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A Maggot by John Fowles

A Maggot (1985)

by John Fowles

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The story begins with a narrator's description of five characters on horseback in the West Country in April. The party is composed of a Mr. Brown and his nephew, a deaf-mute servant named Dick, a woman called Louise, and a bodyguard named Sergeant Farthing. Their journey began in London and has taken them into Devon, where the nephew is to meet his beloved for an elopement---or so they tell the staff at the Black Hart, an inn near Exmoor. When the narration becomes dialogue, relationships seem different. The uncle Is subordinate to the nephew, who is referred to as Lacy, not Brown. The woman seems unperturbed when Dick unbuttons his breeches and stands near her with an exposed erection. She does plead for an explanation, however, when the nephew--whom she refers to as "my lord" and who calls her Fanny--chastises her for having worn a bouquet of violets beneath her nose as they traveled that day.

After 50 pages of this narration, whose dialogue is from the 18th century but whose narrator is from the late 20th, a facsimile page with no immediately evident connection appears, part of the "Historical Chronicle" from The Gentleman's Magazine, for April 1736, when the fictional story has been taking place. The next page is fictional but purports to be an item from The Western Gazette reporting the discovery of a corpse in the woods near Exmoor, hanging from a tree, with a bouquet of violets growing from its mouth.

The next 10 pages are in a different, dramatic mode, an interrogation of the Black Hart's innkeeper, Thomas Puddicombe, with the questions and answers marked by Qs and A's, and the whole transcript signed by one Henry Ayscough. After two more interviews and two more excerpts from The Gentleman's Magazine, Ayscough's role becomes clearer with a letter to his employer, addressed as "Your Grace," who is evidently the father of the young lord in the party of travelers. Ayscough is confident that the so-called nephew is indeed "his Lordship," this unidentified duke's younger son, but Ayscough cannot imagine what he was doing in this part of the country or why he brought the extra companions, besides his now-deceased servant.

The next section is narrated, in which Ayscough intimidates the actor Francis Lacy into admitting that he was indeed hired by a man he knew was only pretending to be "Mr. Bartholemew," and agreed to pretend to be his "uncle," Mr. Brown, to help him reach the vicinity of his fiancée undetected. Lacy recounts several of their conversations in which Lord ------- revealed an interest in Stonehenge, mathematics, and philosophy. Lacy further reports that Farthing told him that he had once seen the woman in their party entering a London house of prostitution owned by a Mrs. Claiborne, that Dick and "Louise" were having a clandestine sexual relationship as they traveled, and that his lordship had stolen out with Dick and her during the night that they lodged in Amesbury, near Stonehenge--all of which information leads Lacy to suspect that more has been going on than he can now explain to Ayscough. He does point out that he and Farthing separated from the rest of the party on the morning after the night at the Black Hart, so he is unable to account for the disappearances of his lordship and the woman.

The next interview, with Hannah Claiborne, establishes that "Louise" is "Fanny," one of her prize prostitutes, who came to her as Rebecca Hocknell, of a Quaker family in Bristol; her ability to feign religiosity and chastity made her an especially sought-after prostitute, known as "the Quaker maid." Lord -------- had paid Claiborne for Fanny's services for one week, for a party in Oxford he told her, but for a trip abroad he told a friend. His real purpose remains obscure.

Ayscough next interviews Jones, the real name of Farthing, whom his agents have located, and learns that Jones decided to follow the three others after they had parted on the road, He tells Ayscough of having seen them meet a woman dressed in silver trousers near a cave in the woods by Exmoor. Sometime after they all entered the cave, he reports, Dick came running out looking terrified and disappeared into the woods; then Rebecca emerged, naked; his lordship never came out. Jones recounts that he assisted Rebecca in reaching Bideford, from which port he shipped to Wales and she to Bristol, but not before she told him that she had seen witches inside the cave, had been raped by Satan, and had witnessed what appeared to be a mock marriage between his lordship and the younger witch.

Several letters follow, from Ayscough's agents who are searching for Rebecca, who is found in Manchester, married to a blacksmith named John Lee, member of a faction that has broken off from the Quakers. When Ayscough interviews her, Rebecca explains that she has repented her past life and is now a devoted servant of God--as well as a mother-to-be. She tells Ayscough that she lied to Jones about what happened in the cave, first to keep him at a distance, physically, and second because he would not be able to understand what really had happened. First she explains that when they visited Stonehenge at night, she saw a bright, "floating lantern" and observed two men watching them. She then explains that she was told to engage in sexual intercourse with Dick while his lordship watched, and that she accepted Dick's subsequent advances out of pity for him. About the cave, Rebecca explains that inside she saw a large maggot-shaped machine floating in the air, with a door and lights inside. She was taken inside it by a gray-haired woman who had previously been three women of three ages who merged into one. She was shown moving pictures of a green world with large buildings that serve as communal housing, which Rebecca now refers to as "June Eternal." The two men she saw at Stonehenge she recognizes were God the Father and God the Son, and the three women were a female trinity of Christ's daughter, widow, and "Holy Mother Wisdom." Ayscough then interviews one of the leaders of the religious sect and learns that Rebecca's views are largely her own, which she has not revealed to the others, even though they do believe in a female aspect of the Trinity. When he calls Rebecca back, she stands by her bizarre story, claiming that she awoke to find the cave empty and his lordship gone, having left with the spiritual "deities" and left his fallen half--that is, Dick--behind. Before the interview ends, she has apparently seen a vision of his lordship in the room and the narrator has explained that she and Ayscough have radically different ways of seeing the world--hers artistic, female, and right-brain hemispheric, and his scientific, male, and left-brain.

Ayscough does not believe her, and he writes in his last letter to the duke that probably his son killed himself in the cave, having felt more and more vile about not being able to accept the world as it is and himself as impotent. The Stonehenge incident, he concludes, must have been staged. Dick, in despair over his master's suicide, probably imitated his master. The narration concludes in Manchester, where Rebecca has just given birth to a baby girl, whom she names Ann.

Fowles concludes the book in his own voice, with an essay explaining that Ann Lee became the founder of the Shakers. Even though Fowles is, he declares, an atheist, he admires religious dissenters and sees the year 1736 as a convenient marker between the English Revolution of 1688 and the French Revolution of 1789. He observes, too, that sometimes novelists must use far-fetched tropes to convey truths, and that Rebecca represents an emotional enlightenment, a "painful breaking of the seed of the self from the hard soil of an irrational and tradition-bound society."

  bostonwendym | Mar 3, 2016 |
The way the book is set up makes us think about the nature of reality and how it depends on perceptual bias. Each character has a different experience experiencing the "same" set of happenings. ( )
  dbsovereign | Jan 26, 2016 |
The score so far -
Win Loss Tie
1 1 1

That’s how it’s been between John Fowles and me. French Lieutenant’s Woman - win. The Magus - loss. A Maggot - tie.

It begins with a straightforward narrative about a group of travelers who arrive at a rural inn and have lots of cryptic conversations and a mysterious rendezvous. Books are burned, servants are suspicious, confidences are exchanged and strange sex is had. It’s very intriguing in the story itself, but also the way it’s told and Fowles’s execution. If you don’t know anything about Fowles I’ll tell you this, he incorporates authorial asides and speaks directly to you as reader. He provides historical context or a view or opinion of the events of the past from the present. I enjoy that about his work and was glad he used the technique here, too. Some dislike these intrusions, but I think they feel as though you’re receiving an educational lecture of sorts. That in addition to the story, you get a historical frame and comparison to modern times. Here’s an example -

Rebecca gets to her room at an inn and needs to use the chamberpot so she lifts skirts and -

“She did not have to remove any other garment for the very simple reason that 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. One might write an essay on this incomprehensible and little-known fact about their under-clothing, or lack of it. French and Italian women had long remedied the deficiency, and English men also; but not English women. All those graciously elegant and imposing upper-class ladies in their fashionable or court dresses, whose image has been so variously left us by the eighteenth-century painters, are - to put it brutally - knickerless. And what is more, when the breach was finally made - or rather, covered - and the first female drawers, and soon after pantalettes, appeared at the beginning of the nineteenth century, they were considered grossly immodest, an unwarranted provocation upon a man, which is no doubt why they so swiftly became de rigueur.”

OMG! What was that all about? It’s probably the most blatant (and hilariously puzzling), example, but there are others. I don’t know the whims and wherefores of why Fowles included them, but they are different. Offhand I can’t think of another writer who does it.

So we’ve got an essential mystery of exactly what Lord B is up to and what this whole charade is for. Just when we’re getting somewhere and secrets are being revealed, that narrative ends abruptly and we move to the bulk of the novel which is made up of transcripts of a deposition. It seems the leader of the traveling group is a nobleman's son and His Grace wants to know what happened to him. He gets a lawyer (who is a colossal jerk) to track down the remaining travelers and get the truth out of them.

The thing is, their truths conflict and stretch the bounds of believability; for characters and readers alike. What starts out as an intriguing mystery soon turns into a treatise on how expectations shape perception and how social position dictates expectation. Each of our witnesses has a particular world-view that dictates how something fantastical and obscure is interpreted.

It takes an imaginative and conscientious author to wring personality from straight Q & A and Fowles does it. Each of the people giving testimony is distinct and I especially liked the pretentious cleric, Beckford. He brought some needed humor to the book. At first, so did Ayscough, but pretty soon his ugliness wore through politeness and he got to be pretty loathsome. Especially in the way he kept insulting Rebecca and holding her in contempt for being a whore, but in the next breath asking her for every salacious detail about her sexual encounters. I was glad she stood up to him so perfectly. In the end he was so disgusted at what he could not understand that he basically was happy to be old, so he could not be associated with the feckless young. Vicious hypocrite. And not a terribly effective direct examiner either; always leading the witness.

In the end I was baffled. The story Rebecca gives (started by Jones, but he only knew part of it and her attempts to throw him off the scent) is starkly unbelievable unless you invoke some kind of time travel or aliens (are you from the future?). Flying machines and cars, scythes and robes, none of it meshes into anything believable, but Rebecca is convinced of it. And there are people who are dead and missing, so something significant happened, but it doesn’t really matter since it was only a vehicle for the very end of the story. Here he lost me again in the sense that I can’t understand why the upshot of what he wanted to illustrate with the story was so quickly done with. That is to detail circumstances leading up to the birth of a religious innovator. A person so conditioned by her mother’s inexplicable experience and her Quaker roots. The combination begat the Shakers. I know, right? What? All that smoke and mirrors for some religious whackjobbery? Yep, apparently so.

The writing is fine though, assuming you can cope with the archaic language and spelling (and the weird newspaper reproductions, which I assume were also fictitious, but that I couldn't make heads or tails of and couldn’t find connections to the main story; weird). The fact that he used archaic language seemed at odds with the way he breaks the fourth wall and expounds on details and background and I was irritated that he used the antiquated convention of making certain people and places anonymous. Like Lord B________ or in the town of C_________. The anonymity seemed unnecessary since this tale was basically one long legal deposition, but now I’m thinking about it, the archaic speech would be appropriate. Anyway, I can’t really say anymore without either confusing myself more, misinterpreting things or giving away the plot. If you’re in the mood for a real brain twister, this is the book for you.

“Come nephew. Enough being the cynosure of nowhere.” ( )
1 vote Bookmarque | May 8, 2014 |
_A Maggot_ is an interesting novel. It can be approached as an historical mystery, a meta-fictional experiment of mixed narrative form and genre, and a meditation on the injustices inherent in the 18th century social, political and religious mindset. The story proper details a mysterious journey undertaken by five individuals across the English landscape whose destination and purpose is unknown. In addition to this each of the individuals is not what they appear, and may not even be what they themselves think they are. This ‘simple’ mystery plot form is expressed with a variety of narrative techniques: a somewhat distant 3rd person with occasional authorial asides taking place “now” interspersing longer passages of first person question-and-answer that are occurring in the “then” of 18th century England. As the story progresses the reader begins to see that even the genre boundaries of mystery and historical fiction are being crossed and significant possible elements of science fiction begin to creep into the tale.

Accepting this novel at face value as a historical mystery would be a mistake, especially since it seems to be a mystery whose whole purpose is not to be unravelled. Rather the mystery ‘plot’ is the vehicle which allows Fowles to show how each character’s own conception of this mystery of which they are a part, and its possible solutions, is determined by their own social standing and personal background, by the hidebound preconceptions they each bring to their experience of the world. These disparate characters allow Fowles to put on display a particular aspect of human society that he perceives as having been distinctly strong in 18th century society due to its make-up, but that still exists today: that we are determined by our perceptions and expectations. The question and answer segments are particularly useful in this regard for making explicit how differently each character interprets the same events; how they look to the expected, the known, or the conventional, in order to explain something that is beyond their experience. Even the visionary falls back onto traditional (to her) paradigms in order to be able to interpret her life-changing experience.

The juxtaposition of perceptions and assumptions of the modern era (as witnessed in the 3rd person intrusions) with those of the 18th century when the novel takes place are well done, and seem central to the novel. These are characters who very much feel like authentic inhabitants of their era. Their modes of speaking and even of thought are truly alien to the modern reader in many ways. As a result Fowles is able to use these differences to indulge in his thematic hobby-horses of free will vs. pre-destination, the fear of change vs. the need to progress, and unthinking acceptance vs. the belief that change can and must be effected. These are ideas that many of us take for granted, but Fowles shows how new and strange many of these concepts were when the novel takes place and they were still in their larval stages. Another major cultural difference between the reader and those whom the book purports to represent is seen in Fowles’ notion that their sense of individuality is not even close to our own (would not even be considered as “individuality” at all by our standards). Fowles goes so far as to draw comparisons between the constraints of people from this era and those of a character in a book, the “plot” of their lives pre-determined according to their role and function in society (certainly if born below a certain social level), and harps on the fact that this was utterly natural to them, something which the vast majority of the people of the day would not even consider an issue worth considering. It is an intriguing idea and allows the more obvious meta aspects of the narrative to gain a further level of depth. Ironically Fowles notes both explicitly and implicitly that that the “birth” of the individual, one of the key elements that broke up the injustices inherent in the 18th century social, political and religious mindset, was as much a blessing as a curse.

All that being said I still found the book to be one I felt more obliged to finish than one that carried me along with the rush of its passage. At times the question and answer sections of the novel seemed to carry on too long and the 3rd person narrative parts could perhaps have been more liberally interspersed into the text than they were. I can accept that not all mysteries have to have a solution, but the utter lack of any real understanding of what happened in that cave in western England, and the impenetrable nature of the young lord’s real purpose and end, is certainly frustrating. In the end I guess I would consider this a highly successful meditation on the birth of modernity and the ways in which we have both learned from, and ignored to our peril, the lessons of the past, but only a moderately successful novel. I think David Mitchell would have written something on the same subject and with the same elements with just as much depth, but that was much more interesting.
( )
1 vote dulac3 | Apr 2, 2013 |
I'm not sure that we can even call this a historical novel -- and perhaps not even a novel. It resembles both, but also differs in such key ways that it's nearly impossible to pin down. Not that pinning it down is necessary, especially if you are interested in a somewhat bizarre but beautifully written fiction.

Here's a tip though: don't read more than about a chapter (or what passes for a chapter) a day. The oddity of it's construction and the density of some of the prose will work against you. ( )
1 vote cornerhouse | Apr 3, 2012 |
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One night I was sitting on the bed in my hotel room on Bunker Hill, down in the very middle of Los Angeles.
In the late and last afternoon of an April long ago, a forlorn little group of travelers cross a remote upland in the far south-west of England.
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In his prologue, John Fowles tells us that "A Maggot" began as a vision he had of five travellers riding with mysterious purpose through remote countryside. This image gives way to another - a hanging corpse with violets stuffed in its mouth - which leads us into a maze of beguiling paths and wrong turnings, disappearances and revelations, unaccountable motives and cryptic deeds, as this compelling mystery swerves towards a starling vision at its centre.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:59:54 -0400)

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