John Fowles's Pre-Raphaelite Woman: Interart Strategies and Gender Politics

Article excerpt

"The romance-painting connection flourishes in postmodernism," Wendy Steiner reassures readers in the conclusion to Pictures of Romance, her study of interartistic texts by Keats, Hawthorne, Joyce and others (185). As successors to the narratives she analyzes in detail, Steiner mentions Calvino's Mr Palomar, Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49 and Tom Robbins's Still Life with Woodpecker. Another contemporary romance-fiction similarly concerned with the symbiosis between the verbal and the visual arts is John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman (1968). Indeed, Fowles's novel is exceptionally intriguing in this context, because his commitment to translating pictorial representation into a literary medium actually undermines rather than advances his ostensible goal: a postmodernist critique of Victorian ideology and particularly its gender politics.

Among the numerous Victorian intertexts in The French Lieutenant's Woman, Pre-Raphaelitism has a special place. While certainly not as central to the novel as, for example, Darwin's theories and Tennyson's or Arnold's poetry, it is nonetheless privileged by its connection with the sole historical figures found in the narrative: Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his circle. At the end of The French Lieutenant's Woman, Charles Smithson confronts the long-missing Sarah Woodruff in the home and studio of Rossetti, whose amanuensis and occasional model she has become--and whose canvases surround the couple in their last encounter. A dramatic culmination not only of the novel's quest but also of its earlier allusions to the Brotherhood, this scene offers a "romance-painting" nexus that clearly invites interdisciplinary attention.

Generally, one might observe that Fowles's references to the emphatically literary Pre-Raphaelite artists accord with Martin Meisel's identification of "the pervasive collaboration of narrative and picture in the culture |of 19th-century England~, as the matrix of a style and as a way of structuring reality" (qtd. in Steiner, Poetics 57). In turn, Fowles's inclusion of the Rossetti circle among his characters transforms the novel into what Linda Hutcheon terms a "historiographic metafiction"--a narrative that draws actual persons into its fabricated world to impugn the transparency and objectivity attributed to past "reality." Or as Hutcheon puts it, "Historiographic metafiction|'s~...theoretical self-awareness of history and fiction as human constructs...is made the grounds for its rethinking and reworking of the forms and contents of the past" (Poetics 5). Ironically, however, while much of The French Lieutenant's Woman offers just such a reworking of narrative, artistic and social codes from the Victorian period, it is in his very deployment of Pre-Raphaelite antecedents that Fowles's rethinking, or ideological subversion, becomes suspended---especially vis-a-vis gender stereotyping.

More specifically, Sarah's position in the closing chapters proves curiously problematic in a novel that initially accords her an artist's or a creator's status. For although her re-appearance among the Pre-Raphaelites ostensibly confirms her identity as an artist, her emergence as Rossetti's model sets up an opposite dynamic, re-enacting the inveterate patriarchal gender dichotomy of male artist and female object. Since a chief concern in Fowles's metatext is precisely the politics of the Victorian woman's representation and self-representation, it makes sense to assume that the artist/model dichotomy is one more 19th-century gender paradigm designed for deconstruction. So too the Pre-Raphaelite iconography invoked for Sarah's characterization in earlier chapters would seem subject to his revisionist scrutiny of Victorian ideology.

In actuality, however, a close look at the Pre-Raphaelite intertext reveals that Fowles exempts not only the Brotherhood but also himself from his criticism of the cultural inscription of women. Nor is this exemption merely symptomatic of the contradictoriness inherent in postmodernist parody as a mode--its tendency to re-inscribe the very constructs that it destabilizes, to "install and reinforce as much as undermine and subvert the conventions and presuppositions it appears to challenge," to orchestrate "a complicitous critique" (Hutcheon Politics 1-2). …