrulity and Dickensian melodrama against which acolytes of the avant-garde have been warning readers for the past half-century. Yet the novel self-consciously waves the standard of the avant-garde; it is not, its narrative voice frequently insists, simply a bully tale but an investigation of the phenomenon of cultural upheaval conducted along the boundaries of fictional truth.

Paul Edward Gray, in Yale Review (© 1970 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Spring, 1970, p. 430.