Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The French Lieutenant's Woman - John Fowles, Page 2

John Fowles

  almost certainly not have believed you--and even though, in only six months from this March of 1867, the first volume of Kapital was to appear in Hamburg.

  There were, too, countless personal reasons why Charles was unfitted for the agreeable role of pessimist. His grandfather the baronet had fallen into the second of the two great categories of English country squires: claret-swilling fox hunters and scholarly collectors of everything under the sun. He had collected books principally; but in his latter years had devoted a deal of his money and much more of his family's patience to the excavation of the harmless hummocks of earth that pimpled his three thousand Wiltshire acres.

  Cromlechs and menhirs, flint implements and neolithic graves, he pursued them ruthlessly; and his elder son pursued the portable trophies just as ruthlessly out of the house when he came into his inheritance. But heaven had punished this son, or blessed him, by seeing that he never married. The old man's younger son, Charles's father, was left well provided for, both in land and money.

  His had been a life with only one tragedy--the simultaneous death of his young wife and the stillborn child who would have been a sister to the one-year-old Charles. But he swallowed his grief. He lavished if not great affection, at least a series of tutors and drill sergeants on his son, whom on the whole he liked only slightly less than himself. He sold his portion of land, invested shrewdly in railway stock and un-shrewdly at the gambling-tables (he went to Almack's rather than to the Almighty for consolation), in short lived more as if he had been born in 1702 than 1802, lived very largely for pleasure ... and died very largely of it in 1856. Charles was thus his only heir; heir not only to his father's diminished fortune--the baccarat had in the end had its revenge on the railway boom--but eventually to his uncle's very considerable one. It was true that in 1867 the uncle showed, in spite of a comprehensive reversion to the

  claret, no sign of dying.

  Charles liked him, and his uncle liked Charles. But this was by no means always apparent in their relationship. Though he conceded enough to sport to shoot partridge and pheasant when called upon to do so, Charles adamantly refused to hunt the fox. He did not care that the prey was uneatable, but he abhorred the unspeakability of the hunters. There was worse: he had an unnatural fondness for walking instead of riding; and walking was not a gentleman's pastime except in the Swiss Alps. He had nothing very much against the horse in itself, but he had the born naturalist's hatred of not being able to observe at close range and at leisure. However, fortune had been with him. One autumn day, many years before, he had shot at a very strange bird that ran from the border of one of his uncle's wheatfields. When he discovered what he had shot, and its rarity, he was vaguely angry with himself, for this was one of the last Great Bustards shot on Salisbury Plain. But his uncle was delighted. The bird was stuffed, and forever after stared beadily, like an octoroon turkey, out of its glass case in the drawing room at Winsyatt. His uncle bored the visiting gentry interminably with the story of how the deed had been done; and whenever he felt inclined to disinherit--a subject which in itself made him go purple, since the estate was in tail male--he would recover his avuncular kindness of heart by standing and staring at Charles's immortal bustard. For Charles had faults. He did not always write once a week; and he had a sinister fondness for spending the afternoons at Winsyatt in the library, a room his uncle seldom if ever used. He had had graver faults than these, however. At Cambridge, having duly crammed his classics and subscribed to the Thirty-nine Articles, he had (unlike most young men of his time) actually begun to learn something. But in his second year there he had drifted into a bad set and ended up, one foggy night in London, in carnal possession of a naked girl. He rushed from her plump Cockney arms into those of the Church, horrifying his father one day shortly afterwards by announcing that he wished to take Holy Orders. There was only one answer to a crisis of this magnitude: the wicked youth was dispatched to Paris. There his tarnished virginity was soon blackened out of recognition; but so, as his father had hoped, was his intended marriage with the Church. Charles saw what stood behind the seductive appeal of the Oxford Movement--Roman Catholicism propria terra. He declined to fritter his negative but comfortable English soul-- one part irony to one part convention--on incense and papal infallibility. When he returned to London he fingered and skimmed his way through a dozen religious theories of the time, but emerged in the clear (voyant trop pour nier, et trop pen pour s'assurer) a healthy agnostic.* What little God he managed to derive from existence, he found in Nature, not the Bible; a hundred years earlier he would have been a deist, perhaps even a pantheist. In company he would go to morning service of a Sunday; but on his own, he rarely did.

  [* Though he would not have termed himself so, for the very simple reason that the word was not coined (by Huxley) until 1870; by which time it had become much needed.]

  He returned from his six months in the City of Sin in 1856. His father had died three months later. The big house in Belgravia was let, and Charles installed himself in a smaller establishment in Kensington, more suitable to a young bachelor. There he was looked after by a manservant, a cook and two maids, staff of almost eccentric modesty for one of his connections and wealth. But he was happy there, and besides, he spent a great deal of time traveling. He contributed one or two essays on his journeys in remoter places to the fashionable magazines; indeed an enterprising publisher asked him to write a book after the nine months he spent in Portugal, but there seemed to Charles something rather infra dig.--and something decidedly too much like hard work and sustained concentration--in authorship. He toyed with the idea, and dropped it. Indeed toying with ideas was his chief occupation during his third decade.

  Yet he was not, adrift in the slow entire of Victorian time, essentially a frivolous young man. A chance meeting with someone who knew of his grandfather's mania made him realize that it was only in the family that the old man's endless days of supervising bewildered gangs of digging rustics were regarded as a joke. Others remembered Sir Charles Smithson as a pioneer of the archaeology of pre-Roman Britain; objects from his banished collection had been gratefully housed by the British Museum. And slowly Charles realized that he was in temperament nearer to his grandfather than to either of his grandfather's sons. During the last three years he had become increasingly interested in paleontology; that, he had decided, was his field. He began to frequent the conversazioniof the Geological Society. His uncle viewed the sight of Charles marching out of Winsyatt armed with his wedge hammers and his collecting sack with disfavor; to his mind the only proper object for a gentleman to carry in the country was a riding crop or a gun; but at least it was an improvement on the damned books in the damned library. However, there was yet one more lack of interest in Charles that pleased his uncle even less. Yellow ribbons and daffodils, the insignia of the Liberal Party, were anathema at Winsyatt; the old man was the most azure of Tories--and had interest. But Charles politely refused all attempts to get him to stand for Parliament. He declared himself without political conviction. In secret he rather admired Gladstone; but at Winsyatt Gladstone was the arch-traitor, the unmentionable. Thus family respect and social laziness conveniently closed what would have been a natural career for him.

  Laziness was, I am afraid, Charles's distinguishing trait. Like many of his contemporaries he sensed that the earlier self-responsibility of the century was turning into self-importance: that what drove the new Britain was increasingly a desire to seem respectable, in place of the desire to do good for good's sake. He knew he was overfastidious. But how could one write history with Macaulay so close behind? Fiction or poetry, in the midst of the greatest galaxy of talent in the history of English literature? How could one be a creative scientist, with Lyell and Darwin still alive? Be a statesman, with Disraeli and Gladstone polarizing all the available space?

  You will see that Charles set his sights high. Intelligent idlers always have, in order to justify their idleness to their intelligence. He had, in short, all the Byronic
ennui with neither of the Byronic outlets: genius and adultery.

  But though death may be delayed, as mothers with marriageable daughters have been known to foresee, it kindly always comes in the end. Even if Charles had not had the further prospects he did, he was an interesting young man. His travels abroad had regrettably rubbed away some of that patina of profound humorlessness (called by the Victorian earnestness, moral rectitude, probity, and a thousand other misleading names) that one really required of a proper English gentleman of the time. There was outwardly a certain cynicism about him, a sure symptom of an inherent moral decay; but he never entered society without being ogled by the mamas, clapped on the back by the papas and simpered at by the girls. Charles quite liked pretty girls and he was not averse to leading them, and their ambitious parents, on. Thus he had gained a reputation for aloofness and coldness, a not unmerited reward for the neat way--by the time he was thirty he was as good as a polecat at the business--he would sniff the bait and then turn his tail on the hidden teeth of the matrimonial traps that endangered his path.

  His uncle often took him to task on the matter; but as Charles was quick to point out, he was using damp powder. The old man would grumble.

  "I never found the right woman."

  "Nonsense. You never looked for her."

  "Indeed I did. When I was your age ..."

  "You lived for your hounds and the partridge season."

  The old fellow would stare gloomily at his claret. He did not really regret having no wife; but he bitterly lacked not having children to buy ponies and guns for. He saw his way of life sinking without trace.

  "I was blind. Blind."

  "My dear uncle, I have excellent eyesight. Console yourself. I too have been looking for the right girl. And I have not found her."


  What's done, is what remains! Ah, blessed they

  Who leave completed tasks of love to stay

  And answermutely for them, being dead,

  Life was not purposeless, though Life be fled.

  --Mrs. Norton, The Lady of La Garaye (1863)

  Most British families of the middle and upper classes lived above their own cesspool...

  --E. Royston Pike, Human Documents of the Victorian Golden Age

  * * *

  The basement kitchen of Mrs. Poulteney's large Regency house, which stood, an elegantly clear simile of her social status, in a commanding position on one of the steep hills behind Lyme Regis, would no doubt seem today almost intolerable for its functional inadequacies. Though the occupants in 1867 would have been quite clear as to who was the tyrant in their lives, the more real monster, to an age like ours, would beyond doubt have been the enormous kitchen range that occupied all the inner wall of the large and ill-lit room. It had three fires, all of which had to be stoked twice a day, and riddled twice a day; and since the smooth domestic running of the house depended on it, it could never be allowed to go out. Never mind how much a summer's day sweltered, never mind that every time there was a southwesterly gale the monster blew black clouds of choking fumes--the remorseless furnaces had to be fed. And then the color of those walls! They cried out for some light shade, for white. Instead they were a bilious leaden green--one that was, unknown to the occupants (and to be fair, to the tyrant upstairs), rich in arsenic. Perhaps it was fortunate that the room was damp and that the monster disseminated so much smoke and grease. At least the deadly dust was laid. The sergeant major of this Stygian domain was a Mrs. Fairley, a thin, small person who always wore black, but less for her widowhood than by temperament. Perhaps her sharp melancholy had been induced by the sight of the endless torrent of lesser mortals who cascaded through her kitchen. Butlers, footmen, gardeners, grooms, upstairs maids, downstairs maids--they took just so much of Mrs. Poulteney's standards and ways and then they fled. This was very disgraceful and cowardly of them. But when you are expected to rise at six, to work from half past six to eleven, to work again from half past eleven to half past four, and then again from five to ten, and every day, thus a hundred-hour week, your reserves of grace and courage may not be very large. A legendary summation of servant feelings had been delivered to Mrs. Poulteney by the last butler but four: "Madam, I should rather spend the rest of my life in the poorhouse than live another week under this roof." Some gravely doubted whether anyone could actually have dared to say these words to the awesome lady. But the sentiment behind them was understood when the man came down with his bags

  and claimed that he had.

  Exactly how the ill-named Mrs. Fairley herself had stood her mistress so long was one of the local wonders. Most probably it was because she would, had life so fallen out, have been a Mrs. Poulteney on her own account. Her envy kept her there; and also her dark delight in the domestic catastrophes that descended so frequently on the house. In short, both women were incipient sadists; and it was to their advantage to tolerate each other.

  Mrs. Poulteney had two obsessions: or two aspects of the same obsession. One was Dirt--though she made some sort of exception of the kitchen, since only the servants lived there--and the other was Immorality. In neither field did anything untoward escape her eagle eye.

  She was like some plump vulture, endlessly circling in her endless leisure, and endowed in the first field with a miraculous sixth sense as regards dust, fingermarks, insufficiently starched linen, smells, stains, breakages and all the ills that houses are heir to. A gardener would be dismissed for being seen to come into the house with earth on his hands; a butler for having a spot of wine on his stock; a maid for having slut's wool under her bed.

  But the most abominable thing of all was that even outside her house she acknowledged no bounds to her authority. Failure to be seen at church, both at matins and at evensong, on Sunday was tantamount to proof of the worst moral laxity. Heaven help the maid seen out walking, on one of her rare free afternoons--one a month was the reluctant allowance--with a young man. And heaven also help the young man so in love that he tried to approach Marlborough House secretly to keep an assignation: for the gardens were a positive forest of humane man-traps--"humane" in this context referring to the fact that the great waiting jaws were untoothed, though quite powerful enough to break a man's leg. These iron servants were the most cherished by Mrs. Poulteney. Them, she had never dismissed.

  There would have been a place in the Gestapo for the lady; she had a way of interrogation that could reduce the sturdiest girls to tears in the first five minutes. In her fashion she was an epitome of all the most crassly arrogant traits of the ascendant British Empire. Her only notion of justice was that she must be right; and her only notion of government was an angry bombardment of the impertinent populace. Yet among her own class, a very limited circle, she was renowned for her charity. And if you had disputed that reputation, your opponents would have produced an incontrovertible piece of evidence: had not dear, kind Mrs. Poulteney taken in the French Lieutenant's Woman? I need hardly add that at the time the dear, kind lady knew only the other, more Grecian, nickname.

  * * *

  This remarkable event had taken place in the spring of 1866, exactly a year before the time of which I write; and it had to do with the great secret of Mrs. Poulteney's life. It was a very simple secret. She believed in hell.

  The vicar of Lyme at that time was a comparatively emancipated man theologically, but he also knew very well on which side his pastoral bread was buttered. He suited Lyme, a traditionally Low Church congregation, very well. He had the knack of a certain fervid eloquence in his sermons; and he kept his church free of crucifixes, images, ornaments and all other signs of the Romish cancer. When Mrs. Poulteney enounced to him her theories of the life to come, he did not argue, for incumbents of not notably fat livings do not argue with rich parishioners. Mrs. Poulteney's purse was as open to calls from him as it was throttled where her thirteen domestics' wages were concerned. In the winter (winter also of the fourth great cholera onslaught on Victorian Britain) of that previous year Mrs. Poulteney had been a li
ttle ill, and the vicar had been as frequent a visitor as the doctors who so repeatedly had to assure her that she was suffering from a trivial stomach upset and not the dreaded Oriental killer.

  Mrs. Poulteney was not a stupid woman; indeed, she had acuity in practical matters, and her future destination, like all matters pertaining to her comfort, was a highly practical consideration. If she visualized God, He had rather the face of the Duke of Wellington; but His character was more that of a shrewd lawyer, a breed for whom Mrs. Poulteney had much respect. As she lay in her bedroom she reflected on the terrible mathematical doubt that increasingly haunted her; whether the Lord calculated charity by what one had given or by what one could have afforded to give. Here she had better data than the vicar. She had given considerable sums to the church; but she knew they fell far short of the prescribed one-tenth to be parted with by serious candidates for paradise. Certainly she had regulated her will to ensure that the account would be handsomely balanced after her death; but God might not be present at the reading of that document. Furthermore it chanced, while she was ill, that Mrs. Fairley, who read to her from the Bible in the evenings, picked on the parable of the widow's mite. It had always seemed a grossly unfair parable to Mrs. Poulteney; it now lay in her heart far longer than the enteritis bacilli in her intestines. One day, when she was convalescent, she took advantage of one of the solicitous vicar's visits and cautiously examined her conscience. At first he was inclined to dismiss her spiritual worries.

  "My dear madam, your feet are on the Rock. The Creator is all-seeing and all-wise. It is not for us to doubt His mercy--or His justice."

  "But supposing He should ask me if my conscience is clear?"

  The vicar smiled. "You will reply that it is troubled. And with His infinite compassion He will--"

  "But supposing He did not?"

  "My dear Mrs. Poulteney, if you speak like this I shall have to reprimand you. We are not to dispute His understanding."