Sunday, February 22, 2009

Struttin' her stuff on the street

Current book: The French Lieutenant's Woman
Pages read: 27-110

Since I didn't post in a substantial way yesterday, I'm lumping my pages read for yesterday and today together, just so you know. Well, Fowles continues to amaze and delight me with the compelling nature of prose, characters, and narrative, so I've very little to complain about. Try not to faint.

The French lieutenant's woman, whom, it is important to note for the sake of brevity in future (and also because of the fact that the phrase "the French lieutenant's woman" has the same syllabic pattern as "we're independent women" which my brain follows with "some mistake us for whores" (quite an appropriate lyric in this context, when you think about it), and while I appreciate "Lady Marmalade" as much as the next girl, I'm not really sure that the sweeping vision of the English coastline, broken only by rock and the stark faces of the cliffs, ought to echo with the dulcet strains of Li'l Kim), is named Sarah Woodruff, settles into Mrs. Poulteney's house and becomes quite a hit with the household staff. She has an innate sense of the true nature of people, it seems, and being so endowed, is able to manipulate Mrs. Poulteney into keeping a more hospitable home.

Anyway, Sarah Woodruff mostly spends her time wandering around the countryside, and, after a while, Mrs. Poulteney forbids her to walk by the sea because of the fact that it might tempt her to dwell on her inappropriate relationship with the French lieutenant. Instead, she begins walking in the Undercliff, a wild and untamed area that no one is likely to frequent, aside from the odd poacher. The fact that it's wild and untamed, however, makes it the perfect place to hunt for fossils, and lo and behold, whom should she meet but our very own aspiring paleontologist, Charles? He sees her on more than one occasion, actually, and becomes slightly obsessed with her, in a (so far) innocuous way. He's fascinated by her pathos and beauty, really, and wants both to help her and to know more about her, especially after she blurts out the fact that her absent French lieutenant is actually married. However, when he meets her on the third occasion, she evinces a desire not to be given money or sent to London, but rather simply to confide her story in him. Being a Victorian gentleman, he is, of course, made excruciatingly uncomfortable by the perceived impropriety of this situation, but eventually he agrees (as much, I think, out of curiosity as out of sense of duty). Anyway, that's where that storyline finds itself.

Simultaneously, Charles's servant Sam is falling in love with Ernestina's aunt's servant, Mary, and we get to watch them be all cockney-lovey-dovey with each other. I can't decide if it's cute or sort of insulting to the lower class. We'll go with cute, because I love John Fowles and I want to give him the benefit of the doubt, and also because their love seems infinitely more earnest and promising than that of Charles and Ernestina. I should explain, then, that Charles hardly seems to be truly in love with Ernestina. He keeps having these little moments of doubt and annoyance with her, and he keeps assuring himself that everything will be all right once they're married. (This is an assumption, of course, that always works out extremely well for the parties involved, as we've seen from previous books on the list.) Could he, perhaps, fall in love with poor, spurned Sarah Woodruff instead? Can there be yet more scandal etched into the annals of Lyme Regis? Will the cliffs ring with the sound of Ernestina's enraged sobbing? Or possibly gunshots? Will Sarah's lost French lieutenant return to her loving bosom and have to duel Charles with pistols at dawn? Can I continue to ask ever more ridiculous rhetorical questions?

Ahem. Anyway.

Fowles has chosen an interesting narrative device in making the narrator an obviously modern one. At the beginning of chapter thirteen, he breaks the fourth wall, as it were, entirely, by noting to the reader that the story is made up out of his own head, but also asserting that he's lost control of his characters and they seem to be doing whatever they want. I don't really know how I feel about the choice to speak directly to the reader and acknowledge that the story is fiction, but he does it well if it has to be done, I suppose. I guess I find it a little jarring and would rather stay in the narrative and have my little laughs as he pokes fun at Victorian culture, but maybe he's shaking me out of that on purpose. Like I said, benefit of the doubt.

He also continues to deliver excellent and amusingly quotable dialogue and beautiful and evocative description. He rarely says something simply when he can do it complexly. For example, at one point Charles pays a local dairyman a penny for a bowl of milk. Instead of saying, "Charles gave the man a penny," what he says is,"A penny, one of those charming heads of the young Victoria that still occasionally turn up in one's change, with all but that graceful head worn away by the century's use, passed hands," (62). Rather than being pedantic and obnoxious, he somehow jogs your mind into thinking of the mundane in a different light. That, my friends, is what makes good literature. The sheer consistency with which he's able to achieve the effect is astonishing.

This is, so far, the best book I've read in a long time.

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