Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down: 'Ourika,' 'Cinderella,' and 'The French Lieutenant's Woman.'(John Fowles Issue)

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down: 'Ourika,' 'Cinderella,' and 'The French Lieutenant's Woman.'(John Fowles Issue)

Article excerpt

The long literary career of John Fowles often seems as much a testimonial to Fowles the reader as to Fowles the writer. He used to amuse journalists by describing himself as a "magpie," picking up the eye-catching shiny bits and stuffing his imagination with them.(1) His textual hoard is oddly assorted and quirky: natural history, obscure religious tracts, popular culture, politics, children's books, forgotten biographies, antiquities . . . Never canonical in any traditional sense, Fowles has over the years elected himself an occasional champion for some neglected form, a forgotten writer, or a seminal work unfamiliar to his English-speaking audience. Frequently, he has been an advance guard for a work that later begins to receive serious and deserved critical attention. Such a work is the 1823 French novel Ourika by Claire de Duras, Duchess of Durfort.(2) A "best-seller" in its time, Ourika was a lost, forgotten work in 1962 when Fowles, then a teacher with little pocket cash, happened upon it while rummaging in a favorite secondhand bookshop ("those two dusty overcrowded rooms in Hampstead, where nothing could ever be found at once and somehow everything turned up in the end" [O xxviii]). Fifteen years later, as a successful, best-selling author himself, he had translated the novel into English and republished it. But the 1977 edition of Ourika is not exactly a presentation of this "minor masterpiece" to a larger public. More a private celebration, it is a sensuously elegant, handset, signed, and extremely limited edition (500 copies) which Fowles correctly calls "a labor of love . . . . an homage" (O xxx). Critical attention has caught up with Fowles's early enthusiasm for Duras's work in the intervening years, and in 1994 Fowles's slightly revised translation of Ourika was re-published by the Modern Language Association in an affordable "texts and translations" edition with introductory critical and biographical essays by Professors Joan DeJean and Margaret Waller. No longer forgotten, Claire de Duras is discussed against the larger background of the French Restoration, the Romantic movement, and her success in the salon. Ourika, whose story was inspired by a real displaced Senegalese girl who died at age sixteen, is at last placed in context with the Code Noir and the abolitionist movement in France.

Fowles's translation and the earlier edition seem to have been motivated in large part by his "shocked" realization that the character of Ourika herself was a "ghostly presence" influencing the creation of Sarah Woodruff in The French Lieutenant's Woman. "Though I could have sworn I had never had the African figure of Ourika herself in mind during the writing of The French Lieutenant's Woman," he confesses, "I am now certain in retrospect that she was very active in my unconscious" (O xxix). But he hastens to disclaim: "the last thing I want to do is to offer this present translation as a footnote to my own work" (O xxx). Yet, now that Claire de Duras and her creation are at last receiving their critical due, it may be time to return to this literary relationship and to examine some of the dynamics between Ourika and Fowles's most famous novel.

Fowles worked on a number of translation projects during the years following the immensely successful release of The French Lieutenant's Woman.(3) One of the others, also from the French, was a book for children. Cinderella, Adapted from Perrault's Cendrillon of 1697 was published by Jonathan Cape (U.K.) and by Little, Brown (U.S.) in 1974. The book, romantically illustrated by Sheilah Beckett, was done as a favor for Fowles's English publisher, Thomas Maschler, and is dedicated to his daughter, Alice Maschler, Fowles's goddaughter. Although Fowles dismisses the notion that this translation ranks in importance with Ourika in influencing his work, he is "fond" of Perrault and this tale.(4) Whether or not this loveliest of fairy stories was an active or conscious influence on The French Lieutenant's Woman, Cinderella, at the very least, is an extremely useful variant against which to play out an examination of the psychological tensions working in Fowles's great novel. …

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