The novels of John Fowles present the reader with contradictions, or what appear to be contradictions. At one level, they are vehicles for his socialist sympathies with groups constrained by historical forces and oppressive social structures. But they foreground existential situations that belie the historical specificity normally associated with socialist and historical writing. This begs the question, to what degree is historical fiction (which we might normally expect to emphasize the social and cultural context of particular moral dilemmas) an appropriate genre in which to argue for transhistorical moral constants? While Fowles appears to write historical fiction, he often depicts pasts that are curiously dehistoricized. Even The French Lieutenant’s Woman, a text that attends to period detail more than most of his novels, has been criticized for using historical background as no more than a backdrop to contemporary concerns. The moral dilemmas with which it deals are anchored, unusually for a socialist writer, in a distinctly ahistorical concept of the individual. Faced with these complexities and contradictions, it is difficult to imagine an introduction to John Fowles’s novels that did not simplify or distort them. James Acheson comes as close as doing these difficult and contradictory works justice in just over one hundred pages as one could imagine anyone doing.
Acheson’s study of John Fowles is a useful and perceptive critical introduction because it is based on fine distinctions, in both senses of the word. First, Acheson reconsiders the description of John Fowles as an existential novelist. Fowles might have been interested in existential philosophy, at least until the [End Page 431] 1970s when his enthusiasm began to wane, but, as Acheson points out, very little of it directly enters the novels themselves. His major debt to existentialism, as far as the fiction is concerned, is the concept of authenticity. It is in the light of how Fowles has developed this concept that Acheson interprets, and in some cases reinterprets, the major works. Second, Acheson distinguishes between different types of historical writing, redefining how we might think of Fowles as an historical novelist.
Up to a point, Acheson follows the conventional line of Fowles criticism, insisting that he has never been primarily concerned with a definitive representation of how people thought and felt in any particular milieu. Ultimately, he believed that history, inevitably based on select information and the editing of so-called facts, will always be a form of fiction. But Acheson argues that despite his preoccupation with transhistorical moral dilemmas and the fictionality of history, Fowles is more conscious of historical difference and cultural specificity than some critics have allowed. But his chief interest, Acheson also maintains, is in the extent to which individuals are able to achieve authenticity, in the face of the social and cultural forces that seek to contain them at particular moments of time. This is not as contradictory as it sounds because it is not the same as arguing, as some critics have done, that he uses historical background as a backdrop to contemporary concerns. In effect, Acheson argues that Fowles’s novels belong to a class of what I would like to call “speculative historical fiction,” in which period detail is less important than the realization that in all historical periods there are determining cultural forces and social structures of which the individual needs to be aware in order to attain personal freedom and authenticity.
As Acheson makes clear, Fowles is interested in characters who, finding themselves robbed of their illusions, end up in the existential position of having to rely on their own resources. He is equally intrigued by characters who do not recognize their own inauthenticity. For Acheson, the John Fowles aficionado swiftly recognizes the clues, such as over reliance upon euphemisms and clichés, self-contradiction and, inevitably, the displacement of moral responsibility onto others. But above all, Fowles is concerned to do the complexity of human relationships, in whatever historical period, justice.
Most critics of John Fowles’s fiction have tended to overlook the obvious fact that it appeals to readers who like...