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Games with Fictions: Readings of the Female Masquerade in Fowless The French Lieutenants Woman

In this paper I wish to discuss the multiple games that are played with images of the Victorian female in John Fowless The French Lieutenants Woman, where the figure of the female other is dominant. As I am going to illustrate, the identification of the woman with the other without, marks her liberation from an imposed femininity, and reflects the release of the text from its conventions and its opening up to multiple possibilities. The novel, through the constant play between the within and the without, through the interchange of masks and personae, seems to celebrate fictional games and the plurality they involve. The narrative focuses on the paradox of devising dividing lines, of imposing order where disorder reigns. The Victorian period the without that the narrative inhabits with its preoccupation with an order and fixity seriously disturbed by various emerging narratives, and perceived through the eyes of the postmodern, becomes an ideal setting for this endeavour. The focus falls on the female character who is caught in multiple fictions, rejoicing over her artificiality which is, after all, supposed to be womans nature. Nietzsche wrote, notoriously, in Beyond Good and Evil: [woman] does not want truth: what is truth to a woman! From the very first nothing has been more alien, repugnant, inimical to woman than truth her great art is the lie, her supreme concern is appearance and beauty. Let us confess it, we men: it is precisely this art and this instinct in woman which we love and honour . (164)

Willingly embracing her multiple selves Sarah, the main character in the novel, delights in womans close affinity with the art of lying. It is because of the enigma of her fictions that Charles falls for Sarah, for the mystery that she represents and for the numerous constructs that she makes up in her effort to seduce him. Sarah is a woman of multiple appearances, multiple masks that she can put on or take off at will, in order to gain her goals, thus leading the spectator/reader to the void of her fictions. It was Joan Riviere in her influential essay Womanliness as a Masquerade, published in 1929, who introduced the concept of the female masquerade and the void it entails. Riviere points out that Womanliness could be assumed and worn as a mask, both to hide the possession of masculinity and to avert the reprisals expected if she was found to possess it (33). However, the masculine nature of the woman is also presented as an artificial construct: She has to treat the situation of displaying her masculinity to men as a game, as something not real, as a joke (39, my emphasis). Both the feminine and the masculine nature of the woman, therefore, are treated as veils, masks. Illustrating how the interplay of conflicts in modern woman is resolved through the seduction of the masquerade, Riviere presents a void in the games with masks that women have to play, since both the feminine and masculine identity of her woman are treated as masks. This void is celebrated in Fowless novel where the reader is presented with a continuous interplay of words, texts, voices, spectacles that woman is associated with. Origins are lost in a web of myths, stories and histories, while the narrative becomes an endless mise en abyme of multiple texts which reflect the fictional process.

Sarah is imprisoned, beginning from the title, in the role of the French Lieutenants Woman. Captured within this persona fabricated by the text, within Charless gaze, within the gaze of the community, within the multiple stories

constructed by the people of Lyme, within the dominant Victorian images of femininity, and within Victorian discourses, Sarah Woodruff seems to flow in a

sea of masks. Instead of appearing trapped within this game of multiple selves however, Sarah manages to become its master. Not only does she embrace her personae, but as is revealed in Chapter 47 she is the one who produces them. She is presented as the author of her images, a spider weaving the web that imprisons Charles and the unaware reader of the novel. From the seduced and abandoned Victorian woman, she becomes the seducing and abandoning female. Tony Jackson points out in his article Charles and the Hopeful Monster: Postmodern Evolutionary Theory in The French Lieutenants Woman that [Sarah] lead[s] Charles to retrace the painful steps of seduction, abandonment, and public estrangement that reinforced her natural condition (232). Sarah embraces a plural discourse of mysterious, romantic, seductive, untamed personae. She can put on and take off her masks at will. She cannot be contained only in one image, the one that is prepared for her by the title of the text. She becomes Sarah Woodruff and Sarah Roughwood, the French Lieutenants woman, the French Lieutenants whore, Tragedy, the Virgin Mary, Eve, a serpent, a witch, a wild animal, a tiger, a London whore, a fallen woman, a sinner, the scarlet woman of Lyme, the wicked woman of Lyme, a siren, a

As Barry Olsen observes in his work John Fowles: The impression created by Sarah Nina Auerbach, in her work Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth , suggests

Woodruff is given to us from the perspective of Charles (69).


that The towering woman who in so many guises possessed the Victorian imagination appears in art and literature as four central types: the angel, the demon, the old maid, and the fallen woman (63).

Calypso, a specimen of the local flora, a sacrificial victim, an unfortunate woman, a woman of exceptional courage, the woman who stared, the woman in black, a melancholic, a hysteric, a public scandal, a flame, a remarkable person, an outcast, a frightened penitent, sweet and mysterious, dangerous, a sweet enigma, an oxymoron, Delphic, a Sphinx. The game with the texts is promoted even further by Sarahs deliberate enactment of many of her images. She performs, among others, the discourse of Tragedy, of the fallen woman, of Mother Nature. As Katherine Tarbox suggests in her article The French Lieutenants Woman and the Evolution of Narrative: [Sarah] works to make it appear that she is living the fallen-woman plot. Charles feels that she had fallen into the clutches of a plausible villain (175). But at the same time she games with fall as a concept, a gesture, and a word. Through a parody of falling she locates an other sense of falling and turns the grim falling action of the scarlet-woman plot into a liberatory flight. (94-95) The importance of Sarahs fall a concept repeated throughout the narrative in different forms is foregrounded in the text, because it is through her fall that she is introduced into the fiction of the Other woman. Sarah, as she herself states in her confession to Charles, decides to undergo a sacrifice, in order to enter the domain of the without: I [sacrificed a womans most precious possession] so that I should never be the same again. I do not mean that I knew what I did, that it was in cold blood that I let Varguennes have his will of me. It seemed to me then as if I threw myself off a precipice or plunged a knife into my heart. It was a kind of suicide. I knew no other way to break out of what I was. (171, my emphasis)

It is the fall in the sense of the loss of her virginity the spilling of her blood that causes Sarahs break from what she was, and signals her entrance into the plurality of her fictions. The end, her suicide as she calls it, is a new beginning, a beginning which is going to take her out of the silence of her existence. Maurice Blanchot in his work The Space of Literature has elaborated on the close affinity between suicide and writing. According to his suggestions, every suicide marks the desire for a new beginning: The weakness of suicide lies in the fact that whoever commits it is still too strong. He is demonstrating a strength suitable only for a citizen of the world. Whoever kills himself could, then, go on living: whoever kills himself is linked to hope, the hope of finishing it all, and hope reveals his desire to begin, to find the beginning again in the end, to inaugurate in that ending a meaning which, however, he means to challenge by dying. (103) Sarahs suicide does bring new life and new texts. It can be seen as a plural concept and can accommodate multiple readings; it implies, among other things, her literal fall (from the cliff, or from the stairs of her hotel in Exeter another fictional fall, her fall at Charless feet), the primal fall from Eden and the seduction of man, but also the fall of Mother Nature through evolutionary discourse, that I shall briefly focus on. Sarah seems to stand for the New Nature of many Victorian artists that has replaced the Great Mother, the loving nurturing mother; has evolved into a new being, an enchantress who lays a trap for men and thirsts for their blood. Three of the epigraphs used in the novel are from Darwins The Origin of Species, all underlining the change of conditions and the inevitability of evolution; the principle of natural selection is going to cause the suffering of many species unable to

conform to the changing environment (pp. 17, 145, 360). James Eli Adams in his

article Woman Red in Tooth and Claw: Nature and the Feminine in Tennyson and Darwin presents the transformations that took place in the feminine representation of nature in the poetry of Tennyson after the introduction of the theory of evolution.

The epigraphs from Tennyson, abundantly used in the novel, foreground the image of a new being that Sarah comes to embody: the New Great Mother, motherly and at the same time ruthless. The novel appears to offer a personification of the paradox of Darwins female nature, with a Sarah who manipulates Charles, whose fall gradually transforms him into a new being. George Levine in his work Darwin and the Novelists: Patterns of Science in Victorian Fiction stresses this paradox entailed in Darwins view of nature: Using metaphors to reverse the implications remythologizes the world [Darwin] has tried to demystify. The scrutinizing, meticulous, always alert natural selection is usefully imagined as a living active force, ranging through a world shaped not by some external, designing intelligence, but by the multitudinous possibilities and chance collocations of local and individual entities and conditions. Natural

Darwin, explaining his theory of natural selection in The Origin of Species , does not avoid

commenting on the superiority of a female nature over man kind: Man can act only on external and visible characters: nature cares nothing for appearances, except in so far as they may be useful to any being. She can act on every internal organ, on every shade of constitutional difference, on the whole machinery of life. Man selects only for his own good; Nature only for that of the being which she tends. Every selected character is fully exercised by her; and the being is placed under well-suited conditions of life (132, my emphases).

Although James Eli Adams presents Tennyson reacting to an evolutionary discourse

introduced by Darwin, it is well known that the poet wrote In Memoriam in 1849, that is, ten years before Darwins The Origin of Species was published (1859). However, Tennyson must have been influenced by the discourse of evolution as it was introduced by Lyell in The Principles of Geology (1830-33).

selection answers no prayers, and though Darwin makes it motherly, careful, intent, seizing the best opportunities for its children, it can be relentless. (117) This relentless nature, therefore, seems to the Victorian poets to destroy its children, to come in direct contrast to the nurturing qualities of Mother Nature, since the vision of incessant struggle that Darwin presents also invites a more somber image of nature: not a nurse, but an angel of death, a monstrous agent that rigidly and impersonally lays waste its own dependents (Adams, 13). Nature, which seems to destroy its children, becomes a new terrifying female being, the double of the dead Great Mother. Sarah, perhaps in an embodiment of this new being, is after her second fall transformed from a Woodruff into a Roughwood (she changes her name and disappears after Charless seduction and her second fall), a personification of the rough wood that lies in the without of the community, considered as the place of sin, the site where lovers go to satiate their forbidden desires. The narrator in Chapter 12 informs us that the place was a de facto Lovers Lane (92); one had only to speak of a boy or a girl as one of the Ware Commons kind to tar them for life. The boy must henceforth be a satyr; and the girl, a hedge-prostitute (93). Moreover, we are informed that a committee of ladies, generalled by Mrs Poulteney, had pressed the civic authorities to have the track gated, fenced and closed (93); that was very much the method Mrs Poulteney wished to apply to Sarah, in order to suppress her wild nature, which insisted on remaining outside her control in the without of the community. Sarah Roughwood, in one of the predominant metaphors in the novel, is transformed into a woman red in tooth and claw, to use a line from Tennysons In Memoriam, the new Mother Nature which has the power to select and preserve

only the fit. It is quite significant that the fourth and most important encounter between Sarah and Charles starts with an epigraph from Tennysons In Memoriam: Are God and Nature then at strife, / That Nature lends such evil dreams? / So careful of the type she seems, / So careless of the single life? (160). The epigraph at this point in the narrative seems to ring a warning bell about Sarahs nature. It appears at the moment when she is going to stage her best performance for Charles and finally lure him into her fictions. She appears fragile and hurt in the warm glow of the fire, ready to be seduced by the male. However, as the reader and Charles later realise the whole episode was a mere performance aiming to seduce Charles. The text, therefore, seems to envelop Sarah within Tennysons image of Nature as a woman red in tooth and claw. The nature that Charles enters in the novel, the English Garden of Eden (71) and one of the strangest coastal landscapes (70), as it is described by the narrator, shares many of Sarahs qualities: The cultivated chequer of green and red-brown breaks, with a kind of joyous indiscipline, into a dark cascade of trees and undergrowth. There are no roofs. If one flies low enough one can see that the terrain is very abrupt, cut by deep chasms and accented by strange bluffs and towers of chalk and flint, which loom over the lush foliage around them like the walls of ruined castles. From the air but on foot this seemingly unimportant wilderness gains a strange extension. People have been lost in it for hours It has also, like all land that has never been worked or lived on by man, its mysteries, its shadows, its dangers only too literal ones geologically, since there are crevices and sudden falls that can bring disaster (70-71)

So this dark, lush and dangerous landscape can bring disaster if one is not careful and falls into one of its traps, if one, instead of keeping a safe distance the from the air decides to enter it and walk in it. It is a nature full of mystery and secrets which Charles is determined to discover. Charless desire to conquer this unknown wood is identified with his desire for Sarah Woodruff, and the unknown, mysterious territory that she inhabits. She is a new land, full of games and enigmas, that lures him into her domain and kills him. In Chapter 47 the reader, together with Charles, suddenly realises that Sarahs suicide was fictional; in reality, her blood has not been shed, the knife has not plunged into her. After her actual suicide, all Sarahs falls until then, literal or metaphorical, are revealed to have been fictional. As Peter Conradi: Charles discovers that, despite having played the role of fallen woman, Sarah was in fact a virgin. She thus combines both halves of the Victorian typology: at exactly the point when she ceases to be a virgin she begins for the first time to appear to have been one (65). However, although her actual fall comes at this moment, the concept of the womans fall is suddenly blurred. It is the male fall that is foregrounded with a Charles, wearing a blood-stained shirt and behaving like the seduced one who, thunderstruck, realises that he has just lost his most precious virtue. In an important scene, the narrator describes Charles a few minutes after the seductionscene: Some fifteen minutes later you might have seen Charles stark naked and engaged in an unaccustomed occupation: that of laundering. He had his bloodstained garments pressed against the side of the vast hipbath that had been filled for him and was assiduously rubbing them


with a piece of soap. He felt foolish and did not make a very good job of it. (355) Sarah leads Charles to a murder/fall, the murder of his fixed order, and he struggles through this blood-laundering to get rid of the evidence of the crime. However, there is no turning back; he has already fallen into Miss Roughwoods crevices, into her (textual) abysses, and now he has to inhabit the plural discourse of the without. As Katherine Tarbox suggests: He is the seducer, the seduced, abandoner and abandoned, hero, heroine, victim and villain all in one (98). Sarah seems like a Siren calling Charles to her fictitious and mysterious domain of the without, arousing his desire, but somehow never satisfying it. Charles does not follow on the footsteps of his ancestor Odysseus; he keeps his ears open and, not being tied by any sailors, is doomed to be lost to the temptation. Sarah, like the Sirens song, remains an absence, a monstrosity that seduces him, leaving only her image behind. Sarah lances her way into Charless imagination, imprinting there her face, indeed her whole being. She is ontologically doubled in the novel, and in a very real sense she inhabits Charles, haunts him (Tarbox, 97). She arouses his desire, destroys him and his order, leads to his fall, but never satisfies his desires. At the moments she seduces him or vice versa she refuses to play this role any longer and abandons him. Her actions, covered by a veil that hides the secret meaning of her deeds, will always haunt him.

Adams puts it in very interesting terms in his article: the figure of Nature identifies a new

conception of the natural world with the enigma of a femininity which withdraws from, or openly defies, male desire. That desire and its frustration are in turn played out in two distinct but related spheres: as the collective male desire that enforces dominant conventions of femininity, and as an individual males demand for a more personal responsiveness on the part of a particular woman. What is the secret meaning of her deeds? Behind the veil, behind the veil: the poets quest for solace is thwarted by that seductive yet disturbing emblem of feminine mystery (15-16).


Nature, then, is transformed into a Sphinx which presents man with the ultimate enigma. It is relevant here to quote an excerpt from a chapter of Carlyles Past and Present entitled The Sphinx: Nature, like the Sphinx, is of womanly celestial loveliness and tenderness: the face and bosom of a goddess, but ending in claws and the body of a lioness. There is in her a celestial beauty but there is also a darkness, a ferocity, fatality, which are infernal. Answer the riddle, it is well with thee. Answer it not, pass on regarding it not, it will answer itself; the solution is a thing of teeth and claws. (qtd. in Adams, 8) Fowles has incorporated this image into the character of Sarah, the alienated new Sarah, in a personification of that Sphinx, refusing to provide Charles with any answers about her actions. Do not ask me to explain what I have done, she tells him, I cannot explain it. It is not to be explained (342). How can the text be mastered, fully determined and understood? Words seems to have their seduction, as the text envelops its subjects within its power, while at the same time remaining always in the realm of the ungraspable, as Blanchot points out in The Space of Literature: The writer seems to be the master of his pen; he can become capable of great mastery over words and over what he wants to make them express. But his mastery only succeeds in putting him, keeping him in contact with the fundamental passivity where the word, no longer anything but its appearance the shadow of the word never can be mastered or even grasped. It remains the ungraspable which is also the unreleasable: the indecisive moment of fascination. (25)


The signified remains open, and the reader is left with multiple signifiers which can be attached to it, in the same way that the novel offers multiple endings to the narrative. Sarah, like a postmodern text, insists on remaining outside definition, always flowing in and out, back and forth. Sarahs enigma, made of fictions coming from different ages, from past, present and future, always appears to Charles outside the community barriers, in the forest or by the sea. It is significant that at the very beginning of the novel she is introduced as the other figure which stood right at the seawardmost end . Its clothes were black. The wind moved them, but the figure stood motionless, staring, staring out to sea, more like a living memorial to the drowned, a figure from myth, than any proper fragment of the petty provincial day (11, my emphasis). She is depicted as the outside, that which cannot be contained within the petty provincial day, an object of observation, an it, which however proves to be the subject of fictions. The Victorian community fails to accommodate her, as she is a figure from myth, or should we say myths, a figure that constantly plays with the construction of fictions. Like the post-structural text, Sarah remains plural, a fascinating game with absences. Wearing all these masks simultaneously, she transcends all barriers and imprisonments and shows a unique quality of fluidity and plurality, which comes to be shared by Charles and the text that accommodates them. She is an oxymoron reproduced and presented in the text through multiple games played on the characters and the readers by Sarah, by the narrator and by the author-persona in a novel which oscillates between Victorian realism and twentieth century postmodernism. Sarah embraces and explodes meaning at the same time, remaining for ever in the realm of the ungraspable. What are all these games if not a celebration of the play-quality entailed in the construction of Sarahs text. Writing within the


discourse of post-structuralism, according to Robert Young, ceases to be a matter of a representation of something else [and becomes] the limitlessness of its own play (18). The play-quality is further emphasised through the absence of teleologies; the author/God-father has disappeared, just as the teleology of a divine being is dissolved through evolutionary discourse. As George Levine suggests, The Darwinian narrative unfolds naturally, that is, without external intrusion. It is, as it were, self-propelled, unfolding according to laws of nature with no initiating intention and no ultimate objective (18). This brings us to the concept of the dissolution of the relationship of filiation between author and text, which Barthes discusses in Theory of the Text: [textual analysis] will contest the critical myth according to which the work is caught in a purely evolutionary movement, as if it always had to be attached to, appropriated by, the (civil, historical, affective) person of an author, who would be its father. To the metaphor of filiation, of organic development, textual analysis prefers the metaphor of the network, of the intertext, of an overdetermined, plural field. (43) Sarah is a mirror image of the other author, a god with a small g, the freedom that allows other freedoms to exist, not fully in control of the creatures in her mind, to paraphrase the author-personas comment in Chapter 13 (99). Apart from plurality, chance an integral part of Darwinian nature also becomes an important rule of the game. When Sarah constructs her narrative for Charles and envelops him inside it, there is always the illusion of the possibility of escape. Sarah prepares the whole scene of Charless seduction into her text (she buys the bandage, she prepares the room, she sends Charles only a card with her


address, she performs the fall from the stairs of the hotel, she commands the fire at the most crucial moment of tension), but he always seems to be left with the choice. The letter with the address that she sent him tormented him, obsessed him, confused him; as the narrator informs us it was an oxymoron; luringreceding, subtle-simple, proud-begging, defending-accusing. But above all it seemed to set Charles a choice (328). Charles is faced with the anxiety of freedom that is, the realization that one is free and the realization that being free is a situation of terror (328). He is in that limbo state between the ultimate seduction by and escape from the female text which has already written him within it. In the second of the two endings, Charles decides to leave the imprisonment of Sarahs narrative and his eyes are directed towards the New Land of America. But what does this New Land stand for, if not another Sarah, the unexplored territory that will contain Charless desire for the unknown? Seduced and seducing, free and unfree, the One and the Other, the New and the Old, the text celebrates the ultimate plurality of Sarahs fictions which inhabit the within, but always belong to the without.

Works Cited Adams, James Eli. Woman Red in Tooth and Claw: Nature and the Feminine in Tennyson and Darwin. Victorian Studies 33 (Autumn 1989): 7-27. Auerbach, Nina. Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth . Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1982. Barthes, Roland. Theory of the Text. 1973. Trans. Ian McLeod. Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader. Ed. Robert Young. Boston, London & Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul. 1981. 31-47.


Blanchot, Maurice. The Space of Literature. 1955. Trans. Ann Smock. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1992. Conradi, Peter. John Fowles. London & New York: Methuen, 1982 Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species. 1859. Ed. J.W. Burrow. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974. Fowles, John. The French Lieutenants Woman. 1969. London: Vintage, 1996. Jackson, Tony E. Charles and the Hopeful Monster: Postmodern Evolutionary Theory in The French Lieutenants Woman. Twentieth Century Literature 42 (Spring 1996): 221-42. Levine, George. Darwin and the Novelists: Patterns of Science in Victorian Fiction. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1988. Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. Trans. R. J. Hollingdale. 1973. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990. Olshen, Barry N. The French Lieutenants Woman. John Fowles. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1978. 63-89. Riviere, Joan. Womanliness as a Masquerade. 1929. Formations of Fantasy. Eds. Victor Burgin et al. London: Routledge, 1986. 35-44. Tarbox, Katherine. The French Lieutenants Woman and the Evolution of Narrative. Twentieth Century Literature 42 (Spring 1996): 88-102. Young, Robert. Post-Structuralism: An Introduction. Untying the Text: A PostStructuralist Reader. Ed. Robert Young. Boston, London & Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul. 1981. 1-28.

Fotini Apostolou Aristotle University, Thessaloniki Greece