John Fowles's Englishness makes a triumphant return in his tormented, magnificent journalsby Julian Evans / November 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Book: Journals, vol 1 Author: John Fowles Price: (Jonathan Cape, ?30)
The chief characteristic of Englishness as an element of the English novel in the last 60 years has been its revolt against itself. Englishness of the pre-multicultural kind was rarely seen as a domain to be anatomised with affection; more often it occupied a shallow grave, the casualty of satire and ridicule. The breaking wave of new identity that came with the work of Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi, Kazuo Ishiguro and others, and that has settled into the groundswell of energy personified by the Zadie Smiths and Monica Alis of today, is celebrated with good cheer, but also with synchronised applause and little thought of how old, displaced England fits into the new, funky, urban tractatus of our identity.
The first volume of John Fowles’s Journals spews out a hatred of the social conformity and condescension of postwar England. “The average Englishman can’t imagine, and can’t feel, and even if he does, is too inhibited to ever show either quality,” a 24-year-old Fowles writes on 6th April 1950. A year later, returning to England from teaching in Poitiers, he witnesses the Festival of Britain: “All the cleverness and the practicality and the didacticism I found rather repellent.” And five years later he is as angry as ever: “in England, being English, public schoolboy, ex-officer, Christian, Oxford, the barriers one has to tear down to achieve a belief in self!”
Later still, it is not very surprising to have it confirmed that one of the things Fowles was trying to do in his first published success, 1963’s The Collector, was to “attack the money-minus-morality society we have lived in since 1951.” I doubt there were many readers at the time who saw Frederick Clegg, Fowles’s inarticulate, psychopathic anti-hero, as the embodiment of Englishness, but Fowles’ antipathy to his own culture is revealed as one of his strongest motivations. Writing The Magus, he notes his sources-Robinson Crusoe, The Tempest-and again you can detect the antagonisms: his vision of islands as traps, his interest in the puzzles of evil revealed by the stripping away of convention. The curious thing is that these Journals come from the pen of a writer who-with his deadpan delivery of mystery and suspense, his skill at complex plot and historical pastiche, his interests in landscape and natural history, and his Dickensian taste for the theatrical aspects…