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  • Revision and the Style of Revision in The French Lieutenant's Woman
  • Frederik N. Smith (bio)

John Fowles refers in The French Lieutenant's Woman to the Victorian "mania for editing and revising, so that if we want to know the real Mill or the real Hardy we can learn far more from the deletions and alterations of their autobiographies than from the published versions." Much can be learned—he suggests—if we can dig beneath "the petty detritus of the concealment operation" (369). This sounds like an invitation. Surely much can be learned about Fowles himself by having a look at his own deletions and alterations, as Elizabeth Mansfield has demonstrated in her enlightening discussion of the conclusion of The French Lieutenant's Woman as it appears in manuscript. We discover that the novel originally had only a singular, happy ending, and that on the urgings of his wife ("my sternest editor") Fowles reconceived the conclusion of his novel, adding the second, less pat, less optimistic ending, and thus preserving the feel of irresolution that the book seems determined to leave us.1 An even closer look at the manuscript underscores the significance of Fowles's "mania for editing and revising."

Ian Adam refers to Fowles as "an author who has turned revision (and in this work, editing) virtually into a first principle of composition" [End Page 85] (346). Barry and Toni Olshen have described The French Lieutenant's Woman as "a self-reflexive, experimental work concerned with the fictionwriting process itself (iv). But just how deep this self-reflexiveness goes is worth pointing out. What I would like to do is take up Fowles on his challenge to critics: "I have long felt that the academic world spends far too much time on the written text and far too little on the benign psychosis of the writing experience; on particular product rather than general process"("Hardy" 29). As an author, Fowles admits to being "much happier in the fluid polymorphic livingness of the process than in the 'dead' imperfection of the being in print"("Lettre-Postface" 61-62).2 The primacy in Fowles's mind of the writing process over the finished product suggests the potential value of studying that process as it appears in the manuscript of The French Lieutenant's Woman, and only afterward returning to interpret the novel in terms of what is discovered there. I have done this.3 Here I shall report on a connection I found between Fowles's revision—as he talks about it and as I have observed his actual practice—and the style of the published book; I want also to mention how that peculiar style is related to one of the book's most important themes: life as something in the process of evolving versus life as fixed, dead.

We do Fowles a disservice if we ignore his consistent and quite articulate comments on the writing process. He has repeatedly referred to the duality of the process, emphasizing always the clear division between the initial, spontaneous, exciting pushing forward into the unknown, and the subsequent, retrospective, laborious revision of what one has already written down. "You have to distinguish," he says, "between two kinds of writing":

most important is first-draft writing, which to an extraordinary degree is an intuitive thing—you never quite know when you sit down whether it's going to come or not, and you get all kinds of good ideas from nowhere. They just come between one line and the next. But revision writing's very different—you have to turn yourself into an academic and mark yourself.

(Campbell 456)

Fowles speaks of the "marvelous element of pure hazard" to the first stage of writing, which he calls "organic" (Singh 188). The second stage of writing, however, is more painful, even masochistic: "You sit over [End Page 86] yourself like a schoolmaster" (Hall 92).4 Of course the organic and schoolmasterly stages are both theoretically present, in sequence yet recursively, each time one writes; Fowles refers to an ideal "amalgam of unconscious nature and conscious mind" that is, for him at least, the source of all creativity ("Lettre-Postface" 51).5 In any...


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