Monday, March 7, 2011

327. A Maggot by John Fowles

Genre: Mystery, Science Fiction, Historical, Postmodern
Rating: 4. Worth a read
Read before: New read
Decade: 1900s
Edition: Vintage 1986

A group of five (Bartholomew, Dick Thurlow, Fanny (Rebecca/Louise), Brown (Lacy) and Farthing (Jones)) travelling through rural England arrive at an inn in a small village. As the story progresses, it becomes apparent the travellers are playing roles in a drama, designed by Bartholomew, that they do not understand. The confusion increases as the reader learns that the point of the journey is not the real reason for the trek. Who are the players, and what is the real reason for the journey?

First chapter:
The first "chapter" is full of fantastic hooks, probably the best book I've read for this:
• What is Bartholomew's secret study? (p24)
• What is the reason behind the strange charade of Fanny making herself up and Dick unbuttoned and exposed? (p32)
• What is the "fixed destiny" Bartholomew thinks he must play? (p43)
• Why do Bartholomew and Dick burn Bartholomew's papers (p47)

At the start of the year I was sure I didn’t like the epistolary form of writing (novels primarily written as a series of letter but which can also include newspaper articles, diary entries, etc). I can’t say that anymore, because since reading Dracula (Bram Stoker) and now A Maggot by John Fowles I now understand the format of a novel (including one written in the form of Q&As by a lawyer taking depositions) is nothing in the hands of a skilful story teller.

The pace of this novel is slow, but never boringly so … which fits well with its mysterious nature. The title is the first mystery. Fowles explains in the prologue that the title is taken from the archaic sense of the word that means "whim", "quirk", "obsession", or even a snatch of music. Another meaning of the word "maggot", which becomes apparent later in the novel, is used by Fanny to describe a white, oblong machine that appears to be a spaceship. (A spaceship in an 18th century historical novel--are you intrigued?)

The mystery is heightened by the third person narrator, who is not omniscient and clearly no wiser than we are: "One might have supposed the two leading riders and the humble apparent journeyman and wife chance-met, merely keeping together for safety . . ." (p2). But he soon notes: "Yet if they had been chance-met, the two gentlemen would surely have been exchanging some sort of conversation and riding abreast. . ." (pp2-3). And of the woman in the group, the narrator concludes that "She is evidently a servant, a maid" (p5)

Then there's the mystery (even cluelessness) of Henry Ayscough, the lawyer charged by Bartholomew’s father with discovering the details of his son’s disappearance. Part of Ayscough’s role is clearly to protect the status of the family, including its respect and good name. But Ayscough is also more:
• he acts as a pseudo reader and starts from scratch to uncover what's happened to Bartholomew;
• he identifies which information is relevant and acts as the point at which elements are confirmed; and
• he shows that, for the outsider, there is more to the mystery than meets the eye.

The character who intrigued me the most was Fanny. Who is she; the prostitute suggested by the men or is she the lady of Ayscough, Dorcas and the hotel keeper? For the men travelling together (Bartholomew, Lacy and Farthing) it seems clear they knew she was a prostitute, but if she's a prostitute why does no-one appear to be having a sexual relationship with her? The following gives an insight into the early mystery of Fanny:
• Fanny washes herself while Dick sits at her feet with an erection but they don't have sex. (pp29-34)
• Lacy tells Bartholomew that Jones saw Fanny going into a brothel. Lacy believes Jones is mistaken and Bartholomew assures him he is mistaken. Bartholomew infers Dick and Fanny are husband and wife. (p44)
• shortly afterwards Bartholomew chides Fanny about her wantoness, orders her to strip and then sends her away while he prays. (pp47-58)

So is Fanny actually a prostitute? If Dick and Fanny are married, why do they not have sex and why, soon after, is Fanny with Bartholomew, who asks her to strip, chides her and sends her away? If you think this is confusing to the reader, the people observing the group are unaware and further add more to the confusion:
• the innkeeper tells Ayscough that Fanny spoke kindly to Dorcas (p70), and that she might have been a lady in disguise. (p71)
• Dorcas confirms that Fanny is pleasant spoken, while the lawyer Ayscough tries to discover whether she was a lady masquerading as a maid. Dorcas believes she’s not a lady (pp85-86), and relates how Fanny was in Bartholomew’s room but did not stay the night. (pp86-87)

This mystery is resolved when Ayscough learns from a brothel keeper that Fanny's a notorious prostitute known as the Quaker Maid, who's able to pretend to be a virgin. (p140) but all this is smoke and mirrors because after 140 pages we understand the who of Fanny but no nearer to understanding the why?

And the entire book is like this ... I felt I understood the who of the journey, including the roles people played. I'm even happy with the various theories that were debunked, such as: the journey wasn't to allow Bartholomew to elope against the wishes of his family (as there was no woman waiting for him), he wasn't visiting a wealthy aged aunt to secure an inheritance (since she didn't exist), and Fanny's later claims re her impregnation make it unlikely Bartholomew was seeking a cure for impotence. (PS Why did Bartholonew feel the need to create such an elaborate ruse for the trip?)

What I'm left with, and it's much more fantastic than the debunked theories, are two theories: Fanny was destined for impregnation by an alien in order to start a new religious sect, and Bartholomew's interest in the occult took him to a certain location (reason unknown) and Fanny had a religious conversion.

The former theory is at odds with me given the historical nature of the book and my inability to meld science fiction with history, and the latter feels more comfortable to me. The idea that the why is associated with Bartholomew's interest in science or the occult doesn't seem too far fetched. He certainly had ideas about a fixed destiny (p5), he was secretive about his writings (p24) and the burning of the papers by Bartholomew and Dick, his mysterious relationship with Dick, his chastising of Fanny and directions to her that she should behave appropriately (pp52-57) seem to point towards something unusual at the very least.

If you think the answer is more than this or I'm totally on the wrong track ... I’d love to hear. I've never read a story that left me with so many questions.

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