A girl and three men are riding westward from London when a fifth rider joins them, a man in a red coat and dragoon’s hat. The year is 1736 and they are on horseback. Arriving at a Devonshire country inn, they tell the innkeeper and an intrusive parson about themselves and the purpose of their journey, but we suspect them of lying. They are an odd set, by the standards of both 1736 and 1985.
The leader of the party calls himself Mr Bartholomew, but later in the story we shall find him described as ‘his Lordship’. In his room at the inn, this young man fills his glass from a blue-and-white decanter of madeira and then puts on ‘a damask night-gown (at that period a loose informal coat, not what it means today) over his long waistcoat and breeches. He has also taken his wig off, revealing that he is shaven-headed to the apparent point, in the poor light, of baldness; and indeed looks like nothing so much as a modern skinhead, did not his clothes deny it.’ That quotation well illustrates the style in which John Fowles begins this historical novel, or mystery story, lingering over his descriptions. The reviewer-like use of the present tense, the schoolmasterly ‘not what it means today’, and the reference to ‘a modern skinhead’, invite readers to visualise the scene, like a motion picture in full colour, without ‘losing ourselves’ in the period. The author and his readers are together in 1985, looking back over two centuries and making comparisons with the present, much as we might if we were watching a fifty-year-old screenplay.
We wonder, like hooked viewers, what these shadowy people are up to. Mr Bartholomew is talking strangely to the young woman he calls ‘Fanny’, while others call her ‘Louise’. If we are to believe them, she is Fanny, a London whore, posing as a respectable maidservant, and she was brought up as a Quaker in Bristol. Fanny is stranger still when she is talking to Mr Bartholomew’s manservant, a handsome deaf-mute, who kneels by her bed at the inn. She murmurs ‘Oh my poor Dick, poor Dick’ and smoothes his hair while he displays his ‘large, naked and erect penis. The young woman shows no shock or outrage when she realises this obscenity, though her hands are arrested in their smoothing.’ As for the other two riders, one of them purports to be ‘Mr Brown’, the uncle of Mr Bartholomew, and the man in the dragoon’s hat calls himself ‘Sergeant Farthing’, Mr Brown’s manservant, a sort of ‘minder’ against highwaymen. John Fowles interposes, in his century-vaulting way, that Farthing seems like what ‘the Roman comedians dubbed the miles gloriosus, the military boaster or eternal bag of bullshit’. So he might seem, but readers may feel that this Farthing is no soldier and that Mr Brown is surely a professional actor. We turn the page, expecting them to be exposed as liars.
Then the style changes. We are surprised by a genuine page of news items reproduced from the Gentleman’s Magazine, under the heading ‘Historical Chronicle, 1736 – April’. This historical document is followed by a fictional news-cutting attributed to the Western Gazette, 1736, announcing that a man has been found, apparently ‘hang’d by his own Hand, or so adjudg’d by the Coroner’, and that he is believed to have been ‘Manservant, tho’ deaf and dumb, to a Gentleman named Bartholomew’. This must be Fanny’s poor Dick.
The Western Gazette is surprised that the rest of Mr Bartholomew’s party has disappeared, leaving but this one hanged manservant – and it is ‘the more to be wonder’d that to this Present no Inquiry is made by Mr Bartholomew’s friends.’ That is the mystery then. The news-cutting is followed by the first of what might be called, in Dorothy Sayers’s style, ‘the documents in the case’. These are reports of an inquiry into the death of the servant and the disappearance of his master. Some authoritative London person is in Devonshire questioning the innkeeper while a clerk takes it all down in shorthand.
Q. When came they?
A. The last day of April past …
Q. Five in all?
A. The uncle and the nephew. The two men and the maid.
Q. Mr Brown and Mr Bartholomew, they so gave themselves?
A. That they did, sir.
After six pages of this Q.-and-A. script we get another extract from the genuine ‘Historical Chronicle, 1736’ (for May, this time) and then more Q.-and-A. pages as the investigator examines a maidservant from the inn. There are six other witnesses to be examined and the Q.-and-A. pages, 245 of them, make up more than half the book.
Interspersed are five more pages from the ‘Historical Chronicle, 1736’ (taking us up to October), so that the book seems almost like a schoolchildren’s ‘kit’ for a ‘project’, with reproduced documents in an envelope to give them the historical ‘background’. Now and then, John Fowles intervenes, like a history teacher, to tell us what he knows or believes. ‘No Englishwoman, of any class, had ever worn anything beneath her petticoats up to this date, nor was to do so for at least another sixty years.’ ‘I have long concluded that established religions of any kind are in general the supreme example of forms created to meet no longer existing conditions.’ Such is the structure of the book.
However, it is quite possible to ignore or postpone the historical documents and the author’s disquisitions, these ‘distancing’ devices. We might skip them, like Walter Scott’s footnotes, and pursue the thread of the story through the Q.-and-A. pattern, governed by the persistent investigator. He is a lawyer called Ayscough, sceptical, devious and sometimes choleric (or feigning to be so) and he works for a client whom he addresses as ‘Yr Grace’ – a duke, we decide, not a bishop. The duke wants to make sure that the vanished ‘Mr Bartholomew’ (the duke’s son, perhaps) is not addicted to sodomitic practices, for his eccentric behaviour towards whores and his close relationship to the dumb, handsome Dick offer grounds for this suspicion. It is also possible that Mr Bartholomew may have gone overseas, to enemy territory, in a spirit of political or religious dissidence.
Considering these possibilities, Ayscough examines the clergyman who came to visit Mr Bartholomew’s party at the inn, and was told a pack of lies by Mr Brown. This parson is a snob from Wadham College, lonely in his country parish, eager for townspeople’s talk. In a letter to the duke, Ayscough sourly remarks that the cleric is the only ‘person of education at the miserable place where last his Lordship lodged. I doubt not, that gentleman would be as high a Tory as Sacheverell was, were not all bishops Whigs. He’d turn Mahometan tomorrow, to get a better living.’ He writes to the duke even more severely about another witness, Hannah Claiborne, a monstrous London madam and employer of ruthless bully-boys. She claims to own the vanished Fanny as a whore in her Jermyn Street brothel, and to have hired her out to Mr Bartholomew for his ride westward. She is like an embodiment of the old saw: ‘Women beware women.’
At last Ayscough tracks down a survivor from the riding party, the so-called Mr Brown. He is an actor named Lacy who was hired by ‘Mr Bartholomew’ to play the part of his uncle on the ride westward. Lacy stands on his dignity: ‘My talents are familiar to all the cognoscenti of the city.’ Ayscough responds with a frightening smile: ‘And shall soon be as familiar to the cognoscenti of Tyburn. My client has written a piece for you, my friend. It is called The Steps and the String, or Twangdang-dillo-dee. In which you shall jig upon the scaffold, at the end of Jack Ketch’s rope.’ This vigorous language frightens the actor into telling what he knows – which is not much, for he has himself been deceived. He knew the whore Fanny only in her guise as the respectable maidservant, Louise, but he is better informed about the fake soldier, ‘Sergeant Farthing’, claiming that his real name is David Jones and that he is a Welshman loosely attached to the London theatre. As for ‘Mr Bartholomew’, the actor says he believes him to be something of a philosopher, with a dissident and free-thinking bias, a certain mathematical or numerological expertise and a mystical-sounding theory about monuments like Stonehenge, to which he introduced the actor, during their ride westward, as being God’s first orrery.
The pleasure to be taken in A Maggot derives partly from John Fowles’s imitation of 18th-century prose and partly from the slow, tantalising way in which layers of deception and misinformation are peeled off by the impatient Ayscough in his search for the truth. Fowles has written elsewhere about his ambition, as a novelist, to ‘sound true’ and to ‘come clean’. Ayscough’s reports do indeed sound true, in that they sound like evidence given by real-life liars or dupes. The ‘coming clean’ is perhaps represented by Fowles’s self-confident expressions of his own opinions: indeed, he ends the novel with an epilogue, making his position clear on the religious and political issues which his story illustrates.
He writes to the duke that he suspects that the actor, Lacy, is trying to tell the truth, and that it would be as well to catch David Jones, said to be hiding in Wales, in order to build on Lacy’s evidence. ‘My men are already on the road to Wales. If the rogue Jones be in his native place, they shall find him more soon than late, I doubt not. My nose tells me Lacy is no liar, and may be credited, tho’ he credited far too much himself.’ Jones, when captured, has a quite extraordinary story to tell, most eloquently, to Ayscough. He has long been acquainted with the whore Fanny, as ‘one of Mother Claiborne’s lambs’, and she has told him about some eerie things that happened when she went with Dick and Mr Bartholomew to visit Stonehenge. Later, on the westward journey, the inquisitive Jones followed the trio up a slope, or cwm, to the entrance of a cave, where he saw them meet a weird sister in an atmosphere of occult gestures and clothing which, to Jones, strongly suggested witchcraft and black magic. Some hours later, Dick came running out of the cave and darted off, in a state of panic, never to be seen alive again. Then Fanny emerged, stark naked.
When Jones had fetched her some clothes from her packhorse, tethered nearby, Fanny gave him an explanation of her outing, and told him why he would never see Mr Bartholomew again. But Jones’s account of Fanny’s story does not satisfy the sceptical Ayscough, for it involves the Devil appearing in the likeness of a black man. ‘This is beyond my belief, Jones,’ cries Ayscough. ‘The strumpet was lying in her teeth … Why, man, you should have pitched her off your horse into the nearest ditch. He deserves to be hanged who would believe a word of this.’ Jones insists that he is truly repeating what Fanny told him, but can we believe Jones? He is, after all, a man of the theatre and we may remember that there was a Drury Lane pantomime called Merlin: or, the Devil of Stone-Henge in 1734, just two years before, and the plot is not unlike Jones’s report of Fanny’s story.
John Fowles’s way of blending history and mystery has exercised several academic critics. Is his technique ancient or modern, dated or novel? In A Maggot he has not followed the conventions deriving from Henry Fielding – and indeed 1736 is four years too early for a Fielding novel. The actor, Lacy, timorously admits, in the course of A Maggot, that he has been performing in Fielding’s dissident play, Pasquin, and we may know (though Fowles does not mention it) that Fielding’s next play was called, curiously enough, The Historical Register for the Year 1736 – a play so dissident that stage censorship was imposed and Fielding turned to novel-writing. An earlier novelist whom Fowles does certainly admire and perhaps emulate is the danger-courting Daniel Defoe, deceitful but ‘sounding true’.
Then, if we look through the genuine pages of ‘Historical Chronicle, 1736’ reproduced in A Maggot, we find that the running story is about Major Porteous who fired into an Edinburgh mob during the year and was lynched for his pains. In a letter to his duke, Ayscough remarks on this scandal – it serves to remind us how defensive and punitive the authorities were feeling in 1736, but it also reminds us of The Heart of Midlothian, perhaps Walter Scott’s best novel, which is largely concerned with the Porteous case. Scott published it in the 1820s and its way of blending story and comment is not entirely different from Fowles’s. David Deans tells a tall story about the Devil appearing in the likeness of a black man (rather like David Jones’s story in A Maggot) and then Walter Scott comments that persecuted sects are ‘naturally’ open to a belief in not only ‘the secret wiles’ but ‘the open terrors of Satan’, and Walter Scott has the documents to prove his point. This is very Fowles-like.
We will return to the dogged Ayscough, who has at last secured his most important witness, Fanny herself. Her real name, she tells him, is Rebecca Lee: she is married, pregnant by someone (by Mr Bartholomew, we wonder, by Dick or the Devil?) and living in Manchester as a member of a Quakerish sort of community. The Q.-and-A. style of the reports is particularly effective with Rebecca’s deposition, for she is a bolder witness than the others. Ayscough cannot frighten her, nor can his over-powerful ‘client’, the duke. Rebecca and Ayscough snap at one another in a series of weighty one-liners, like the stichomythia scenes of Greek tragedy.
Q. Is this your peace and respect among men? Mr Fotheringay shall hear of it.
A. Is this thy no disputing upon my beliefs? And much good may it do him.
She is presented as other women have been presented in Fowles’s novels: she is attractive and infuriating because she is enigmatic. She has the knowledge and experience of a whore, with the taunting authority of a religious zealot.
What has happened to poor Mr Bartholomew? Rebecca tells Ayscough that the story she told David Jones, about the Devil as a black man, was not exactly the full truth. The real story was no less strange, but rather too difficult for Jones to comprehend. It involved an enormous maggot … Readers may feel that Rebecca’s new story could be classed under what Professor Glyn Daniel calls the ‘bullshit’ of archaeology’s ‘lunatic fringe’. It also involves a vision of a better life which might be expressed in religious or secular democratic terms. It reinforces our impression that John Fowles knows how to tell a good story, however devious and experimental his structures.
On the dust-cover of A Maggot he has reproduced a 17th-century drawing of a girl who looks like the Rebecca he has invented and whom he here presents as the fictitious mother of the real-life Ann Lee, founder of the Shakers, the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. In his foreword he remarks that he has given Ann Lee ‘her historical name; but I would not have this seen as a historical novel. It is maggot.’ He has also written of The French Lieutenant’s Woman: ‘I don’t think of it as a historical novel, a genre in which I have very little interest.’ This is surprising. David Daiches, in appraising Scott, has distinguished three kinds of historical novel, one sort being ‘an attempt to use a historical situation to illustrate some aspect of man’s fate which has importance and meaning quite apart from that historical situation’. Daiches holds that the best of Scott’s novels fall into that category, and I would have thought Fowles was making a similar attempt.
If he will not be called a historical novelist, could he be a mystery writer? Kerry McSweeny, in Four Contemporary Novelists, quotes from Fowles’s story ‘The Enigma’, in which characters complain that they are trapped in a detective story which is not going to end up ‘with everything explained’, though perhaps if their story is disobeying ‘the unreal literary rules, that might mean it’s actually truer to life’. McSweeny compares this argument with Fowles’s afterword to The Hound of the Baskervilles, wherein he complains that ‘however fantastic and far-reaching the first half of the detective “mystery”, the second half is bound to drop (and only too often flop) towards a neat and plausible everyday solution.’ Fowles is keen to avoid the flop into rationalism.
Here he is close to the Roman Catholic mystery-writers. G.K. Chesterton wrote of Dickens’s mystery stories: ‘The secrecy is sensational; the secret is tame’; the villains in Dickens are ‘keeping something back from the author as well as from the reader. When the book closes we do not know their real secret. They soothed the optimistic Dickens with something less terrible than the truth.’ Graham Greene quoted and developed this judgment, suggesting that Dickens’s ‘truth’ is in the mystery, not the solution, in the implacable faces of Monks and Fagin peering at Oliver through the window of his secure-seeming home, so that there ‘creeps in, unrecognised by the author, the eternal and alluring taint of the Manichee, with its simple and terrible explanation of our plight, how the world was made by Satan and not by God, lulling us with the music of despair.’
These two Roman Catholics would not conclude a mystery without some reference to God. But Fowles is unusually keen to declare himself an atheist, not even an agnostic. Simon Loveday detects ‘a God-shaped blank in Fowles of sizable dimensions’. (There is a God-shaped blank, incidentally, in Loveday’s index.) Yet ‘the finest thing Fowles has ever written’, to Loveday’s mind, is the Seidevarre episode in The Magus, wherein Conchis, ‘a founder-member of the Society of Reason’, is confronted and convinced by a bleak, savage-seeming Norwegian hermit who, quite regularly, ‘meets God’. The fierceness of the hermit’s face comes ‘from his contact with the pillar of fire’. Then there is a passage in The French Lieutenant’s Woman where Charles is talking to someone or something in an empty church, and getting responses. The dialogue is set out in that Q.-and-A., stichomythia style we find in A Maggot. Charles, we are told, ‘did not wish to be an agnostic’. Such passages persuade Loveday that ‘God-centred religion of a very direct, Old Testament, authoritarian kind engages Fowles’s imagination very powerfully indeed.’ However, Fowles ends A Maggot with a forthright declaration of convinced atheism, attributed to the author himself. Is this ‘author’ really Fowles, or merely a character in his novels? Wanting to conclude his mystery with an important statement, he praises Ann Lee’s defunct society of Shakers, although he does not share their beliefs – any more than he trusts in Moroni, son of Mormon, still the guardian angel of the prosperous state of Utah. The author-figure thunders that ‘dissent’ in Northern Europe and America is ‘our most precious legacy to the world’, but its religious expression is merely a metaphor for ‘an eternal biological or evolutionary mechanism’. An atheist is like a Gnostic: he thinks he knows.
John Fowles’s power lies in his mysteries rather than in his solutions: he is aware of the persuasiveness of his stories, so that youngsters, in particular, might suppose that he is somehow ‘in the know’. Of The Magus he has written: ‘I now know the generation whose mind it most attracts, and that it must always substantially remain a novel of adolescence.’ Sometimes film directors, like Bergman, Fellini or Welles, contrive by a sort of legerdemain to suggest depths of esoteric knowledge and then question themselves, as if wondering whether they are merely ‘prestigious’. Bergman questioned himself in The Face and Welles in F for Fake. Perhaps it is in the same spirit that A Maggot follows The Magus, an expression of whim rather than wisdom. Yet the atheist’s last words are in praise of ‘Mother Ann Lee’s word, her Logos: its almost divine maggot’.