The Novella

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Very little action is involved in the two-day span that constitutes the plot of The Ebony Tower, the title novella in a collection with four short stories. Presented from the point of view of limited omniscience, the novella concerns the thoughts and reactions of David Williams, as he contrasts his domestic and predictable life in London with the unconventional world he encounters at Henry Breasley’s estate in France, the Manoir de Coetminais (“the forest of the monks”).

David has come to Brittany to interview Henry in preparation for writing a biographical and critical introduction to a volume of the older painter’s work. On his arrival at the secluded, fifteenth century estate, he encounters two naked young women-nicknamed the Mouse and the Freak-whose presence seems to validate the reputation of the painter, a notorious iconoclast and womanizer. After being introduced to Henry, David smugly but enviously is taken on tour of the artist’s collection of modern art. Later that evening at dinner, the two men have a serious discussion and almost an argument about contemporary art, hindered by Henry’s increasing drunkenness but aided by the Mouse’s role as interpreter for the generally inarticulate Henry. Henry abhors abstract art, the “decorative” style for which David has become moderately famous.

Helped to bed by the two women in an apparently familiar domestic ritual, Henry is repentant the next morning, and all four go on a...

(The entire section is 523 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Ebony Tower includes the title novella, three short stories, and the author’s translation of Marie de France’s Eliduc, a twelfth century romance. Eliduc is included in the volume because it is a source of inspiration for the other stories. In this medieval romance the knight leaves his faithful wife, Guildelüec, to travel to a foreign land where he falls in love with the ravishingly beautiful princess, Guilliadun. After some trials and tribulations, including the miraculous resurrection of the princess from a deathly sleep, the story ends happily with the marriage of the princess and the knight and Guildelüec’s gracious acquiescence in her new status as former wife. Absolving Eliduc of any blame for falling in love with the princess, Guildelüec becomes a nun.

In the title novella, the protagonist, David Williams, a British abstract painter and art critic, has left his faithful wife at home to travel to France to interview the renowned artist Henry Breastley, a representational painter who detests the kind of abstract art in which David believes. Living with Breastley are two young women; one of them is a modern version of the “princess” who needs to be rescued. At the crucial moment, David discovers that he is no modern-day Eliduc who can muster the courage to overcome convention and rescue this damsel in distress. The story concludes with a disillusioned David returning to his wife and realizing that he is only...

(The entire section is 545 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Conradi, Peter. John Fowles, 1982.

Fawkner, H. W. The Timescapes of John Fowles, 1984.

Morrow, Lance. Review in Time. CIV (December 2, 1974), p. 110.

The New Yorker. Review. L (December 23, 1974), p. 83.

Newsweek. Review. LXXXIV (November 25, 1974), p. 120.

Olshen, Barry N. John Fowles, 1978.

Solotaroff, Theodore. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXI (November 10, 1974), p. 2.

Wolfe, Peter. John Fowles: Magus and Moralist, 1976.