The Peripatetic Reviewer

by Edward Weeks
THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN
by John Fowles
Little, Brown, $7.95
The Victorians are so close to us and yet so very different; we have rebelled against their conventions, but privately, there were a good mam things in their life which we envy. We envy their confidence that the world was getting better and better whereas we feel that it is getting worse and worse; we envy their attitude toward time, their unhurried opportunity to enjoy books and talk and the amenities of the countryside; and we envy their bounteous meals and the servants at their command—in all this, of course, I am speaking of the well-to-do, not the overworked, underpaid laborer. We realize that we have a decided advantage in our doctors, dentists, and longevity, our plumbing and overheated rooms, the swiftness of communication, the gadgets that cut down housework. But when we contrast their sexual life with ours, we are less sure. We laugh at the woman’s apparel, which hid so much of her beauty—but did not hide the mutual flash of attraction—we ridicule their notion that women do not enjoy sex, and we reject their abhorrence of divorce, to us a social necessity We have permissiveness beginning at sixteen, and they had all prices of prostitutes and pleasure spots available in every town. Did they revere convention at the cost of the body, and have we gained by reversing the process?
Such questions are put in mind bv the beguiling novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. Mr. Fowles is an Englishman of forty-three who makes his home in Dorset, the Thomas Hardy country; in his earlier novels, The Collector and The Magus, he amassed a large readership on both sides of the Atlantic, and they will be as surprised as I am by the different technique, the elegance, and the richness of detail with which he illuminates the Victorian world.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman begins on a blustery morning in late March of 1867 with a pair of lovers braving the wind as they walk the Cobb, that old sea rampart reaching out into Lyme Bay. They are down from London on a visit: Charles Smithson at thirty-two, good-looking, worldly, with a title awaiting him, and Ernestina Freeman, twenty-one, the slim, pert, only daughter of a London merchant and quite aware of her money. Their privacy is disturbed by the sight of a dark figure gazing out to sea which they take to be a fisherman but which, as they approach, proves to be Sarah Woodruff, a person of mystery, known as the French Lieutenant’s Woman, or, if men are speaking, his “Hoer.” Charles pauses to warn her against the squall, is struck as by a lance by her eyes, and turns away more curious than ever about the scandal.
Mr. Fowles uses every artifice of the Victorian novel: there are poems and quotations at the beginning of each chapter to give us clues; the author himself occasionally intrudes, as he relates the romance in the foreground with an occasional happening in our own times. Ernestina was a grasping materialist. Charles, on the other hand, was a Darwinian, rather contemptuous of English society, and ever since he came down from Cambridge, a victim of selfirony. He had traveled widely, enjoyed the fleshpots of Paris, and had published a monograph as a symptom of his interest in geology. “But for Charles . . . the problem was not fitting in all that one wanted to do, but spinning out what one did to occupy the vast colonnades of leisure available.”
Charles can stand just so much of Tina’s tea talk and her aunt’s goodness, then setting out to search for fossils in the Ware cliffs, he again chances on the mystery woman, this time asleep on a grassy plateau. He knows by now that she is employed as a secretary-companion to one of the female dragons in Lyme. When she challenges his curiosity and leads him on, he begins to feel for her what he clearly has not felt for Tina, and the struggle between propriety and passion wracks him.
The magic of this book is its constant surprises. Sarah is a surprise to the last page, and one cannot blame Charles for his infatuation; once he possessed her there would be no forgetting. Could she have found with Charles the liberation which she did find for two years in the Rossetti household? The author leaves it to the reader to decide.
PRESENT AT THE CREATION
by Dean Acheson
Norton, $15.00
To the State Department, which he joined in 1971 as Assistant Secretary of State for Economic Affairs and in which he was to serve with brief intermissions until 1953, Dean Acheson brought an assortment of qualities: swift perception and the gift to express it, a mind trained but not bound by legal practice, perseverance in dealing with the sensitivities of Congress, deep loyalty to those he admired, and hauteur, an ingrained part of his style, which has rubbed some people the wrong way since his boyhood. In a forthright apologia to Present at the Creation he tells us that five years ago he decided not to write about his years in the State Department because “detachment and objectivity” would be suspect and “self-justification could not be excluded.”It is to the country’s good that he changed his mind: his vindication is amusing rather than vindictive; the decisions he took part in were momentous; his devotion to State, his heroine, shows what an influential body she could be, and how she has been pushed around and abused in hot war and cold, and the portraits of his two heroes, President Truman and General Marshall, are magnificent and heartening for a people now caught up in distrust.
Mr. Acheson writes better than any other Cabinet officer of this century and without his wit, his elegance, and his ability to smell a rat, it would not be easy to follow him through so long a maze. His apprenticeship begins with his being “initiated into two arts: the art of chairmanship, the other of congressional relations,” dull matters both, brought to life instantly by Acheson’s reaction to the men he served, to FDR, for whom he felt “admiration without affection,” to Secretary Hull, “a handsome man . . . looked like a statesman in the classic American tradition. . . . Suspicious by nature, he brooded over what he thought were slights and grievances, which more forthright handling might have set straight. . . . His hatreds were implacable.” Bypassed in so many directions by the President, Hull spun his web of reciprocal trade agreements which found their happy adjustment at the Bretton Woods Conference of 1944. Acheson’s ability to make friends with Senators Vandenberg and Connally or with Englishmen like John Maynard Keynes, his calm competence in dealing with torments like Patrick Hurley, commended him to his superiors, and as sticky jobs came up, it was Dean who got them.
He reached the low point under the brief tenure of Ed Stettinius. (“Before arriving in Washington at the age of thirty-eight, Stettinius had gone far with comparatively modest equipment.”) Acheson was sustained by the discovery of his fealty to the new President, Truman, and by his successful lobbying for the Charter of the United Nations. In a characteristic note to his daughter Mary, he writes, “This life is amusing but not calculated to engage or extend all those faculties which when used to the full give one the sense of the good life.”
Those faculties would be pushed to the utmost, beginning with his tightrope act on the Palestine Question in 1945 and increasing with intensity as China was lost and as the Marshall Plan came to the rescue of Western Europe. His industry had always been prodigious; now under Truman and Marshall he found fresh strength and confidence. His first five years as an assistant were an indispensable preparation for the seven that followed with mounting authority. With the exception of the Palestine issue, Truman did not try to be his own Secretary of State, as FDR and JFK were determined to be. As a consequence the Department worked with a cohesion under Acheson which it did not have under Hull, Stettinius, or Byrnes. Against the suspicions of Congress, which he had learned to quell, through the infuriating insubordination of MacArthur, and confronted with the scurrilous accusations of McCarthy, he kept his cool and defended his team as Dulles would never do.
We were, as Acheson says, a nation of short-term pragmatists suddenly forced to make long-term judgments.
I think he is right in his definition of the function of the United Nations as in that of the National Security Council, right in deploring