[If you’ve not read John Fowles’ novels, be warned that there are several plot spoilers in this piece].
Something I regret is not asking John Fowles to sign my copy of Daniel Martin. I met the novelist a while after strokes had begun to weaken his concentration, at a public event in Toronto where he shakily autographed books for his audience. The signature instead is in my copy of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and I asked for it solely because the book is the first UK edition, with illustrated endpapers, and is therefore valuable.
But Daniel Martin is more valuable to me as a book. I just finished my fifth or sixth re-reading of it and found it richer and cleverer (at times, too clever) than ever before. There’s that final scene with Jenny McNeil, trying to both salve her pain and maintain her pride after being dumped in favour of Jane, who is twice her age; the dying Oxford don Anthony, in his deceptively upbeat scene in the hospital; and Caroline, Daniel’s daughter, who is only discovering him late in life, and whose awkward choice of lover implicitly derives from not having known her own father at all well: all these things are wonderfully, richly, evoked. Daniel himself, forever analysing himself, is in some ways the least satisfying character, because he cannot quite define what he is, or even what he most needs to be. Which is why it’s the Fowles book that touches me most.
I discovered him as a writer after seeing, at age fifteen, the film version of The Collector, with Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar (surely at least a partial template for Jenny?). I then read the book, and loved it. I re-read it a year or two back, and still found it enjoyable, and still wrenching. Miranda’s death retains the power of shock, after how she is built up, with her dreams and her longing to live to the full.
The Magus, the book Fowles admitted was his own favourite, is one of my least favourite works. I love the opening chapters, and the air of mystery around Maurice Conchis and his God-game, but somehow the rest of it has never satisfied me. The French Lieutenant’s Woman was much more cohesive, I feel, while Mantissa was just plain naughty fun with a jaunty exposition of late-20th Century feminism thrown in. A Maggot? Clever, but unsatisfying.
So, why Daniel Martin, which for many Fowles fans is on the B-list? Several reasons.
Firstly, in my teens, I was spiritually distraught, and found comfort in Jung’s ideas. Apart from one reference to the Sage of Kusnacht in The Magus, Fowles doesn’t talk about him, yet he appreciated Jungian ideas thoroughly, and found in them a far more satisfying mythos of the human soul than anything Freud or the Freudians dreamed up. Without quite grasping what I was reading, in Fowles’ books I discovered an exploration of what individuation might entail.
Secondly, I never knew till late in my life that Fowles had been born in Leigh-on-Sea, about two miles from my own birthplace, though seventeen years earlier than me. We knew the same streets, maybe even some of the same stores in Southend High Street. And I used to pass Alleyn Court, the school where he became head-boy, on my way home from my own high school. I like to think that we both had the identical need to leave the place for something fiercer, brighter, more demanding.
Thirdly, the theme of Daniel Martin is that of an Englishman who has worked enough in Hollywood that he has a questioning, ironic view of his Englishness as he has equally a caustic one of the Americans who feed him well. He expatiates on the Englishness in microgranular detail, knowing that the world in which he grew up, where to be English was the highest accolade of heaven, was built on bombastic sand-dunes, and that the best of Englishness lies in the ability to see and to know, rather than to act or to assert action.
Having left England myself around the age of twenty, I found this perspective enormously helpful in clarifying my own state of mind when I found those close to me in Canada couldn’t grasp what was going on with me. Daniel in the book lived a more adventurous, interesting life than mine, yet in so many ways, so many turns of phrase or longer passages of exposition, I find myself being described; or, at least, find myself close to the main character’s attitudes, self-image and assorted agnosticisms. I have perhaps more guilt than Dan; I also have a less conventionally humanistic mindset. But throughout, I recognise the intonations in the dialogue – which is essential, because he doesn’t use many “he said/she said” constructions, and you have to pay attention to the nuances of what each person is saying.
Does all this make it a good novel? Yes, but in a strange way. The entire drama is largely interior, despite one death and Fowles’ usual skill with the sex-scenes. I can only say that as a portrait of the English male mind at mid-century, or maybe later, it is as complete an evocation of such a person looking at life and love and craft of writing itself as could feasibly be produced.
My copy’s going back into its somewhat tattered cover and onto the bookshelf, now. But I doubt it will always remain there. At some point, I’ll want to relish one of these descriptions again, of Tsankawi or Kitchener’s Island; or puzzle over exactly what actual spiritual insight Anthony retained, beyond his professed Catholicism; or want to spend time once more with Jenny, whose unknown future (in the novel) has forever intrigued me. These characters, I confess, remain almost as real to me as many individuals with whom I’ve shared my actual life.