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Resurrecting London: From Drab Elsewhere to Rumoured Truth in John Fowles’s 1960s Novels

Alan Kirby

The historiography of literary London also encompasses the historiography of anti-literary London, of the discourses which affirm or seek to demonstrate the alleged impossibility of using London either as a home for literary production or as a setting for literary texts. Frequently deploying a rhetorical assimilation of London to hell, this discourse often makes similar imputations with reference to other arts, and it may also involve the drawing of unfavourable contrasts between London and other cities such as Paris. In 1919 Ezra Pound condemned, in Canto XIV, one of the “hell cantos” which he would later identify as “specifically LONDON”:[1]

the betrayers of language…
And those who had lied for hire;
the perverts, the perverters of language,
the perverts, who have set money-lust
Before the pleasures of the senses …[2]

Literature is impossible in such a philistine, mercenary, inhuman and deathly London, where publishers are “obstructors of knowledge,/obstructors of distribution”,[3] and literary critics insist on “obscuring the texts with philology,/hiding them under their persons”.[4] In a letter to John Drummond in 1932, Pound was to denounce the “sacks of pus which got control of Brit. pubctn. in or about 1912 or ’14 … [who] stifle literature in Eng.”.[5] Shortly after composing the “hell cantos”, Pound moved away from London, first to Paris, then Italy.

Similarly, for D. H. Lawrence in 1928, briefly returning from the various other places in which he had preferred to carry on his literary career, London was essentially “[u]tter inaction and storms of talk. That again is London to me. And the sense of abject futility in it all only deepens the sense of abject dulness, so all there is to do is to go away”.[6] The following year Lawrence was arguing that “the literairy [sic] London sets are all just effete. If a man’s really going to work, these days, he’s got to work alone”.[7] Critiques like these by Pound and Lawrence focus on the supposed artistic nullity of a London which is seen as sterile, creatively bankrupt, void of aesthetic purpose or achievement. They merge with more general passages where Lawrence remarks that “London … seems very dark, and one seems to creep under a paving-stone of a sky, like some insect in the damp… there seems a deadness everywhere, in the people, in everything”.[8] In the “hell cantos” Pound too sees London this way:

Above the hell-rot
the great arse-hole,
broken with piles,
hanging stalactites,
greasy as sky over Westminster,
the invisible, many English,
the place lacking in interest,
last squalor, utter decrepitude …[9]

A set of accusations fuse together here: that London is deathly and literally infernal (“hell-rot”, “deadness”, “dark”), culturally bankrupt and anti-artistic (“abject futility”, “stifle literature”, “lacking in interest”), barren (“effete”, that is, incapable of procreation), anti-human (“insect”, “invisible … English”) and ugly (“greasy”, “squalor”, “damp” etc.). Art cannot be made in London; London is death, the opposite of creation.

This rejection of London as a cultural centre by certain interwar modernists (though not all), to which Eliot added, in The Waste Land, a mythopeoic version of the supposed sterility of the contemporary British capital, appears in John Fowles’s early fiction as an inescapably vital issue for any serious English writer or artist. Fowles’s first novel, The Collector (1963), considers the artistic repudiation of London and England in favour of Paris as a powerful and plausible modern cultural force:

G.P. [George Paston, a London artist] talks about the Paris rat. Not being able to face England any more. I [Miranda, a London art student] can understand that so well. The feeling that England stifles and smothers and crushes like a steamroller over everything fresh and green and original. And that’s what causes tragic failures like Matthew Smith and Augustus John — they’ve done the Paris rat and they live ever after in the shadow of Gauguin and Matisse or whoever it may be …
It’s all because there’s so little hope in England that you have to turn to Paris, or somewhere abroad. But you have to force yourself to accept the truth — that Paris is always an escape downwards (G.P.’s words) — not saying anything against Paris, but you have to face up to England and the apathy of the environment …[10]

Indeed, and as we shall see again in more detail later, while Fowles’s characters understand the pressure on the modern British artist and writer to renounce London and England as barren and anti-artistic, they resist it.

What this passage suggests is the widespread existence by the early 1960s of an established convention by which London was equated with spiritual deathliness and almost insurmountable cultural sterility. This had if anything been strengthened further by the “rediscovery” since the mid-1950s of Northern industrial England as a locus for film and literature, one which, ironically, proposed Lawrence as a precursor: the novels of John Braine, Alan Sillitoe and others seemed to possess a vitality and contemporaneity which marginalised London still further.

However, by the mid-to-late 1960s, the years of Fowles’s first three novels, another perception of the cultural status of London had emerged. In April 1965, an article by the American journalist John Crosby in the Daily Telegraph, widely regarded as the first adumbration of the legend of “swinging London”, described the British capital as “where the action is, the gayest, most uninhibited — and in a wholly new, very modern sense — the most coolly elegant city in the world”.[11] Now constructed as “where the action is” (not marginalised), “gay” (not deathly) and “wholly new” (not stifling), this new version of cultural London foregrounded its “writers and dramatists and actors and artists”, who were perceived as revolutionary, brilliant, glamorous and fascinating.[12] This was a London which privileged, as Crosby strainedly claimed (evoking, for instance, “the explosion of creativeness and dash in the men’s clothing game”), cultural figures, from pop singers such as the Beatles to photographers, from hairdressers to fashion designers, all supposedly breaking out in a fever of artistic achievement.[13] This truly hyper-cultural London was depicted by the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni in his film Blow-Up (1966, MGM/Carlo Ponti), described in its American studio’s press release as “set against the world of fashion, dolly girls, pop groups, beat clubs, models, parties, and above all, the ‘in’ photographers who more than anyone have promoted the city’s new image”.[14] It was celebrated by the American magazine Time in a special issue in April 1966, and acclaimed by the Italian magazine Epoca in November 1965 as “the happiest and the most electric city in Europe, and the most nonconformist”.[15] Indeed, it was a London recognised more easily outside of Britain than within it.

These three forces — the lingering impact of a certain modernist repudiation of London, the fashionable artistic status of Northern industrial England from the 1950s on, and the internationally-perceived wave of creativity washing over the London of the mid-1960s — come together in Richard Lester’s pseudodocumentary film about the Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night (1964, UA/Proscenium). Here London is portrayed, before the Liverpudlians’ arrival, as artistically sterile and backward: the television producers, fashion designers and choreographers they meet are snobbish, precious and phoney, riddled with conceit and mincing talentlessness, the kind of people who value the old-fashioned dreariness of formation dancers in sequins and tuxedoes. Beyond the television studios, London looks bombed-out, ruined, a concatenation of dank canals, unfriendly pubs and dingy streets, populated by repressively suspicious police and other mean-soulled, stodgy, stupid and uptight people. In this cartoonishly Manichean narrative, the Beatles travel down by train to inject Northern energy, creativity, warmth, wit, intelligence and innovative artistry into London, freshening the city up, even redeeming it. Having brought this salvation to London — having, indeed, launched swinging London from outside — the film ends with the moptops taking a helicopter to Wolverhampton where, perhaps, they will bring down from the skies a similar human and cultural resurrection.

The doubling of artistic London presented by A Hard Day’s Night, seen as first bankrupt, then renewed, is also apparent in the 1960s novels of John Fowles, which I read as centrally concerned with the supposed problematic of cultural (or non- or anti-cultural) London. Furthermore, Fowles uses this asserted problematic to structure and reify the existentialist ideas which give these narratives their architecture. He may take over this problematic, to a degree, from Lawrence, whom he revered,[16] but it is more likely to have come down to him as a reflexive convention intrinsic to his broad cultural inheritance; and he lacks, as a native of Essex, any possible recourse to a “Northernness” with which to regenerate, however spuriously, his artistic London from outside. His posited solution is, as we shall see, generated internally.

This reading of Fowles’s 1960s novels as unified by a quest to solve a problematic of London is doubly paradoxical, since they appear, on first sight, to be both radically different from each other and set in loci far removed from London. The Collector (1963) is a contemporary psychological thriller, whose style owes much to the nightmarish banality of Kafka, and which is set in a remote Sussex manor house purposely chosen by one of the characters for its isolation. The Magus (1966, rewritten 1977), on the other hand, is a sprawling, allegorical work of magical realism; it looks back to Bildungsromane such as Great Expectations and Le Grand Meaulnes; and it is set almost entirely on a remote Greek island, probably purposely chosen by one of the characters for its isolation. Finally, The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) is a post-modernist love story playing with the conventions of the Victorian novel and the omniscient narrator filtered through the nouveau roman; and the great part of it, certainly the most important part of it, is set in Lyme Regis, this time probably purposely chosen by the author, because its relative remoteness yields the sense, not of isolation, but of localness so important to the fiction of writers like Hardy which he pastiches, references and criticises.

Belonging, then, to three different types of writing set at three different times in three different places, these novels seem virtually to challenge the reader or critic to find ways of linking them, of tracing patterns among them. I will argue that what shapes them into an informal trilogy is their engagement with a buried, inherited and argumentative problematic of cultural London: the asserted but implicit artistic, and therefore “human”, crisis of the British capital, evoked and sketchily resolved in skewed, interred forms. These novels are not, indeed, “set in London” at all; if London is marginal in them, it is because the question of London’s putative marginality is central to them.

Primary London: Towards Cultural Sterility

Fowles’s journal entries in this period and after suggest that, on the whole, he rejected the image of swinging London, and saw the city instead in what we might call Pound-Lawrence terms. Having lived there for over ten years, he left London for Lyme Regis in 1965, and his subsequent trips up to the capital for personal or professional reasons tended to trigger a savage response. In April 1966 he went up to work on the film-script of The Magus, and admitted that: “London has changed … this last six months -– it seems hellbent on pleasure, on going young, a city of the plain the night before God struck”.[17] A few months later, he was “sure this is an epoch when it is best to be out of London”,[18] and, in 1968, felt confirmed in this view: “London is hard to get used to. I couldn’t live here permanently again”.[19] As the years passed, Fowles’s antipathy towards London only intensified. In October 1973, following a brief visit, he reflected:

the place seems to have got worse since we were last there; a really terrible sense of doom hangs over it … The petrol stench and the air get a little worse each month, the parking worse, the cars, the inescapable people … A city in distress, and to leave it was a great relief.[20]

In 1988 he spoke of his “hatred” for London (“the endless suburbia, overcrowding, antheap of it”) and his alienation from it.[21] His last, Eliotian, published entry on the subject, written on 1st February 1989, begins: “To London, and another form of hell. How I hate it, its overcrowdedness; too many, too many, too many”.[22]

However, while Fowles’s journals echo Pound-Lawrence’s animus to London, his novels offer something more complex, idiosyncratic and interesting. Although there are passages which reflect this take on the city, they function as a starting-point, as a sickness requiring a cure. In the following excerpt, taken from The Magus, Nicholas Urfe is back in London after several months on the Greek island of Phraxos; his vital and challenging experiences there account for eighty per cent of the entire novel. Newly returning, he feels that:

If Rome, a city of the vulgar living, had been depressing after Greece, London, a city of the drab dead, was fifty times worse. I had forgotten the innumerability of the place, its ugliness, its termite density after the sparsities of the Aegean. It was like mud after diamonds, dank undergrowth after sunlit marble; and as the airline bus crawled on its way through that endless suburb that lies between Northolt and Kensington I wondered why anyone should, or could, ever return of his own free will to such a landscape, such a society, such a climate. Flatulent white clouds drifted listlessly in a grey-blue sky; and I could hear people saying ‘Lovely day, isn’t it?’ But all those tired greens, greys, browns … they seemed to compress the movements of the Londoners we passed into a ubiquitous uniformity.[23]

The language here echoes that of Pound-Lawrence cited above: the “innumerability … ugliness… termite density … mud … dark”, the “drab dead”. Dramatically, London is reduced to a spectacle, at which the male protagonist gazes with unambiguous repulsion and disgust, mounting, with the broadest of brush strokes, a generalised indictment of the spirit of the capital. Urfe is appalled by what he sees and hears, and implicit in every phrase is his sense of exclusion from what he describes. This is a London characterised by drabness, insipidity, by its own characterlessness, just as London dialogue is typically void of communication, blandly empty of significance. Yet the foregrounding of Urfe’s gaze also aestheticises London, or, rather, constructs it as a locus of aesthetic failure. Regarded by Urfe, the “flatulent white clouds drifting listlessly in a grey-blue sky” and the “tired greens, greys, browns” suggest, not only a dreary city, but a dreary painting of a city; heard by Urfe, the vacuous conversations suggest vapid stage dialogue. Thus, the impossibility of London (a city to which, Urfe says, no one would voluntarily go) is fused with the impossibility of the London landscape as a subject for painting or of London life as a subject for theatre, eliding the difference between London and its representation, and constructing Urfe as its contemptuous audience.

This passage can be compared with a functionally similar one in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. In this, Charles Smithson, another returner from vital and challenging experiences elsewhere, and moving through “acrid and essential London”,[24] first on foot then in a hansom cab, the nineteenth-century equivalent of Urfe’s bus, ascribes to what he sees “a slightly dreamlike quality; as if he was a visitor from another world”,[25] which also describes Urfe’s gaze. Like Urfe he notes the characterlessness, “the general anonymity” of teeming London; he feels that he has a monopoly on vision: “No one turned and looked at him”.[26] As for him, he sees people:

of the humbler classes; servants from the great Mayfair houses, clerks, shop-people, beggars, street-sweepers (a much commoner profession when the horse reigned), hucksters, urchins, a prostitute or two … Two barrel-organists competed with one another, and a banjo-man with both. Mashed-potato men, trotter-sellers (‘Penny a trotter, you won’t find ‘otter’), hot chestnuts. An old woman hawking fusees; another with a basket of daffodils. Watermen, turncocks, dustmen with their backlap caps, mechanics in their square pill-boxes; and a plague of small ragamuffins sitting on doorsteps, on kerbs, leaning against the carriage-posts, like small vultures.[27]

Socially this is very different from the empty gentility witnessed by Urfe, but Smithson’s reaction — “Charles turned hastily away” — is identical: to recoil, to feel horror, revulsion.[28] Later he passes through — it is always a question of travelling past, of a camera-like gaze directed at those who cannot see back:

that area of Victorian London we have rather mysteriously — since it was central in more ways than one — dropped from our picture of the age: an area of casinos (meeting-places rather than gaming-rooms), assembly cafés, cigar ‘divans’ in its more public parts (the Haymarket and Regent Street) and very nearly unrelieved brothel in all the adjoining back streets. They passed the famous Oyster Shop … and the no less celebrated Royal Albert Potato Can… They passed … the crowded daughters of folly, the great whores in their carriages, the lesser ones in their sidewalk droves [… in original] from demure little milky-faced millinery girls to brandy-cheeked viragos. A torrent of colour — of fashion, for here unimaginable things were allowed. Women dressed as Parisian bargees, in bowler and trousers, as sailors, as señoritas, as Sicilian peasant-girls; as if the entire casts of the countless neighbouring penny-gaffs had poured out into the street. Far duller the customers — the numerically equal male sex, who, stick in hand and ‘weed’ in mouth, eyed the evening’s talent.[29]

This spectacle is vibrant but as infernal as that which Urfe sees: a colourful pandemonium of misery, as Smithson’s subsequent encounter with one specific example from the glimpsed mass of prostitution will confirm. Like Urfe’s spectacle, it is tawdry, soulless, horrifying, depressing; though socially, economically and in detail very different, spiritually it feels much the same as what Urfe will observe ninety years hence from his bus window. Again like Urfe, Smithson cannot stomach it; it makes him nauseous: he finally vomits. There is an ugliness, a shabbiness, a poverty, a loathing and a self-loathing, a desperation pervasive in both novels’ views of London, a sense of being trapped, powerless, condemned. Gazing on, both men seem to fear being engulfed or tainted by it, before pulling away.

Fowles therefore constructs a primary London which is generalised, spiritually appalling, painted with broad brush strokes, dominated by a witnessing and recoiling male gaze. Yet Smithson’s journeys through London also suggest a city overcome by artistic and cultural bankruptcy. Music is reduced to competing barrel-organs and a banjo-man, poetry to mispronounced advertising slogans, all submerged by capitalism; cuisine is reduced to baked potato shops, and couture to the “unimaginable”. Colour, so crucial to both painting and cinema, becomes garish, lurid, overpowering. The streetwalkers, forming a “spectacle” both optically and theatrically, resemble “entire casts of … neighbouring penny-gaffs”, the purveyors of philistine and barbaric entertainment. Evoking in detail so many of the arts in their most degraded and debased form, the grammar of the passages suggests cinema, in particular the feeling of watching what a long travelling shot passing through Victorian London has filmed.

Thus does Fowles implicitly assert the existence of a crisis in the cultural representation of London or in the possibility of London as a cultural centre, one which is inseparable from a broader “human” problematic. This implication is reinforced by the structuring of the novels in which these passages appear. The Magus attaches itself self-consciously to a narrative form inherited ultimately from Forster, that of the young Briton achieving self-realisation through events on continental Europe, for which “life” and experience generically occur away from London and England. Indeed, Urfe’s trip through London on the airline bus comes in the third and final section of the novel, during which he is repeatedly tormented by a feeling that his story is over, that his narrative has concluded though his life must go on. This section, set in and around London, is suffused with the belated and the anti-climactic, like being left in a theatre once the lights have come up and all the actors gone home (a metaphor which appears in the text[30]). It is a necessary transition since Urfe requires time to realise the significance of what has happened to him in Greece; but it is significant that the London-set section, its focus retrospective, adds little or nothing to the outward trajectory of the novel. Scarcely narratological in itself, it permits instead The Magus’s narrative to be digested, reconsidered and, finally, reinterpreted.

Although London is represented in The Magus, then, it is set beyond the parameters of narrative. Enacted structurally through this reduction to a post-narratological status, London’s asserted fictive impossibility here localises the broader charge levelled elsewhere of cultural sterility. Fowles achieves a similar effect in the passages quoted from The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Although much of the subject-matter of this novel, such as questions of inheritance and romantic choice, derives, as commentators have noted, from the narrative conventions of the Victorian novel, what Smithson sees as he walks and travels through London does not. This is not a pastiche of a literary antecedent, but a historical reconstitution: in these pages, Fowles moves entirely into one of the modes he adopts in the novel, that of the 1960s historian reconstructing the past with the aid of the historical record. This material, this London, he calls what “we have… dropped from our picture of the age”: it can appear between the covers of The French Lieutenant’s Woman only as history, not as literature. As well as ascribing to London a non-narrative structural place and a non-literary textual mode, the passages cited above featuring Smithson in the capital display a third impossibility of fictive London. Their dominant grammatical form, the list or itemisation, denies the possibility of verbs, of actions in time. Instead London is collapsed into contiguous but static elements, as in a painting or photograph. Yet Fowles never states outright here that London is inimical to culture, literature or narrative; instead, he embeds the argument in the text, structurally or linguistically or as pseudo-touristic event.

More broadly, the novels set up London as inescapably peripheral within a general crisis of literary place. All three of these novels are set on margins. It is not merely that Greece is at the furthest limits of Europe, but that the island of Phraxos, where most of the action occurs, is so peripheral even to Greece itself; Bourani, the house where Urfe meets Conchis, is at the southernmost tip of the island, as if the narrative were straining toward some impossible location beyond all land. Coastal Lyme Regis is peripheral to Smithson’s England, his fiancée’s aunt’s town, but, as we have seen, he is also capable of experiencing London “as if … a visitor from another world”; he finally escapes to an itinerant lifestyle as a permanent traveller in Europe and America. Although near the end of the novel the narrator tells us that: “England … could never become home for Charles again”, it has not been supplanted by any other place of domicile, either.[31] As for The Collector, what is important is not only that the manor house where most of the novel takes place is far from London, nor that it is also far from the market-town of Lewes. It is far from all human community. Indeed, the great majority of what is contemporary rather than remembered in the novel occurs beyond Earth, that is, underground in two cramped, dungeon-like cells in which all sense of place is almost lost. Construing all location as peripheral and problematic, Fowles creates in these novels a pervasive sense of alienation, foregrounding the traveller (Urfe), the visitor (Smithson), the exile (Smithson), the expatriate (Urfe), the outsider (Sarah; also Clegg), and, in The Collector’s special terminology, the “guest” or, rather, the abductee (Miranda). A strong connection between self and location such as the sense of “home” is impossible for these characters precisely because the narratives problematise all notion of place, and not only London. The crisis of London, however, focuses two alleged cultural impossibilities: that of art (sterility), and that of community (uninhabitability).

Secondary London: Towards Cultural Rebirth

However, Fowles does not stop here. Whatever their creator’s private views on the city, all three novels move forwards from this primary London towards a second and “better” one. This secondary London appears relatively briefly or sketchily, but is invested with Fowles’s highest values: notions of existential authenticity, personal “truth”, freedom and responsibility, commitment to art; the rejection of soul-destroying convention, inhibition and narrow-mindedness. Secondary London is, like primary London, dominated by a man’s witnessing gaze, by the foregrounded figure of a perplexed young man looking on it, and — rather than recoiling in horror — attracted, fascinated. However, and again like the primary version, this London is one from which the male observer is excluded, permitted to approach but not enter: in The Collector and The French Lieutenant’s Woman it is screened off from the entranced, baffled man by the symbolic figure of a door, which is physically opened to him but provides a threshold which psychologically may not be traversable.

As much a spectacle as primary London, then, secondary London appears overwhelmingly to be invested in women: Miranda; Lily de Seitas, Jojo, Kemp, Alison; Sarah. These women receive, to varying degrees, the full burden and meaning of Fowles’s values. They function both as Londoners (though several are originally from elsewhere, in secondary London they are identified with the city where they now live and meet the protagonist) and as exemplars: they are ethical models, paragons of existential and artistic virtue, bearers of culture, truth and freedom, which the male (Clegg, Urfe, Smithson) can only gape at in wondering desire or aggressively and inarticulately denounce in wounded but empty pride. There is no question that these narratologically unattainable women are placed on existential pedestals as guide, as superior being, as a promise of a complete, fulfilled life which a feminist perspective will find highly suspect, as we shall see. The unreachable “truth” embodied by these women is also wrapped up in a restored sense of cultural London as a locus for daring, innovative art (in Fowles, the cultural and the “human” are inseparable both as problematic and as solution). This identification means that, in a deft sleight-of-hand, the men are re-positioned: rather than primary London’s appalled observers of a cultural sterility which they indict, in secondary London their own cultural sterility becomes the subject of indictment, starkly contrasted with the aesthetic fecundity of the women whom they hopelessly or angrily crave. Here, it is significant that Urfe is a failed poet, that Smithson’s verse is fifth-rate, and that Clegg, who speaks in the hollowest of clichés, has no feeling for art at all. This new feminised, cultural fertility is indeed symbolised by secondary London’s recourse to green spaces like Hampstead Heath and Regent’s Park, superseding the sterile streets and concrete of primary London.

These general principles in the depiction of secondary London take different forms in the three novels. The plot of The Collector has Frederick Clegg, an obsessive sociopath, kidnap Miranda, an art student at the Slade, and hold her in a concealed underground room in a remote country house. The structure of the novel foregrounds his monologic recitation of the events leading up to the abduction and from there to her death several months later, accounting for the first half and the conclusion of the text; it therefore encloses Miranda’s diary entries narrating the incidents of the same period from her perspective, interwoven with meditations on her situation and her recent past. These entries are repeatedly removed from us: by their relegation to the level of ironic intermission within a controlling narrative frame; by her parallel subordination within the novel’s rapport de forces; by the fact that she writes on notepaper supplied by Clegg; and also by the fact that Clegg finds the diary after her death, characteristically misunderstands it, and locks it away for the rest of his lifetime. Existing only via Clegg, much of Miranda’s document concerns her experiences living and studying in London, and in particular her relationship with George Paston (G.P.), a middle-aged artist living in Hampstead. Paston is, as James Acheson says, “existentially authentic”, and her memories of him “ultimately help her to arrive at a clearer understanding of herself … [H]is influence on her view of herself is positive and enlarging… In her quest for self-knowledge, Miranda is inspired by G.P.’s example … he is not a ‘phoney’”.[32] Indeed, this Londoner -– though bad-tempered, lecherous and snobbish, Acheson thinks -– represents truth in the novel, especially “truth to self”, or authenticity. However, his status in the narrative scarcely rises above that of rumour: he is reduced to a pair of initials, mulled over as a distraction in a multiply-removed intermezzo. Miranda’s diary can be read as describing her progressive internal growth towards her own form of authenticity, worked through in her interaction with Clegg, arrested by her death.

As recalled by Miranda, London, both with Paston and without, is suffused with art. She has discussions about Rembrandt; Kokoschka; Picasso, Bartók, Moore, Sutherland, Constable, Palmer, Blake; Pollock, Nicholson and Mondrian; Uccello; Botticelli; Dylan Thomas; and Goya. She listens to records by Ravi Shankar, and Bach. She attends Shostakovich concerts; she goes round the paintings in Kenwood House, Hampstead. The contrast with primary London’s endless shops, tradesmen and prostitutes could hardly be greater. Nor is the art mere consumption: she and Paston discuss her paintings, and she gets Clegg to go up to London to buy a drawing of his which she then studies. The long section describing her failed relationship with Paston is in many respects the lost heart of the novel, and it crackles with a tragic energy, feeling, yearning and, in Leavis’s sense of the word, “life”; it also burns with the Leavisite view of the seriousness of literature and culture.[33] In weaker form, this construction of London as authentic, intense, artistic and creative filters into Miranda’s thoughts and speech in her cell, as she looks at reproductions of Goya and listens to jazz records, but it is already faded, overpowered by the horror of her contemporary situation.

In The Magus, Nicholas Urfe, back in a London he initially hates, is gradually reconciled to the capital by the four women he subsequently meets there. Lily de Seitas acts as a sort of teacher to him; her name (seitas means “oneself” in medieval Latin[34]) reflects the fact that, as Acheson puts it: “At this point in the novel, Urfe is developing a greater sense of self-knowledge: in existential terms, he is approaching a sense of authenticity”.[35] Admonishing, guiding and checking Urfe, de Seitas functions as an avatar of authenticity to him. The same is true of her friend Alison, Urfe’s former lover from his days in Russell Square before Greece, with whom he is finally reunited. Yet they are also characters defined by their elusiveness to Urfe, maddeningly hard to find or pin down, evasive, evanescent. If Lily and Alison embody London as desirable truth to self, two other women, Kemp and Jojo, restore art to the British capital. Kemp is a “Charlotte Street bohemian of the ‘thirties vintage”,[36] one of the “Longhaired Brigade”,[37] who paints and does pottery. Jojo is a Glaswegian girl claiming to be from “some bizarre Celtic-Bohemian fringe” whom Urfe meets in a cinema showing an old René Clair film.[38] Neither will ever become his partner; both also teach him something about authenticity. As in The Collector, secondary London appears to be dominated by women, yet the higher values they incarnate, their wisdom, power and ethical superiority, mostly derive in fact from a shadowy older man standing behind them: G.P. in the earlier novel, Conchis in this.

This is even truer of the secondary London revealed in the penultimate chapter of The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Returning to England after several years, Charles Smithson finally traces Sarah Woodruff to an address in Chelsea; standing at its threshold, he sees within “a wide hall … many paintings, so many the place seemed more an art gallery”.[39] Inside,

he had time to glance at the crowded paintings and drawings. He was sufficiently knowledgeable about modern art to recognize the school to which most of them belonged; and indeed, the celebrated, the notorious artist whose monogram was to be seen on several of them. The furore he had caused some twenty years before had now died down; what had then been seen as fit only for burning now commanded a price.[40]

Going upstairs, Smithson passes “two gentlemen … standing before a painting on an easel”, and Charles recognises one of them as an unnamed famous art critic, possibly, the reader may think, Ruskin.[41] Although the narrator long refers to the house’s owner and residents by elaborate metonymy, in an echo of Paston’s distancing initials, we later learn that we are in “16 Cheyne Walk, the residence of Mr Dante Gabriel Rossetti”.[42] Sarah appears, “electric and bohemian” in dress.[43] She is, it turns out, Rossetti’s model and amanuensis, and lives here, in the fullest embodiment of cultural London, at the cutting-edge of 1860s art and poetry. Swinburne also resides here, and Christina Rossetti is expected. Sarah is, she says, ‘“happy … I am at last arrived, or so it seems to me, where I belong’”: she has found both culture and community in London.[44] She is also now in possession of a “new self-knowledge”: she has become what she strove to be in Lyme Regis, existentially authentic, a condition which she actually owes in large part to Rossetti’s fortuitous intervention in her life.[45] This tumult of art and authenticity found in 16 Cheyne Walk is revealed to Smithson and to the reader simultaneously, point of view in this chapter being firmly established as that of the sole person in the house there as an outsider; and none of it is modified by the final chapter, which gives the novel a contradictory ending. However The French Lieutenant’s Woman concludes, it finishes by constructing a London which is culturally rich, dynamic and innovative, existentially authentic, and offering true community, a home.

Fowles’s doubled use of London can also be located in other 1960s texts, and not only A Hard Day’s Night. Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s film Performance (made 1968, released 1970, Warner/Goodtimes) employs a similar set of dualities, switching from an ugly, brutal, dark and inauthentic East End to a feminised (but male-dominated), authentic, sexual, artistic, “free” house in Notting Hill. Again, it might be thought that Joseph Losey’s film The Servant (1963, Elstree/Springbok), also set in Chelsea, follows a trajectory similar to Fowles’s, though both films conclude in a surrealistic, nightmarish mode at odds with Fowles’s qualified therapeutic optimism. In the music of The Kinks, it is likewise possible to trace a shift from the conformist, inhibited London described in earlier songs like “A Well Respected Man” (1965) and “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” (1966) to the feminised (but masculine) authenticity, fulfilment, sexuality and freedom of Soho in “Lola” (1970).[46] These various texts share with Fowles their critique of class-bound, dead old London and their ambivalent response to the upheavals that lay beneath the surface froth of Swinging London. They reflect a transitional period in London’s self-identity, in which it began to come to terms with its loss of global political pre-eminence but had still to acquire the economic potency and cultural status which would later permit it to regain something of its sense of being a world city.

The validity of Fowles’s secondary London needs to be assessed. The spuriousness of its feminism has already been suggested: it appears only to men, and the wisdom, authenticity and freedom of almost all of its women derive from remote, almost invisible other men. Even Kemp, at the end, is acting on the orders of the unseen Conchis. It should also be noted that, as spectacle, secondary London fails to restore narrative to the cultural city; these fictions do not pursue these women into a world of action. Furthermore, Fowles’s blending together of art, authenticity and community into one indistinguishable ideal human state is highly questionable. Here, great art is produced solely by authentic people; non-alienated people live in a world of art (Lily meets Urfe in the Victoria and Albert Museum); in two of the novels great art is made in an almost communal setting; the manifesto for life and art written by Miranda[47] conflates them into an earnest, Leavisite singularity. But the decades since these novels first appeared have weakened the persuasiveness both of the existentialist description of the human predicament, and of this quasi-messianic view of the artist, a loss of faith which Fowles himself seems to have shared. Fowles’s two versions of London, and his overarching use of the city to reify Sartrean concepts, rely heavily on what is no longer very compelling. In all, London is, indeed, quite crucial to these novels, both artistically and philosophically, despite the fact that their heroines and heroes can hardly set foot there.


[1] Ezra Pound, letter to John Drummond 18 February 1932, in Letters 1907-1941, ed. D. D. Paige (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1950), 239.

[2] Ezra Pound, The Cantos (London: Faber and Faber, 1986), 61.

[3] Ibid, 63.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Pound, Letters, 239.

[6] D. H. Lawrence, “Why I Don’t Like Living in London” in Late Essays and Articles, ed. James T. Boulton (CUP, 2004), 122.

[7] D. H. Lawrence, letter to Edward Dahlberg 27 January 1929, in Letters Vol. VII, ed. Keith Sagar and James T. Boulton (CUP, 1993), 157.

[8] D. H. Lawrence, letter to Robert Mountsier 24 December 1923, in Letters Vol. IV, ed. Warren Roberts, James T. Boulton and Elizabeth Mansfield (CUP, 1987), 550.

[9] Pound, The Cantos, 62.

[10] John Fowles, The Collector (London: Vintage, 2004 [1963]), 162. Emphasis in original.

[11] John Crosby, “London -– The Most Exciting City” in London Daily Telegraph colour supplement, 16 April 1965. Quoted in Christopher Booker, The Neophiliacs: A Study of the Revolution in English Life in the Fifties and Sixties (London: Collins, 1969), 21.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Quoted in Arthur Marwick, The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy, and the United States, c. 1958-c. 1974 (OUP, 1998), 473.

[15] Quoted in ibid, 456.

[16] See, for example, John Fowles, “The Man Who Died: A Commentary” in Wormholes: Essays and Occasional Writings (London: Vintage, 1999 [1998]), 271-85.

[17] John Fowles, The Journals: Vol. II, ed. Charles Drazin (London: Vintage, 2007 [2006]), 13. Emphasis in original.

[18] Ibid, 25.

[19] Ibid, 48.

[20] Ibid, 142-43.

[21] Ibid, 361, 375.

[22] Ibid, 394.

[23] John Fowles, The Magus (London: Vintage, 1997 [1966, 1977]), 573. Ellipsis in original.

[24] John Fowles, The French Lieutenant’s Woman (London: Vintage, 1996 [1969]), 280.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid, 282.

[27] Ibid, 281.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid, 291-92.

[30] Fowles, The Magus, 654.

[31] Fowles, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, 411.

[32] James Acheson, John Fowles (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998), 13-14.

[33] Fowles, The Collector, 143-219.

[34] I am indebted to Marvin Magalener for this information (quoted in Acheson, John Fowles, 96).

[35] Acheson, John Fowles, 96.

[36] Fowles, The Magus, 576.

[37] Ibid, 607.

[38] Ibid, 635.

[39] Fowles, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, 421.

[40] Ibid, 422.

[41] Ibid, 423.

[42] Ibid, 440.

[43] Ibid, 423.

[44] Ibid, 430.

[45] Ibid, 431.

[46] “A Well Respected Man”, “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” and “Lola” can be found on, inter alia, The Kinks, The Ultimate Collection (2 CD set, UK, Sanctuary Records, 2002).

[47] Fowles, The Collector, 143-44.

To Cite This Article:

Alan Kirby, ‘Resurrecting London: From Drab Elsewhere to Rumoured Truth in John Fowles’s 1960s Novels’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 5 Number 2 (September 2007). Online at Accessed on [date of access]