Saturday, 15 March 2014

Finding the Familiar.

When I read The French Lieutenant’s Woman, it seems that instead of holding a book, I’m holding some sort of magic mirror that reveals not my face, but fragments of my nature, my imagination, and maybe some recurring but forgotten dream.

I’ve just read the passage in which Sarah Woodruff follows Charles secretly through the woods of Ware Commons, there to confront him with a restrained but inwardly impassioned request: that he permit her one hour to tell her story, since no one else in Lyme could be trusted to understand it. He describes her face thus:

Sarah had one of those peculiar female faces that vary very much in their attractiveness; in accordance with some subtle chemistry of angle, light, mood. She was dramatically helped at this moment by an oblique shaft of wan sunlight that had found its way through a small rift in the clouds, as not infrequently happens in a late English afternoon. It lit her face, her figure standing before the entombing greenery behind her; and her face was suddenly very beautiful, exquisitely grave, and yet full of an inner, as well as outer, light.

That is exactly how I would have described somebody I knew – and who also told me a personal story, cognisance of which was restricted to one who might understand – if only I’d had Fowles’s way with words. And the dynamic is perfectly observed: Sarah’s strength emanating from her inferior position, and Charles’s weakness becoming ever more magnified by his superior one. I understand that very well.

I’ve already remarked on the similarities between Charles and me. His reaction to Sarah’s entreaty is very much what mine would have been (…and Charles had, with that atrocious swiftness of the human heart when it attacks the human brain, to struggle not to touch her.) His outward response is different, of course, since Charles is a Victorian gentleman conditioned by an artificially strict code of propriety. My sense of propriety is not so very different, but at least it’s self-taught and therefore more adaptable.

How glad I am that I didn’t read this book until now, now that I can understand it and gain a little more self knowledge in return. It’s been happening a lot these past few years – finding books that I wouldn’t have understood not so very long ago, but with which I can now engage in an almost perfect state of empathy.

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