G(erald) B(asil) Edwards John Fowles - Essay

John Fowles

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There may have been stranger recent literary events than [The Book of Ebenezer Le Page],… but I rather doubt it. It is first of all posthumous, since the author, born a year older than the century, died in 1976. Then it is an only novel, seemingly not begun until he was in his late sixties. Even without those oddities, its voice and method are so unusual that it belongs nowhere on our conventional literary maps. (p. vii)

So far as we know it was not until 1974 that Edwards made … any attempt to have The Book of Ebenezer Le Page published. He bore the rejections it then received with an at least outward patient obstinacy…. If I cannot think much of the judgement of the various eminent London publishers who turned the typeścript down in the mid 1970s, at least I can understand why they all seem to have had trouble explaining the rejection. What had landed in their nets was a very strange fish—and one, I suspect, that on a quick reading it was only too easy to place in a wrong literary species, that of the provincial novel.

I think myself that it is no more properly classifiable so than Flora Thompson's famous trilogy, Lark Rise to Candleford. Of course any book whose ground is the close observation of a small community risks this damning label of 'provincial'. Yet even if Edwards' account of the life and times of one Channel Islander had to be thus valued, it would still seem to me a remarkable achievement. If Gurnsey feels that it has, since Victor Hugo's famous fifteen years of exile there, been rather left out in the literary cold, it need worry no more. It now has a portrait and memorial that must surely become a classic of the island.

But what Edwards does, as readers will soon realize, is to extend the empire of the book well beyond the confines of one particular island. All small islands conform their inhabitants in markedly similar ways, both socially and psychologically. On the credit side there is the fierce independence, the toughness of spirit, the patience and courage, the ability to cope and make do; on the debit, the dourness, the incest, the backwardness, the suspicion of non-islanders … all that we mean by insularity. None of these qualities and defects is special to islands. One might argue that the 'island syndrome' occurs with increasing frequency in many of our embattled inner cities, and very much in the context of what finally becomes the major theme of this book—that is, the impact of new values on old ones, of ineluctable social evolution on individual man.

Edwards' own view is made very clear through his fictional alter ego. For him the new values—in local terms, all that has turned Guernsey into tourist resort and international tax haven—are anathema. They have destroyed nearly everything on the island—and by implication everywhere else—that he cherished and celebrates so well and elegiacally, beneath the plain language, in the first half of the novel. Whether Edwards was right or wrong to see more ashes than hope in progress is not, I think, what matters. What does...

(The entire section is 1275 words.)