The old English agony

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John Fowles’ Englishness makes a trenchant return in his tormented, magnificent journals

Prospect, November 2003


The sharpest characteristic of Englishness as an element of the English novel in the last sixty years is its revolt against itself. Englishness of the pre-multicultural kind was rarely seen as a domain to be anatomised with anything like affection; more often it occupied a shallow grave, the casualty of satire and ridicule. This curious aspect of the English novel dates, I think, from the end of empire and a consequent feeling that, on the one hand, “English” virtues must be maintained and, on the other, we post-imperial children know this won’t do. Multicultural Englishness is slightly different. The breaking wave of new identity that came with the work of Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi, Kazuo Ishiguro and others, and has settled into the groundswell of energy personified by the Z. Smiths and M. Alis of today is celebrated rightly with a genuine cheer, but also disconcertingly often with synchronised applause and little thought of analysing how and where old, displaced England fits into the new, funky, urban tractatus of our identity.

In the first volume of John Fowles’ Journals there are plenty of instances when this hatred of England, its social conformity and condescension, ignites. “The average Englishman can’t imagine, and can’t feel, and even if he does, is too inhibited to ever show either quality,” Fowles writes in an early entry of 6 April 1950, at the age of 24.

A year later, in August 1951, returning to England from a year’s teaching in Poitiers, he uses an arresting image — “The tired eyes of England” — as he witnesses the Festival of Britain’s lack of exuberance. “I arrived early and joined a queue, a vast, orderly line of people. There were two policemen to control several hundred people…. The Festival I saw in a morning. All the cleverness and the practicality and the didacticism I found rather repellent.” And five years later he is as angry as ever: “in England, being English, public schoolboy, ex-officer, Christian, Oxford, the barriers one has to tear down to achieve a belief in self!”

Later still, it is not very surprising to have it confirmed that one of the things Fowles was trying to do in his first published success, The Collector, in 1963 was to “attack the money-minus-morality society (the affluent, the acquisitive) we have lived in since 1951”. I doubt there were many readers at the time who saw Frederick Clegg, Fowles’ inarticulate, psychopathic anti-hero as the embodiment of Englishness; but Fowles’ antipathy to his own culture is revealed as one of his strongest motivations. Writing The Magus, he notes his sources — Robinson Crusoe, The Tempest — and again you can detect the antagonisms: his vision of islands as traps, his interest in the puzzles of evil that revel in what happens when the scaffolding of convention is stripped away. The curious thing is that these Journals come from the pen of a writer who, with his deadpan delivery of mystery and suspense, his skill at complex plot and historical pastiche, his interests in landscape and natural history, and his Dickensian taste for the theatrical aspects of fiction, is as English as they come.

Many in the 1970s — I count myself among them — regarded Fowles as the saviour of the contemporary English novel. After leaving Cambridge and three years of mechanical training in French and German literature, I became for a while allergic to all books. It was Fowles’ revised edition of The Magus (1977) that got me out of my reader’s block. His fiction up to and including The Ebony Tower had that sort of seductiveness, so compelling was their surface of theatrical reversals and their substratum of troubling psychology.

This was high fusion, traditional English storytelling joining the postmodern/magical realism  world. Daniel Martin, I remember, was the novel that began to divide people. There were those who clung to its self-searching length as the work of a modern Dostoyevsky, and those who could no longer be quite so arsed to play Fowles’ games. I was reluctantly of the second kind. Disillusion followed quickly on admiration’s heels.

So it’s with some astonishment that this first volume of his Journals has restored him to prominence in my mind. They can, as he says in Charles Drazin’s introduction, be thought of as another kind of novel. Indeed, so replete with the perfect illusion of humanity are the characters, including himself, that they may well count as the best novel he has written. This book has the risk and flight of great narrative: Suburban-Boy-Becomes-King-of Parnassus, Essex-Man-as-Literary-Hero. The trajectory of that story — shy student-inhibited Romantic-Don Juan-unpublished writer-miserable teacher-overnight success after 15 years — would lend itself to almost any form. So satisfying and simple is its outline as narrative, you could almost sell it as a Jim Carrey vehicle.

The real fascination of these pages goes further than that. Their true compulsion is in the sheer unguarded accumulation of Fowles’ experience. (This volume is actually the iceberg’s tip, edited down with formidable application by Charles Drazin from 2 million words to around 300,000 words.) Fowles becomes here, in the course of his writing, the most brilliant anatomist of his own condition and situation. From his boyhood in Leigh-on-Sea onwards, as the son of a kind, twittering mother and barely successful tobacco-company proprietor father, there is a classic struggle not to offend against mid-century England, and to reject it savagely. Home life is dissected with Genet-like disgust (“The housework drags on all day…. I would tell them so much, but a curious obstinacy prevents this”). Back at Oxford for his final year, feelings of incongruity continue. He is bored by friends (“I cannot concentrate on those with whom I happen to be”), injured by the stock paralysis of the English public schoolboy in the face of women, contemptuous of authority. Some of the best early passages are moments of pure observation — often of girls (reading Wuthering Heights in New College garden,  on a ferry to France), but also of the beauty of the Leigh marshes, of  acquaintances at house-parties.

Escape from the death-in-life experience of England in the Fifties came in the traditional form of continental flight — first to a lectureship at Poitiers, then on various organised holidays in Europe, then to a job teaching English at the Anargyrios school on the Greek island of Spetsai. One can sympathise with the ingredients of these early experiences — one part literary frustration to three parts sexual hopelessness — and yet he managed to return from Spetsai in 1953 with both the setting of a future novel gestating in his mind, and the wife of another teacher on his arm.

The story of Fowles’ difficult courtship and eventual marriage with Elizabeth Christy is an eye-opener. Separation, the inability to earn money, and the question of what to do with Elizabeth’s daughter Anna make an uncomfortable, protracted episode. The diarist has not hidden the truth. He wanted Elizabeth but not Anna; and while Elizabeth was suffering in penury in London, he found himself a job at a finishing school in Hertfordshire and willingly fell for the temptations of two of the pupils there.

“Once again the transition from the deep reality of E to the amusing pastime of Sally came with an ease almost disgusting.” Perhaps the ego of the (male) reader can sympathise with that too; where my superego intervened was when Elizabeth is described having to travel across London on a March evening in 1954 to borrow an overcoat for an interview: she had had to sell her own, with her wedding ring, to pay her rent. But why didn’t he buy her a coat?

That episode signals a psychological blind spot in the diarist. In the novelist I am inclined to think it signals a literary incompleteness. Fowles’ Romanticism is in a line from Flaubert: he recognises exactly what it is that lifts Frédéric Moreau from a hollow selfishness to a character worth pitying in Sentimental Education — his belief in love. Yet Fowles’ own fiction, striving to say something new, became a labyrinth of theatricality in which Flaubert’s saving understanding was lost. Although The Collector must have seemed stunningly truthful in its saying of the unsaid, even in his first novel a weakness was apparent. It is a newspaper story, situationist merely, a novel of narrow scope whose main achievements are its uncomfortable honesty and the ingenuity of its style.

The Journals show just how much Fowles longed for that style, in this entry for 6 January 1954 and many others: “Doubt about my writing; a deep, all-pervading doubt. The agonisingly slow progress I make towards coherence and grace; the constant misuse, semantic and euphonic, of words.” After settling with Elizabeth, moving to a job at a secretarial college in Hampstead, and seeming to spend much of the late Fifties endlessly revising his work — he calls this his defect, his “fear of being published” — and reading Pasternak, Stendhal, Greene and Flaubert, he finally began to succeed.

Yet already in November 1954 he had revealed an Achilles heel. “The writer wants to include the whole world; all the whole world expects of a writer is some new flavour. Greatness is confused with individuality, ‘vision’ with word-ingenuity…. I don’t like glossy writing,” he writes. But “that is the function of the new artist — Picasso-like, to use all the techniques. Master of all, slave of none.” He doesn’t like glossy writing, but ambition clouds his judgment. Trying to commit himself to a policy of simplicity, to “a poetry of truths, of emotions” during the Fifties, he knew that technique is not greatness, or vision. Yet, Picasso-like, he could not resist using all the techniques he could find. The result was that the virtuosity of The Magus and The French Lieutenant’s Woman gradually declined into the idiosyncrasy and self-indulgence of Daniel Martin and A Maggot.

Nevertheless, in themselves — as opposed to what they reveal about their author’s faults — these Journals are magnificent: vivid, widely compassing, full of vitality and pride, a compellingly described chronicle of a novelist’s early and painful becoming, written with a sometimes unconsciously complete candour about states of manhood and literary ambition. On the strength of this volume, they probably are the greatest thing he has written. Here he is at his best (and better than he imagines) when describing events and people. Two of the best sections are the story of his relationship with Elizabeth, who died in 1990, and his account of the filming of The Collector and his friendship with Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggars. But it contains countless other entries remarkable for their accuracy, felicity, or wit, or all three. Howard’s End is “insipid, as if written by an intelligent rabbit”; Oxford is “only good by contrast, not good intrinsically”; Michael Caine “can’t act, but takes himself very seriously…. Very ugly, these new ultra-hard young princes of limelight”.

These Journals are also, profoundly, a warning. Fowles’ high ambition, its source buried in his mute Essex adolescence, seems to have derived from the fact that in the beginning there was nobody to listen to him. But his pursuit of fame by the mastery of technique and the subordination of humanity, exacted its price. Fowles has not published a novel since 1985, and this volume seems to confirm that it was the tensions between a traditional kind of English storytelling and the revolt against it — the revolt into technique — that eventually silenced him. All through these pages I sensed the aching egotism of a spirit desperate for the world to listen — a spirit who is worth listening to on almost every page, but an incomplete one, unable fully to refashion his egotistical experience into the telling of stories. That is why we don’t remember his characters, their dilemmas and tragedies, so much as their author’s unhappy honesty.


© Julian Evans 2003

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