Family and Friends
Truth lies at the bottom of a well, or so the proverb tells us. In the case of John Fowles’s new novel—nonpareil, for better and for worse—it lies 450 pages deep.
The book begins with a circumstantial and powerful image of five ill-assorted travelers, a “somber cavalcade,” making their way across “dull and barbarous” Devonshire moorland in the year 1736. They are—that is, at this point we are given to believe that they are—a young gentleman hastening toward his beloved in defiance of his father or “jealous guardian,” the young man’s uncle, a lady’s maid ready to attend on the beloved, a seemingly idiotic and surely deaf and dumb male servant, and a conventionally boastful old soldier, called Sergeant Farthing, whose role is to protect the company from robbers.
As the tale slowly and tortuously unfolds, we gather otherwise: that the young gentleman is seeking a cure for sexual impotence, his supposed uncle is a hired actor and the old soldier a theater doorkeeper, the deaf mute is in some metaphorical or metaphysical sense a “twin” to the gentleman. The maid, alternatively known as Fanny and Louise, is a whore rented out from a notorious London bagnio, where her affected modesty has made her a great hit. The Quaker Maid, as she is called professionally, is a figure somewhere between Moll Flanders and Fanny Hill.
But things are still not what they seem, even though they are set out in front of us in the most copious and formal detail. The greater part of the book takes the form of depositions, question followed by answer, made to the lawyer, Henry Ayscough, who is acting for an undesignated duke, father to the missing young gentleman, himself always referred to as Mr. Bartholomew. If truth doesn’t lie at the bottom of a well, then—as Donne wrote—it stands on a huge hill, cragged and steep, “and he that will / Reach her, about must, and about must go”; and the strategy adopted by Fowles, though it possesses a certain hypnotic quality, is peculiarly long-winded. Ayscough is preternaturally precise, and a good deal of repetition sets in as one by one all those involved in the mystery—all except “Mr. Bartholomew”—are summoned to the lawyer’s office to relate the story, in fragments, as they saw it, or pretend to have seen it, or heard tell of it.
Much space is given, for example, to Mr. Bartholomew’s affair of the heart, which never existed. And Ayscough himself seems chiefly concerned to establish—or conceivably to confute—sodomy as occurring between the young master and his deaf and dumb servant, Dick. The liveliest deponent, in a fine period piece on the seamy side, is Mistress Claiborne, the brothel-keeper, who describes “Fanny” or “Louise” thus:
She was no ordinary piece of flesh, but pure as Hampstead water, and must be treated so. ‘Twas miracle her custom stood for it, and came back for more…. Prude, modest sister, Miss Fresh-from-the-country, Miss Timid Don’t-tempt-me, Miss Simple—would you have more? A…
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